Whether it’s called weed, pot, grass, bud, herb, or any of its numerous slang names, marijuana and its main psychoactive chemical, THC, is one of the most commonly abused drugs in the United States.
New Jersey has legalized marijuana for recreational use, but there are many persistent misunderstandings about this drug’s addictive potential. Because of this, marijuana addiction is systematically undertreated. In 2015, four million people were diagnosed with a use disorder for this drug, but only 138,000 sought treatment.
Marijuana is the broken or ground dried flowers of the cannabis sativa plant that users usually smoke or mix into food. However, there has also been a sharp increase in the abuse of this plant’s resin, a substance with a higher THC concentration that produces more intense highs.
The short-term effects of marijuana intoxication include:
Users generally experience significantly reduced response times and motor skills when under the effects of the drug. Nationwide, marijuana use is the cause of the second-highest number of hospital visits of any illicit substance – largely due to an increased risk of accidents. In 2011, 456,000 emergency room patient reports in the United States mentioned marijuana.
Areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus, rely on an endocannabinoid neurotransmitter called anandamide for some of their dopamine production. However, with frequent use, the brain adapts and reduces the production of its anandamide – messengers we need for normal functioning.
At the same time, the continuous abuse of this drug seems to alter and harm this region of the brain. The hippocampus – which is responsible for memory formation and information processing – seems to shrink with prolonged heavy use. This can lead to very worrying changes in cognition, especially in young people.
Eventually, the use of marijuana produces cross-sensitivity. This means that the brain has adapted to the drug, and the groundwork has been laid for dependence and addiction to other psychoactive substances. In addition, there has been a growing body of evidence that corroborates marijuana’s status as a gateway drug, especially in long-term studies of teenage users.
Marijuana use disorder is a clinically diagnosed condition that describes the compulsive use of the drug even when people want to stop or when it harms a user’s life. Experts estimate that about 30% of people who use marijuana in some form have a degree of diagnosable substance use disorder.
Heavy users of the drug can go into withdrawal when they can’t access or cease using the drug. Symptoms of withdrawal from marijuana include:
Studies have begun to illuminate exactly how harmful long-term marijuana use can be for mental health. Eventually, THC exposure may even speed up the aging of the brain through the loss of neurons.
Studies looking at marijuana abuse disorder in adolescents found that continued use alters the connectivity and shrinks the size of areas in the brain involved in executive functioning (memory, learning, problem-solving, and impulse control).
Others have found that abuse, particularly in teenage years, is associated with significantly lower scores on IQ tests by mid-adulthood.
Two longitudinal studies have found that marijuana abuse causes cognitive impairment or loss of verbal memory functions in adults as well.
The loss of mental functioning means that people who use marijuana recreationally are likely to be functioning at a lower level even when they are not under its influence. These changes are continuous and incremental, making them harder to detect in oneself. Still, the evidence points to marijuana abuse drastically affecting our ability to achieve our potential in work, school, and relationships.
If you are worried marijuana use may be turning into an addiction, there are treatment programs that can help.
Enlightened Solutions is a licensed dual diagnosis treatment center that offers each client the tools they need to begin a sober life. We offer an effective individualized recovery program with a long-term focus rooted in the 12-step philosophy. Our treatment modalities include both talk therapy and holistic treatment practices, with the potential to continue in support groups long after you leave our center. If you would like help with marijuana addiction, reach out to us at (833) 801-5483.
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