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Marijuana Addiction: Everything You Need to Know

By Radhika Mathur Mellin
It’s possible to become addicted to marijuana. Learn what happens when you overuse marijuana and your options for treating cannabis use disorder.

Marijuana has gone mainstream. Many states have legalized it for recreational and medicinal use. And 12% of American adults say they currently smoke marijuana, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. Many Americans therefore think the substance is harmless. But overusing marijuana can lead to dependency and addiction. Read on for more important details.

Cannabis Use Disorder

Using marijuana puts you at risk for developing cannabis use disorder. In severe cases, cannabis use disorder can turn into addiction. 30% of people who use marijuana may have some degree of cannabis use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). 

StatPearls reports that some symptoms of cannabis use disorder include:  

  • Using cannabis in large amounts or over a longer time period than originally intended
  • Wanting, but being unable, to cut down on cannabis use 
  • Spending a lot of time trying to get or use cannabis, or in recovery from its effects
  • Experiencing strong cravings for cannabis
  • Habitual cannabis use that results in unfulfilled responsibilities at work, school, or home
  • Cannabis use that persists despite repeated resulting social or interpersonal problems 
  • Withdrawal from imortant social, work, or leisure activities due to cannabis use
  • Recurring cannabis use within situations that are physically dangerous
  • Cannabis use that persists in spite of the patient being conscious of physical or psychological problems that are likely tied to cannabis
  • Cannabis tolerance, which includes either needing more cannabis to feel “high” as time passes or feeling a noticeably diminished effect from the same amount of the substance that is normally used
  • Feeling withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit using cannabis, or taking cannabis to relieve withdrawal symptoms

While using marijuana can come with a variety of side effects, the DSM-5 classifies cannabis use disorder as a problematic pattern of cannabis use that leads to clinically significant impairment or distress, which can be measured by a patient experiencing at least two of the above symptoms within a 12-month period. 

Anyone can become addicted to cannabis—but certain factors increase your risk. “These factors include using marijuana from an early age, having a family history of marijuana addiction, being around people who have marijuana addiction, or using high potency products,” Deepak Cyril D’Souza, MD, professor of Psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

Many people mistakenly think marijuana isn’t addictive. This is because of two main reasons, Keith Humphreys, PhD, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, tells WebMD Connect to Care. 

“First, marijuana has been declared medical, which some people mistakenly believe means harmless,” says Humphreys. “And second, older people who smoked marijuana decades ago don’t realize that what’s available today is many times more potent than what they used. Marijuana addiction is real and can cause problems with concentration, memory, and motivation—which often translates into poor performance at school and work.”

Marijuana Addiction Treatment

People with cannabis use disorder, especially adolescents, tend to also suffer from other psychiatric disorders, according to NIDA. These individuals may also use or be addicted to other substances. Fortunately, there is evidence that treating a co-occuring mental health disorder may help curb marijuana use, especially for those who use marijuana heavily or have chronic mental health disorders. 

If you think you may be misusing marijuana, these treatments may help:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): In CBT, you learn to identify and correct problem behavior to improve self-control, stop drug use, and address problems that often occur with use. In CBT, you might explore the consequences of ongoing marijuana use, for example.   
  • Contingency management: This approach involves monitoring the target behavior and providing rewards when the behavior happens (or withholding rewards when it doesn’t). For instance, you might be offered a prize for a negative drug test or attending counseling. 
  • Motivational enhancement therapy: This type of therapy focuses on improving your motivation to change. It can be helpful if you’re uncertain about going into treatment or stopping marijuana use.   

There are no FDA-approved medications to treat cannabis use disorder. However, researchers are exploring medications that may ease withdrawal and cravings while treating other effects of marijuana. 

“There are ongoing studies using drugs to increase anandamide—a cannabis-like substance made by the brain,” says D’Souza, who was involved in one such study. D’Souza and other researchers found that a drug called PF-04457845, which increases brain anandamide levels, reduced cannabis withdrawal symptoms and cannabis use in men, showing promise for an effective, safe approach to treat cannabis use disorder.

Don’t Wait. Get Help Now.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help. 

Editor's Note: Many advocates have moved away from the terms "marijuana" and "addiction" in an effort to destigmatize cannabis use disorder. However, those experiencing negative outcomes due to cannabis use who are interested in locating treatment may encounter the terms occasionally.