It hasn’t been approved for therapeutic use by the FDA, but the hype over medical marijuana has led to legalization efforts across the US. Many states have fully decriminalized the drug; others freely allow medical use; still, others are introducing ballot measures to relax their laws. The marijuana trade has moved off the street and into regulated, taxed shops.
Our federal government has taken a hands-off policy when it comes to marijuana use, allowing states to set and enforce their own rules. However, their tacit acceptance of legalization doesn’t say anything about the drug’s effectiveness as a medical treatment or its potential for harm. In fact, marijuana legalization may make it easier for those already struggling with marijuana dependence to feed their cravings and could lead to the development of marijuana use disorders.
What Is a Marijuana Use Disorder, and Is It Different Than Dependence?
Like other substances that affect brain function, marijuana can cause dependency among frequent users. The drug’s active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), contains molecules similar to some of our body’s natural neurotransmitters—endocannabinoids. When THC floods our brain’s receptors for endocannabinoids, it has an intoxicating effect. This high is fun for users, but it also triggers changes in their brain chemistry. The body is made to self-regulate, and when it senses an overabundance of endocannabinoids it will respond by:
- downregulating, or decreasing the number of, receptors for these compounds and/or
- desensitizing, or lowering the responsiveness of, receptors for these compounds.
The increased cannabinoid action triggered by marijuana use becomes the brain’s new normal, so without THC the brain will go into withdrawal.
Addiction, or Marijuana Use Disorder, Interferes with Users’ Lives
Being dependent on a drug doesn’t guarantee a use disorder. After all, many people use medications that cause dependency without being tempted to increase their dosage or frequency. When use becomes more of a need than a want, the balance tips into substance use disorder. Someone who can’t stop using marijuana even though it is:
- interfering with relationships,
- causing decreased performance at work or school,
- taking the place of other hobbies and activities they used to enjoy, and/or
- actively harming their health
may need professional support to successfully quit.
Legalization May Normalize Frequent Use
When marijuana is freely available and a common component of social situations, someone who needs help may be able to disguise their cravings. One Canadian woman who was prescribed marijuana for back pain—despite having past addiction issues—said her doctor’s approval gave her a pretext for continued use. Her life was suffering, but she could pretend her use was medical rather than recreational.
The increasing social acceptance of marijuana may also contribute to user denial. Using too much marijuana is more closely associated with drinking too much than with shooting up heroin. Without having to worry about entanglements with law enforcement, frequent marijuana users may find it easier to reject the idea that they have a problem. The threat of arrests and fines isn’t the only problem drug addiction can cause, but it may be one of the most concrete consequences and deterrents.
Identifying and Breaking Marijuana Dependence
Anyone who uses marijuana often may develop a dependence, which can increase their tolerance and/or cause cravings. Quitting can cause withdrawal symptoms including:
- Irritability and aggression
- Feeling nervous or anxious
- Trouble sleeping
- Bad moods
- Decrease in appetite
- Headaches and nausea
These symptoms can cause high levels of discomfort for the first few days and, for around 65% of users, actively stand in the way of recovery. This suggests that monitored detox and inpatient recovery may be a good investment for users who are serious about getting sober.
Looking for Help with Marijuana Dependence or Addiction?
Decision Point Center offers specialized marijuana treatment to those in and around Arizona. We know how difficult it can be to stop using on your own. That’s why we offer a variety of scientifically-endorsed therapies for substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health problems. There is no shame in addiction, and getting help is a sign of bravery and strength. If you are ready to make a change, we are here to support you.
Reach out to our admissions team online or call us at (844) 292-5010.