Is Marijuana Addictive? Recent Study Shows Withdrawal Symptoms Can Occur
A recent study reveals that, even though many think marijuana is harmless, some users experience severe withdrawal symptoms.
The wave of marijuana legalization that's swept across the United States in recent years has been fueled in part by the popular belief that it is essentially harmless. However, a new study shows that some heavy users will experience withdrawal symptoms while coming down from their high.
Dependence on Marijuana: Myth or Fact?
Marijuana use disorders are often associated with dependence -- in which a person feels withdrawal symptoms when not taking the drug. People who use marijuana frequently, often report irritability, mood and sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, cravings, restlessness, and/or various forms of physical discomfort that peak within the first week after quitting and last up to two weeks.
Marijuana dependence occurs when the brain adapts to large amounts of the drug by reducing the production of and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters.
About one in 10 frequent cannabis users reports symptoms like anxiety, hostility, insomnia, and depression after the intoxicating effects of weed start to wear off, said senior researcher Deborah Hasin, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. These individuals might be using marijuana to help treat their anxiety or depression, unaware that they're putting the cart before the horse, according to Deborah Hasin.
"There's a lot of overlap between the symptoms of cannabis withdrawal and the symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders," Hasin said. "People may actually mistakenly feel that cannabis is helping depression or an anxiety disorder when what's happening, in reality, is they're perpetuating a withdrawal syndrome. Using cannabis makes the symptoms go away, but it's not a good solution to it."
When Does the Disorder Become an Addiction?
Marijuana use disorder becomes an addiction when the person cannot stop using the drug, even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life.
Estimates of the number of people addicted to marijuana are controversial, in part because epidemiological studies of substance use often use dependence as a proxy for addiction, even though it is possible to be dependent without being addicted. Those studies suggest that 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, rising to about 17% in those who start using in their teens.
About 30% of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder than adults.
In 2015, about four million people in the United States met the diagnostic criteria for a marijuana use disorder, while about 138,000 voluntarily sought treatment for their marijuana use.
Rising Marijuana Potency
Marijuana potency, as detected in confiscated samples, has steadily increased over the past few decades. In the early 1990s, the average THC content in confiscated marijuana samples was roughly 3.8%; In 2014, it was 12.2%. The average marijuana extract contains more than 50% THC, with some samples exceeding 80%.
These trends raise concerns that the consequences of marijuana use could be worse than in the past, particularly among those who are new to marijuana use or in young people, whose brains are still developing
(see "What are marijuana’s long-term effects on the brain?")
Is Marijuana harmless or addictive?
At this point, 30 states have laws that legalize marijuana in some form. Nine states and
Washington, D.C., have made marijuana legal for recreational use, while the rest allow for use of medical marijuana.
To test the notion that pot is harmless, Hasin and her colleagues analyzed data gathered by a 2012-2013 federal survey on health problems caused by alcohol and other substance use. During the survey, federal researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with more than 36,000 participants across the United States.
The new study focused specifically on responses from more than 1,500 survey participants who reported using pot three or more times a week during the previous year, Hasin said. They were considered frequent or heavy marijuana users.
About 12% of heavy pot users reported symptoms that align with those of cannabis withdrawal syndrome, a condition outlined in DSM-5, a diagnostic manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association. These included nervousness or anxiety (76%), hostility (72%), sleep difficulty (68%), and depressed mood (59%), researchers reported.
Physical symptoms were reported less frequently, but heavy users were more likely to experience headaches, shakiness or tremors, and sweating, the study found.
People with a history of mood or personality disorders had a greater risk for experiencing withdrawal symptoms, Hasin said.
Frequency of use within a week was not significantly associated with withdrawal symptoms, but the number of joints smoked per day did make a difference, researchers found. Smoking six or more joints per day was associated with cannabis withdrawal syndrome while smoking five or fewer joints per day was not.
"If people are using cannabis frequently and they're experiencing these symptoms, they should really consider cutting down on their use, at least to see what happens," Hasin said.
Emily Feinstein, executive vice president for the Center on Addiction, praised the study for shedding new light on the relative safety of marijuana use.
"Misinformation and misunderstanding about marijuana is rampant," Feinstein said.
"Marijuana is addictive, and people who are dependent on the drug exhibit the same symptoms as those with other addictions, including cravings and withdrawal." She was not involved with the study.
"When teens and young adults use marijuana, they are nearly twice as likely to become addicted as adults. In the debate about legalizing recreational marijuana, we can't lose sight of that," Feinstein continued. "We need to take the public health risks associated with expanded use of the drug seriously."
The new study was published recently in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.
If you or someone you love is struggling with marijuana use, Fountain Hills Recovery is here to help. Contact us confidentially to discuss your treatment options.