While marijuana is one of the most commonly used drugs in the United States, many people have the same question: Is marijuana addictive? The answer is yes, it can be. However, that doesn’t mean everyone who uses the substance will become addicted.
Most people who use marijuana do not become addicted to weed. They do not lose control of its use; they generally use the amount they want to use and control when they want to use it. When they use marijuana, they get the exact results they expect and intend to get.
However, some who use marijuana do develop the symptoms of an actual addiction after chronic marijuana use.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
While most people who use marijuana don’t develop an addiction, this doesn’t mean that it never happens. Some who use marijuana will exhibit many of the behaviors that are commonly associated with addiction.
Cannabis use disorder, or marijuana use disorder, is a condition resulting from chronic cannabis use. It is defined in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as being a result of either dependence or abuse of marijuana
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that 30% of people who use marijuana will develop problems with its use, known as marijuana use disorder
Signs of Marijuana Addiction
Someone who becomes addicted or dependent upon marijuana will likely display some of the classic behavioral symptoms of addiction, which include:2
- They will begin to need increasingly larger amounts.
- They will spend more time thinking about using.
- Substance use will begin to take a central role in their life.
- They will spend more time and money acquiring more marijuana.
- They will become irritable or agitated if they run out.
- As negative consequences mount, they will continue to use.
- They will deny claims from those close to them that they have changed.
Two of the most common signs of cannabis use disorder are physical dependence and withdrawal.
Most experts agree that dependence on a substance is accompanied by a build-up of tolerance to that substance, requiring increasingly larger amounts to get the same effects, and leading to withdrawal symptoms when someone stops using the substance. Most marijuana smokers experience neither tolerance nor withdrawal
Most early research into marijuana addiction revealed that marijuana use rarely produced tolerance and withdrawal. But the marijuana that is available today is more powerful than the marijuana of the 1960s, containing higher levels of the active ingredient delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the psychoactive component in weed.5
In addition, it has been found that marijuana dependence may affect your ability to respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which allows us to feel pleasure. In one study, those who had marijuana dependence had fewer positive emotions, higher stress levels, and increased irritability.6
Today’s research shows that tolerance does develop to THC and that withdrawal symptoms do occur in some people. Studies of those who chronically use and then quit marijuana show that they experience this withdrawal symptoms:7
- Anxiety and insomnia
- Loss of appetite
- Excessive salivation
- Decreased pulse
- Increased mood swings
- Increase in aggressive behavior
Some researchers believe that because today’s pot is much more potent, it makes it more likely that some people will develop physiologic dependence.5
Even if not physically or chemically dependent on marijuana, some people will develop a psychological dependence upon the drug. This often persists despite a person knowing they have a dependence or wanting to quit.8
Why Is Marijuana Addictive?
Experts are still investigating why some people become addicted while others don’t. There are various reasons that a person might become dependent on marijuana. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you will develop an addiction to marijuana if you experience one or more of these risk factors.
Higher Potency Factor
Marijuana is made up of many components called cannabinoids. Two of these components, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), have effects that are commonly known to people who use marijuana. THC is known as the substance that makes a person feel “high,” while CBD often promotes a feeling of relaxation.
The NIDA reports that the higher potency of marijuana available today—specifically in regard to its THC levels—may be a factor in the rising number of people who develop a problem.
Is THC Addictive?
THC can be addictive. Studies suggest that THC is the substance that creates the potential for addiction to weed because of its psychoactive properties.9
Today, weed typically contains more THC than in the past. For instance, marijuana confiscated by law enforcement today contains an average of 15% THC compared to less than 4% in weed confiscated in the 1990s. Researchers are investigating if higher potency is the reason for an increase in emergency department visits by people testing positive for marijuana.10
Marijuana that is consumed in products that are made from marijuana extract, such a solvent-based oil, contains between 54% and 69% THC—in some cases, exceeding 80%.11
Age People Begin Smoking
Experts are finding a link between the age you begin using cannabis and the likelihood that you’ll develop a dependence on it. One study found that people who used cannabis starting at age 14 to 15 had a higher probability of developing dependence. On the other hand, for those who started using cannabis after age 15, the risk of developing a dependence drastically decreased.
