Over the next few months, we will be exploring what science tells us about some ideas related marijuana. One of the more frequently shared ideas is that marijuana, unlike other drugs, is not addictive, and it is easy to just stop using it. Another is, that if addiction is possible, it is rare and without major consequence to the user’s life.
So, does science back up these ideas, or are they myths?
Is it addictive?
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association defines marijuana or cannabis use disorder as a substance use disorder.[i] Cannabis use disorder is clinically diagnosed if two or more of the following 11 symptoms are experienced in a 12-month period:
- Taking more cannabis than was intended
- Difficulty controlling or cutting down cannabis use
- Spending a lot of time on cannabis use
- Craving cannabis
- Problems at work, school, and home resulting from cannabis use
- Continuing to use cannabis despite social or relationship problems
- Giving up or reducing other activities in favor of cannabis
- Taking cannabis in high risk situations
- Continuing to use cannabis despite physical or psychological problems
- Tolerance to cannabis
- Withdrawal when discontinuing cannabis
As you can see by this list of symptoms, marijuana, like other drug and alcohol use disorders, can cause serious problems, resulting in pain and suffering for users and those close to them.
These symptoms paint a picture of the deceptive nature of marijuana addiction in which its use can become increasingly important and even central in one’s life. For some, cannabis use replaces other activities, causes problems at home, work and school, exposes you to dangerous situations and potential harm, and results in physical dependence.
Some Key Numbers
National data show 30% of marijuana users experience marijuana use disorder. That’s nearly 1 in 3 cannabis users who report experiencing two or more negative effects from their marijuana consumption.
Of even greater concern is that youth who start using marijuana before the age of 18 are 4-7 times more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive). In the past year, over 4.1 million Americans experienced a marijuana use disorder.
Research estimates indicate that 9% of people using marijuana will become dependent on it. However, among teens who start using marijuana, 17% will eventually become dependent. These data highlight the greater risk for youth to becoming dependent upon marijuana, and – to experiencing a marijuana use disorder, including addiction.
Individuals with cannabis use disorders, particularly teens, are also likely to suffer from other psychiatric disorders, such as psychosis, depression and anxiety. In addition, those with a marijuana use disorder are more likely to experience co-occurring addictions, like alcohol or cocaine use disorders.
Data on adults seeking treatment for cannabis use disorder show that on average, those presenting for treatment have been using cannabis nearly every day for over 10 years. In addition, these individuals tried to quit using marijuana more than six times, without success. These numbers highlight the long-term nature of marijuana use disorders, and the difficulties of trying to control marijuana use and its problems.
Preventing the early onset of marijuana use in adolescence, as well as regular and heavy use, should be primary goals for health and medical professionals, youth services workers, police officers, addiction and mental health specialists, lawmakers, and parents. You know – all of us!
As adults, we need to help our teens understand the risks of marijuana use. We need to help them understand the negative impact of use for healthy brain development, as well as the risk for addiction. As a community, we need to work together to provide more opportunities for teens to engage in safe, healthy alternatives for fun and socializing. And, we cannot forget the importance of helping them learn effective coping skills, so they are not likely to use marijuana, or other harmful substances, to self-medicate when they experience problems in life. Our teens are our future – and, science makes it clear, the decisions they make now, can impact what that future will be for them, and for all of us.