Marijuana is often thought to be non-addictive. But cannabis dependence disorder is real, and affects around 1 in 10 users.
Some people might argue that marijuana is not addictive, but scientific research indicates that’s not entirely true.
While marijuana is not physically addictive like alcohol or heroin, it can be psychologically addictive. Scientists call the psychological addiction to marijuana a “cannabis dependence disorder”.
For some people, marijuana may be a harmless indulgence. But for others it can become a dominating habit that negatively impacts their life.
Let’s take a closer look at the science behind the addictive potential of marijuana, what the withdrawal symptoms are, and how to quit when the habit becomes a problem.
Can You Get Addicted To Marijuana?
It is tempting to say that marijuana is harmless and non-addictive when you compare it to other substances like cigarettes and alcohol. But the truth is that marijuana does have addictive potential for some people.
Cannabis use disorder, also called cannabis dependence, is defined as “the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment, ranging from mild to severe,” according to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
Not everyone who uses cannabis will become addicted. In fact, only around 1 in 10 people who consume cannabis develop a dependence, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There are several factors that make certain people more prone to developing an addiction to marijuana. A study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence reported a variety of these risk factors.
Risks for cannabis use disorder include drug availability, peer pressure, low self-esteem, parental death before age 15, positive attitude toward drug use, and low socioeconomic status.
Physical vs. Psychological Addiction
When talking about addiction, it’s important to distinguish between physical and psychological addiction. Substances like alcohol, heroin and cocaine can cause physical dependence, but marijuana dependence is mostly psychological.
When someone has a physical dependence, their body needs the substance to function normally. If they are unable to get it, they will experience severe withdrawal symptoms, such as the tremors associated with alcohol withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms can be bad enough to require hospitalization or even kill a person.
Psychological dependence is different, because it’s mostly about the user’s thoughts and feelings. In this case, the user thinks they need the substance to feel normal.
Both physical and psychological factors play a role in many addictions. When it comes to cannabis dependence, the problem is mainly psychological.
Marijuana users who quit “cold turkey” won’t need hospitalization for withdrawal symptoms, but they often suffer from minor symptoms like cravings, anxiety, and depression.
Signs of Marijuana Addiction
Some individuals who use cannabis heavily and on a daily basis can’t stop even when it interferes with their quality of life. According to the DSM-5, this pattern of abuse and dependence is known as cannabis use disorder.
Experiencing two or more of the following symptoms within a 12-month period may suggest cannabis use disorder:
- You use larger amounts over a longer period.
- You want to cut back but you just can’t stop using.
- You spend too much time trying to get marijuana.
- You have strong cravings and desire to use.
- You can no longer meet obligations at work, school or home.
- Using affects your relationships.
- You continue to use even in hazardous situations.
- You continue using even when it presents physical or psychological problems.
- You develop a tolerance, meaning you need more to achieve the same high or you experience a diminished effect when using the same amount.
- You experience withdrawal symptoms or you take it to relieve/avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Dr. Gabriella Gobbi is an associate professor in the Neurobiological Psychiatry Unit at McGill University. She has studied the short and long term effect of cannabis use on mood and anxiety, and how it can be used to treat mental diseases.
Dr. Gobbi warns that some people who use marijuana regularly may not realize they are dependent.
“They say they can stop whenever they want,” she explains.
“They say things like ‘I’m not dependent. It’s good for me. I feel relaxed,’ but they don’t realize that in the short term it has a relaxing effect, but in the long term they become more irritable, more depressed, lose motivation, have problems with memory, etc.”
“They should recognize that cannabis can produce these soft psychological symptoms that are a real sign of dependence,” Dr. Gobbi cautions.
What Happens When You Quit?
Some people might think that marijuana use comes with no withdrawal symptoms, but that is not the case for regular users who decide to quit.
Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include:
- Decreased appetite
“THC, and the metabolites of THC, can stay in the blood for four to six days,” explains Dr. Gobbi.
“People who are dependent on cannabis, if they stop for one or two days, don’t feel anything. The symptoms start after four to six days and can persist as much as 14 days later.”
Is Marijuana Addiction a Real Problem?
While marijuana addiction may not pose as much of a health risk as heroin or alcohol addiction, it can still be problematic if it interferes with your daily life. For some people, marijuana dependence may prevent them from reaching their full potential.
If you’re consuming cannabis in large quantities and are unable to stop even though it has negative consequences in your life (such as skipping social events, or missing other important activities) you could have a problem.
Besides impacting your daily life, there are some long-term health risks associated with using marijuana, including problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making.
Like many other drugs, marijuana acts on the brain’s dopamine reward system.
“In short term it increases dopamine, but then during withdrawal, dopamine decreases abruptly,” explains Dr. Gobbi. Since the brain’s dopamine-reward system is linked with motivation, regularly using marijuana may negatively impact motivation.
Serotonin, another brain chemical, is responsible for producing emotional responses. A lack of serotonin can cause apathy and you may no longer feel interested in things you once felt passionate about.
“In [the] short term it increases serotonin and causes euphoria, but in the long term, and in high doses, it causes decreases of serotonin and causes depression,” explains Dr. Gobbi.
What is the Best Way to Quit Marijuana?
If you think you have a cannabis addiction and are considering quitting, you might be wondering how to do it.
For most people, quitting gradually rather than all at once is the best approach. Quitting cold turkey may cause stronger withdrawal symptoms, but this may still work for some people.
Dr. Gobbi recommends gradually tapering down your usage over time.
“For people who smoke every day, it’s very difficult to stop just like that,” she explains.
“The recommendation is not to stop cannabis abruptly, but to go in a gradual manner. Smoke smaller amounts, or fewer times in the day, or commence smoking later in the day, then cut down by a certain amount each week.”
In order to successfully quit using marijuana, it’s important to manage any withdrawal symptoms you experience. Dr. Gobbi suggests speaking to your physician about pharmaceutical drugs that might help.
“Benzodiazepines for two weeks to manage insomnia. For headaches, take paracetamol or ibuprofen. You can take antihistamines for nausea and congestion,” she recommends.
It’s important not to replace marijuana with other addictive substances, such as alcohol or cigarettes. Instead, try replacing marijuana with something healthy and productive like a fitness routine or a new hobby — you’ll likely find it easier to kick the habit.
For some people, marijuana may be a harmless indulgence or even a medicine. But for others, it can become a destructive habit that takes over their life.
Marijuana addiction, also known as cannabis use disorder, affects approximately 1 in 10 marijuana users. Quitting marijuana may lead to mild withdrawal symptoms including cravings, anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
It’s always a good idea to evaluate your relationship with any substance, marijuana included. If you think you have developed a cannabis addiction and need help quitting, speak with your doctor first.