Can weed be addictive?
A big concern when taking any new medication is if it’s addictive and causing dependency. Patients using medical or recreational marijuana for disabling and chronic conditions, may rightly be concerned about risks and side-effects of cannabis, and want to know: is marijuana addictive?
The answer is that – yes – in some individuals the repeated and frequent use of weed can cause dependence. While it does not have a significant physical dependence component to it, it can still be psychologically addictive.
That said many things in our world are considered to be addictive with the most common things around us such as coffee addiction, alcoholism, opiate use leading to abuse and death. Compared to alcohol and opiates in particular cannabis has fewer side effects and risks – and is not considered to have every caused death by overdose.
Addictive vs. Dependency Disorders
The use of cannabis can lead to problematic levels which is medically labelled as “Medical Use Disorder” and this can become addiction when the individual is not able to stop using cannabis even though it is negatively interfering with their life.
What is dependence? This is where upon trying to stop use and generally for up to 2 weeks, weed users feel irritable, have sleeping issues, decrease in appetite, cravings and withdrawal. Like in the other addictive agents we know the underlying cause for the dependence is the reduce sensitivity of the endocannabinoid system to the cannabinoid neurotransmitters.
The risk of dependency and addiction increases with factors such as earlier usage by age increases the risk with those who began prior to the age of 18 having as much as seven times the risk of developing marijuana use disorders. The risk also increases with the frequency, quantity and higher THC levels.
What is risk of developing cannabis dependency? It’s very hard to measure but it is considered a common issue and according to a research report originally published in the Journal of American Medicine Psychiatry (JAMA Psychiatry), approximately 30% of users may develop some sort of a dependency disorder, although this statistic admittedly includes both medical and recreational users. They also noted (as above) that users who begin younger have a higher prevalence of “dependency disorders”.
Then there is the issue of tolerance. Your body naturally adapts and adjusts to it’s needs, distributing and expelling excess. It’s no different for marijuana and the endocannabinoid system where the cannabinoids effect the receptors and the system increases and decreases the number of receptors. This also occurs with opiates and is the reason why to get the same effect over time you will need to take more to ease the pains and the same dosage will be less effective for other aches. So that’s tolerance.
Dependency vs Addiction
It’s important to understand the nuances as within the statistics you’ll likely read and hear when researching this issue the definitions matter. So are users of medical marijuana at risk for dependency? Yes because by the very nature of the product, as with any medication, to used to alleviate symptoms stopping them will likely have those conditions return.
Addiction is a completely different animal. Addiction is when the product becomes the focus, when the effect becomes the need, unrelated anymore to the original use. It overshadows the original issue that had you using it in the first place.
This is best explained using the opioid comparison. Many pain medications, especially for chronic, and short term acute pain, contain opioids, which are proven and shown to be highly addictive. Even after the need for use is gone, if for acute pain, the need for the drugs are still there. And that becomes the focus. For those with chronic pain, for example, the pain will still be there and the tolerance will grow exponentially, leading to the need for the high, and to seek out other products to meet the desire, unrelated to the pain.
Generally, marijuana can result in dependency, but it’s important to understand if it’s healthy or unhealthy dependence. Addiction, however, is a different concept, and should always be watched for when taking any potentially addictive product. As the potency and popularity of medical marijuana continues to grow, more studies and concerns will arise, so stay focused, and continue to discuss and be open and honest with your healthcare providers regarding any concerns or questions, or additional symptoms you may be having.
Clinical studies and research of the effects of medical uses of cannabis are ongoing and as with any health condition, keep aware of any changes in behavior or reactions and discuss them with your health care provider.
- Marijuana withdrawal among adults seeking treatment for marijuana dependence
- NIH: Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment
- NCBI: Cannabinoid abuse and addiction: Clinical and preclinical findings