Another study found that those who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder later in life.1
Frequency of Use
Daily or weekly marijuana use has been found to increase the chances that a person becomes dependent on the drug in the future. If you use cannabis infrequently or abstain completely for long periods of time between uses, this has been found to lower the odds that you’ll develop a dependence later on.
However, how a person engages with weed is an important factor as well. For instance, one study found that “solitary use,” or using the drug by yourself, was a strong sign that dependence would form in the future.12
Family relationships have been found to play a role in some cases of cannabis addiction. For instance, one study found that if your biological parents abuse alcohol or other drugs, you may be more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs, including marijuana.13
A 2020 study found that people have “genetic liability” with cannabis use disorder, meaning they are born with specific genes that increase their risk.14 However, experts agree there are usually more contributing factors such as environment, access to marijuana, socioeconomic status, and more.
Some studies have found that people often engage in cannabis use to lessen their feelings of anxiety or depression, and that self-medicating in this way can often lead to drug dependence. Other mental health considerations have been noted in people with cannabis dependence as well.
This includes people coping with panic disorder, with symptoms of ADHD, social anxiety disorder, and low self-esteem. Those coping with poor sleep quality may also use cannabis to relieve these symptoms (although in the long term, it’s been found to decrease sleep quality).
Research is mixed as to whether mental health issues are more often the cause of cannabis abuse, or whether dependence on cannabis can, in turn, lead to mental health issues.12
There are many chronic effects associated with cannabis use disorder. It has been found people with this condition often experience impaired cognitive functioning. This might mean:
- Memory loss
- Trouble concentrating
- Decreased problem-solving skills
- Low ability to control emotions
- Difficulty making decisions15
Cannabis use disorder can impact other areas. Studies have found those who struggle with cannabis dependence often find dissatisfaction in various areas of their lives, including relationships, career, and education.16
The number of people seeking treatment for marijuana abuse has increased significantly. According to studies, the number of children and teenagers in treatment for marijuana dependence and abuse has increased by 142% since 1992.17
As with most substances of abuse, people who abuse marijuana usually decide to seek help when their use of the drug becomes painful due to increasing negative consequences. Many who seek treatment for marijuana do so due to pressure from family, friends, schools, employers, or the criminal justice system.
Fortunately, there are many types of treatment for cannabis use disorder. These include specific types of therapy.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): A therapist will work with you to address any underlying mental health issues, thoughts, or behaviors that contribute to your addiction. Together, you identify healthy coping mechanisms to address these.
- Contingency management: This method is sometimes used at substance abuse clinics. It focuses on promoting positive behavior (abstaining from marijuana usage) by using rewards. For example, a clinic might give material objects as prizes, or even give money to those who have negative drug tests.18
- Motivational enhancement therapy: This focuses on a person’s internal attitudes and beliefs. A therapist would help you to create statements that reflect why you want to stop using marijuana, and together, you create an action plan to quit.19
In addition, certain lifestyle changes may help you reduce or stop your marijuana use.
- Change your social environment: It can be more challenging to quit cannabis when those around you are still using it. One study found that people who recovered from cannabis use disorder found it helpful to socialize with people who did not use cannabis as part of their recovery.20
- Focus on the reasons you want to quit: If you remind yourself of the reasons you want to quit cannabis, you might feel more motivated. Try keeping a list of reasons in your bedroom or on your fridge so you see it everyday.
- Engage in new hobbies: You will probably have more time on your hands when you quit marijuana, so it can be useful to find a new hobby or activity that you enjoy. This can help distract you from any cravings as well as boost your mood, especially if it’s physical activity.
People develop cannabis dependence for different reasons, so it’s important to address any underlying issues. For instance, those who use marijuana to cope with anxiety, depression, or sleep disorders can find more appropriate treatment types—including lifestyle changes, therapy, and medication—to help relieve their symptoms.3
In addition, experts are investigating whether there are specific medications that can help with cannabis use disorder. Some antidepressants have been shown to help with withdrawal symptoms.8 You can consult with your health care professional to see if this is a viable treatment option for you.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
While most people who use marijuana occasionally do not develop an addiction, getting addicted to weed is possible. If you think you or a loved one are addicted to marijuana, talking to your doctor about your concerns is a great first step for getting help. There are many treatment options for addiction, and your doctor can work with you to find the best way for you to cope.