Is Marijuana Addictive? It's Complicated.
The science behind THC, how it affects the brain, and why it might cause dependency.
While it's more common to get hooked on narcotics, alcohol, and drugs like cocaine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is such a thing as marijuana or cannabis use disorder (CUD). It's when smoking marijuana causes physical, emotional, or social problems. It's only considered an addiction when "severe."
That's defined more as dependence, i.e. if a person feels withdrawal symptoms when not using cannabis. Someone who uses marijuana frequently enough might report things like irritability, sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, or other forms of physical discomfort through the first couple weeks of stopping.
The NIDA says marijuana use disorder becomes an addiction when a person can't or won't stop, even if it interferes with life, work, and relationships. A recent New York Times article outlines how young adults are especially at risk for becoming more susceptible to CUD as well as things like cannabis hyperemesis syndrome because they're brains are still developing, and high-THC products can be more harmful to them.
When marijuana use disorder turns to addiction
Basically, if you use cannabis every day, have tried to quit but can't, get cranky when you do try to stop, have cravings for it when you're not using it — you might have a problem. If it affects your job, school, or relationships with friends or family, CUD might be to blame.
Data suggests that up to 30 percent of marijuana users may have some degree of marijuana use disorder, and it's more likely to develop in people who started using before the age of 18.
Regular marijuana use can affect your health in a variety of ways. The CDC points out that other possible health risks include: negative effects on the brain, heart, and lung; mental health; it can impair driving; and can lead to inadvertent poisoning.
The science of marijuana use and the brain
Marijuana directly affects the brain, specifically the part that maintains memory, learning, attention, coordination, and emotion. It's the reason why you feel high — or anxious, paranoid, sick, get the munchies, love listening to music or seeing a funny movie. It's also why science says it can become addictive.
Blame tetrahydrocannabinol, aka THC. When you smoke or vape marijuana, THC quickly moves from your lungs to your bloodstream to your brain. The human body naturally produces endocannabinoids, which are similar to those found in marijuana. Endocannabinoids help regulate many body processes, including learning, memory, pain control, and sleep. When THC activates certain cannabinoid receptors in the brain, it can overwhelm and disrupt the normal actions of endocannabinoids.
Dependence can occur when the brain gets comfortable with large amounts of THC, which can reduce the production of and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. Basically, it short circuits your brain. Over time, you can become less sensitive to the chemicals in weed, which means you'll want to use more. Many turn to cannabis with higher THC content to get a better high, and possibly use it more to feel "normal."
That heavy use can cause serious ramifications, however. And high-THC cannabis products — levels upwards of 90 percent — are poisoning many users, especially young people, whose brains are still developing. In addition to dependency, some adolescents are experiencing psychosis and are more likely to develop depression and suicidal ideation.
Other factors come into play when looking at how THC affects your brain, including how often it's used, age of first use, and whether other substances, like tobacco or alcohol, are used at the same time.
Of course, there are just as many studies showing the benefits of regular cannabis use. Research points to cannabis as a replacement for opioids for cancer and chronic pain; there's promising research showing it might help with Multiple Sclerosis; and that it helps with sleep disorders; and can ease stress and help with depression, among others.
It's all in how you use cannabis, and working with a professional to get the right strain and combination of THC and other cannabinoids. Like any medicine, finding the right dose is key.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is probably the most well-known cannabinoind. It's a chemical found in marijuana but contains miniscule amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high. Obtained from hemp, a form of the cannabis sativa plant, CBD is widely used for medicinal purposes, including epilepsy, PTSD, sleep disorders, anxiety, and more. CBD on its own is not considered addictive.
What can you do about cannabis use disorder?
According to the National Institute of Drug Addiction, the number one way to prevent cannabis use disorder is to stop using cannabis. It's not easy to break a habit like smoking weed, but treating underlying problems, going at it in a gradual manner vs. cold turkey, gain the support of those around you, and avoiding triggers can help.
Short of that, possibly going with products lower in THC and higher in CBD might also help curb the potential to develop CUD. But more studies are needed to truly understand the full effects of cannabis, all the cannabinoids (they've barely scratched the surface of the hundreds found in cannabis), the body, and addiction.
The National Institutes of Health has funded research into the possible medicinal uses of THC and CBD, but because cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States, the amount of studies needed are incredibly difficult to come by.
With legal recreational use now in 19 states and Washington D.C., and medical use in 37 states and D.C., more regulation and research is needed now more than ever.