Understanding Marijuana and the Dependence It Can Cause

Whether you have casually used marijuana or know someone who regularly partakes, the question has probably crossed your mind: is marijuana addictive?

What is marijuana?

Marijuana is made up of the dried flowers, fruits, leaves and stems of the Cannabis plant. Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that has both medicinal and recreational uses, in which the prevalent psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) produces feelings of euphoria and relaxation. Side effects of marijuana can also include short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, increased heart rate, and an overall altered state of mind.

Is marijuana an addictive drug?

Marijuana is not often thought of as being as addictive as other substances like heroin or cocaine, likely due to its widespread and casual prevalence in our society. The chemistry and pharmacology of marijuana do not lend themselves to physical, chemical addiction. Marijuana nor its components or cannabinoids affect the body or the central nervous system in the same way that, for example, alcohol does.

THC, however, is thought to play a role in the increasing release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel reward and pleasure when marijuana is used. When we experience these positive feelings, we are innately inclined to pursue them. For some people, this is in the form of exercise. Others experience a rush of dopamine when completing an urgent project. Chronic marijuana users increase their risk of developing dependence when they chase that dopamine release they feel when using the drug. Researchers do concede that the level of dopamine, while heightened when compared to other events that can lead to increased release of the neurotransmitter, is quantitatively less when compared to other addictive substances like amphetamines.

If there is no cause for chemical addiction, why is marijuana addictive?

Is marijuana physically addictive? Current research indicates that it is not. That is not to say that it is not addictive in other ways, that it cannot be abused, or that it doesn’t have serious potential consequences.

Cannabis use disorder or marijuana use disorder is now defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the leading authority on diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders, as a chronic condition that results from heavy use of marijuana. Interestingly, this is a result of the marijuana cultivated today containing a higher concentration of THC when compared to earlier research. For example, marijuana users were not previously thought to build a tolerance to the substance or experience a withdrawal from it, but contemporary studies have shown that marijuana has become increasingly more potent.

While marijuana is most often used for pleasure, it can have negative side effects that are exacerbated through chronic use. Memory loss, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anxiety, decreased emotional control, and decreased problem-solving skills are all potential consequences of a dependency on marijuana.

On the question of whether marijuana is addictive, a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse corroborates the potential of developing cannabis use disorder, both through chronic use and when other risk factors are present like exposure at an early age, underlying psychiatric disorders, and environmental instability. Similar to other substance use disorders, the risk of developing cannabis use disorder is increased proportionately to the frequency of use.

There is a distinction, however, between a psychological or routine habit and a physical dependency. Marijuana users can certainly fall into detrimental and potentially harmful routines wherein they plan their days around using marijuana, drive while under the influence of marijuana, use marijuana instead of partaking in other enriching activities, or spend large amounts of money on marijuana. While these symptoms certainly suggest a dependence on marijuana that should be treated, they do not constitute a physical addiction.

Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling offers comprehensive outpatient substance use treatment for teens and adults alike. Whether you require a partial hospitalization program, an intensive outpatient program, or group family therapy, we are committed to helping you sustain your recovery in the long term. Reach out today at 1-800-809-2925, if you are ready to get help for substance abuse.