Marijuana is a psychoactive drug derived from the Cannabis plant that provides a wide spectrum of mind-altering effects, including sedative and euphoric effects, while also affecting functions like memory, appetite, mood, and auditory, visual, and sensory processing through its primary psychoactive ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Currently, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit substance in the United States although it is becoming legal in more and more places across the country. According to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), as of 2017, 26 million Americans aged 12 and older were reported as current users, while about 3 million people used marijuana for the first time, roughly 8,000 people per day.
While marijuana might have some medical benefits and can, in some cases, be useful for treating people with Multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s disease, among others, the increasingly relaxed attitudes toward marijuana have led many people, especially younger people, to incorrectly assume they can use and abuse marijuana without any negative consequences.
However, marijuana use still carries certain dangers, can cause long-term health problems, and while it may sound improbable, is addictive, which means that attempting to stop using it can lead to unpleasant and uncomfortable withdrawal side effects that users need to be prepared so that they can avoid relapse.
While the short answer is that yes, marijuana is addictive, it is a bit more complicated than that. Marijuana is classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I substance. To be listed as Schedule I, drugs need to meet the following criteria:
Even though some states allow for legal use of marijuana both medically and recreationally, it is still federally considered a Schedule I drug in part because of its extremely high abuse rate.
Becoming addicted to marijuana is not the same as becoming addicted to other substances like opioids. Opioid use can escalate to abuse and then addiction very quickly, but typically someone has to be regularly using marijuana for months at least for their use to develop into misuse and eventually dependence, often without the user even realizing that this has happened.
There is much research being devoted as to whether or not someone can become chemically dependent on marijuana the way people can with alcohol and other drugs. While marijuana abuse has been found to alter certain pathways in the brain, especially in younger users, as well as dull the brain’s response to dopamine, these studies are still ongoing.
Marijuana does cause a psychological dependence, though. Someone using marijuana to help ease their anxiety or go to sleep at night can, over time, find themselves psychologically convinced that they “need” marijuana for that purpose, to the point where they can’t curb feelings of anxiety or sleeplessness without using marijuana, even if, chemically speaking, it is not actually benefiting them.
Eventually, through heavy use, people can become tolerant to the mind-altering effects of marijuana, and require a higher dose of it to achieve the same “high,” or find themselves becoming depressed when not using marijuana.
This psychological attachment that pushes someone beyond recreational use and into using compulsively as a necessity is a classic sign of dependence and growing addiction. When someone has lost the ability to control their marijuana use and continues to use even in the face of the adverse impact it may be having on their relationships, job, or health, then it has become an addiction.
According to the 2017 NSDUH, just more than 4 million people aged 12 and older fit the necessary criteria for a Cannabis Use Disorder. In conjunction with this, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 1 in 10 Americans who use marijuana become addicted, although for users under age 18, it’s closer to 1 in 6.
Withdrawal occurs when someone stops taking a substance that their brain has become dependent on in some way. The brain adjusts psychologically to not having the effects of marijuana, while the body adjusts to the lack of THC in which it was accustomed. The withdrawal side effects or symptoms manifest as the body and brain struggle to level themselves out.
That being said, marijuana often varies significantly in how it affects each user. Some people can use marijuana for years and then quit with little effort and no withdrawal side effects. Others, however, will have a more difficult time. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), many people who end up seeking substance abuse treatment for marijuana have been trying to quit on their own more than half a dozen times.
Nonetheless, typically, using marijuana only a handful of times is not going to be enough to trigger withdrawal side effects for those who stop using. On the other hand, people who have been regularly smoking or otherwise ingesting marijuana for a substantial length of time can expect to experience withdrawal side effects and symptoms, even if they do not necessarily meet the criteria for addiction. This can happen because there is a much higher chance that their body will have become used to the regular supply of THC.
People who have been chronically abusing marijuana long-term who try to detox and quit will generally experience at least some of these withdrawal side effects:
The severity of these symptoms will vary based on factors like how heavy someone’s marijuana use was, if they have a co-occurring mental health disorder like anxiety or depression that they were self-medicating, and their general physical state of health, among other things.
Even at their most intense, the withdrawal side effects associated with marijuana are much milder than most other illicit substances. However, while they are not life-threatening and usually not even classified as all that dangerous, they can be extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable, which gives marijuana users a high rate of relapse, as people often quickly start smoking again to relieve the symptoms.
While someone detoxing from marijuana use at a professional facility may be given certain minor medications to ease withdrawal side effects like insomnia and the various flu-like symptoms, currently there are no medications that have been officially approved for the treatment of marijuana addiction. For non-medication-based treatment, behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in helping people in recovery avoid relapse and remain drug-free.
Holland, K., & Legg, T. J., Ph.D. (2017, September 28). What to Expect from Marijuana Withdrawal. from https://www.healthline.com/health/marijuana-withdrawal
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, June). Is Marijuana Addictive? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive
verywellmind. (2019, November 3) Is Marijuana Addictive? Marijuana Abuse v. Dependence. T. Buddy, Ganns, S. MD from https://www.verywellmind.com/is-marijuana-addictive-67792
healthline. (2017, July 21) The Effects of Marijuana on Your Body. Pietrangelo, A. Cherney, K., Legg, T. PhD, PsyD from https://www.healthline.com/health/addiction/marijuana/effects-on-body#1
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018, September). 2017 NSDUH Annual National Report. from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2017-nsduh-annual-national-report