Marijuana is gaining wider acceptance across the nation, with some states approving cannabis for medicinal purposes and others legalizing it for medicinal and recreational use. Marijuana use is growing among people of all age groups, including older Americans.
However, if you think marijuana is safe, or that it’s completely risk-free, think again. With rising use comes a variety of difficulties, including dependency and disordered use.
Dramatic Increases in Potency
Scientists studying marijuana blame some of the problems on the steadily increasing potency of the drug.
Research shows that the level of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical component of marijuana that gets people high, averaged less than four percent in 1995, while marijuana available today averages around 12 percent. The level of THC may be even higher for edibles marijuana products, oil extracts, or vaping concentrates.
Higher Risks for Younger Users
Medical and treatment professionals think marijuana is a significant health problem, particularly for people who start using marijuana heavily at an early age.
The Los Angeles Times notes that the number of calls per year to California’s poison control centers involving marijuana and youth under age 19 rose from 347 to 588 between 2014 and 2017. The number of emergency room visits due to marijuana use also rose substantially.
Nearly half of those calls involved children who were age five and under – too young to recognize that gummies and other sweet treats left out by parents or older relatives contained a potentially dangerous psychoactive chemical. Similar statistics have been noted in other states where marijuana use is legal.
Treatment centers have seen a significant rise in the number of people checking in for problems with marijuana, exceeded only by prescription opiates and methamphetamine. However, many people with marijuana use disorders never seek treatment.
While the move towards full legalization gathers momentum around the nation, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) continues to list marijuana as a Schedule I drug that has no accepted medicinal purpose and a high potential for addiction.
Marijuana Use Disorder: Is Marijuana Addictive?
Marijuana use disorder develops when abuse interferes with daily life and becomes an uncontrollable addiction.
It’s true that marijuana isn’t addictive in the same way as alcohol, meth or heroin. Many users are able to moderate their use of the drug, similar to the way people who drink alcohol have a glass of wine in the evening or an occasional beer or cocktail after work.
However, some people, especially younger users, find it difficult to keep their marijuana use at reasonable levels. This is especially when they turn to the drug to alleviate boredom, relieve anxiety, or escape from life stress.
The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that about 30 percent of users develop some degree of a marijuana use disorder. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one person in ten will become addicted. This figure increases to one in six for teen users.
Experts aren’t sure why some people become dependent and others don’t. It appears that there are several contributing factors, including genetics, environment, lack of support, peer pressure, family history, loneliness, socioeconomic status, difficult family lives, or the presence of physical or emotional problems.
Why Marijuana is So Harmful for Young Users
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, the parts of the brain responsible for rational thinking and sound judgment aren’t fully developed until age 25 or so.
NIDA says that people who use marijuana before age 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than people who wait until they’re more mature, generally around age 25. Some studies suggest that adolescent brains are more vulnerable to marijuana than alcohol.
Early use may show up in later years as:
- Memory problems and lack of focus, even among formerly heavy users who have stopped.
- A significant decline in IQ.
- Academic problems and a higher chance of dropping out of school.
- A research study in Australia suggests that people who use marijuana during their teen years are more likely to develop anxiety as adults, even ten years after use has stopped.
- There may also be a connection with depression, although it’s difficult to tell if marijuana is used to relieve feelings of depression, or if depression develops as a result of marijuana use.
- Delayed reaction time, decreased concentration, loss of coordination and increased risk of car accidents.
- Poor judgment resulting in unsafe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies.
Dependence and Withdrawal
Like most drugs, tolerance develops when the brain becomes accustomed to the presence of the foreign substance. When this occurs, users require an increased amount of marijuana to attain the same high.
It becomes difficult to stop using, even when marijuana use interferes with daily life. People with marijuana use disorder often withdraw from friends and family and give up activities normally found enjoyable.
Withdrawal results when the use of the substance is stopped. While withdrawal isn’t as difficult and dangerous as detoxing from heroin or alcohol, it’s still unpleasant. NIDA indicates heavy users can experience a few days of symptoms that may include the following:
- Irritability, anger, and aggression
- Loss of appetite
- Nightmares or vivid dreams
- Sweats and chills
Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal usually peak within a week and disappear completely after about two weeks.
Is Marijuana a “Gateway Drug”?
Some researchers think marijuana is a gateway drug, while others aren’t so sure. The CDC says the majority of people who use marijuana never graduate to harder drugs.
Use of marijuana doesn’t mean a person is doomed to a life of addiction to heroin or methamphetamine.
One theory says that people who become addicted generally progress through stages, beginning with alcohol, tobacco, and more acceptable substances before progressing to marijuana and eventually to heroin or other illicit drugs.
From this perspective, alcohol and cigarettes should also be considered gateway drugs, and it’s fairly well-established that people who use alcohol and cigarettes are more likely to move on to other substances.
People who are dependent on marijuana often need help in a supportive, professional environment. However, few people seek help until their drug use causes legal issues or affects relationships, jobs, finances, or health.
Treatment for marijuana use disorder is much the same as treatment for other drug problems. The process begins with detox followed by group support and counseling that helps users learn to recognize triggers, manage cravings, and develop positive coping skills to manage stress and difficult emotions.
Treatment also typically addresses depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions that frequently accompany substance use disorders. Therapists and counselors help people in treatment address social issues, relationship struggles, and family problems. Family therapy is often a critical part of treatment. After treatment, many patients participate in ongoing individual psychotherapy and 12-step community support programs to ensure long-lasting sobriety.