Marijuana Addiction: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Although marijuana has become legalized for medicinal and recreational use in many states, it still has a potential for misuse and is classified as a Schedule I substance in the Federal Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has high abuse potential.1 In fact, marijuana addiction affects over 4.4 million people and is the most common illicit substance use disorder.2
In this article:

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Yes, marijuana can be addictive, especially when used regularly over an extended period of time. It is estimated that over 43.5 million people used marijuana in 2018, which is a higher percentage than years prior.2 Of those, approximately 31% of individuals were at great risk of harm due to at least weekly use of marijuana. Another study claims that about 10% of people who regularly use marijuana will develop a marijuana addiction.3

Why Can You Get Addicted to Marijuana?

Marijuana contains psychoactive compound THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), which acts on the cannabinoid receptors in your brain to give you a high feeling. As you continue using the substance, your brain gets used to it and needs higher doses of the drug to feel the same high. This is called tolerance, which can lead to dependence and be a sign of marijuana addiction.

Many people who regularly use marijuana can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking it, which means they’ve developed a dependence. Dependence, although not the same as addiction, can indicate the presence of an addiction.

Marijuana withdrawal symptoms may include:4

  • Craving to use
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Gastrointestinal problems (e.g., nausea and vomiting)
  • Headaches
  • Irritability

Although not dangerous, marijuana withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant enough that a person may return to marijuana use to alleviate them, creating a cycle of compulsive marijuana use that contributes to addiction.

Who is at Risk of Marijuana Addiction?

Marijuana is now available for medicinal and recreational use in many states. Many individuals use marijuana to treat chronic pain or help with increasing appetite and decreasing nausea due to medical problems.

Marijuana can be used for additional medical conditions, such as:4

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Endometriosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Glaucoma
  • Interstitial cystitis
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Nerve pain
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Individuals who use marijuana are at a higher risk of addiction due to their use. Additional risk factors include:5

  • Use of marijuana from a young age
  • Behavioral or early childhood problems
  • Community environment with high crime and drug use
  • Disabilities or mental health conditions
  • Unsafe family environment
  • Stressors related to minority status, such as cultural/language barriers or discrimination
  • Problems during adolescence, such as delinquency
  • Negative adolescent behavior or experiences, such as vulnerability to peer pressure

Just because you or your loved one possesses many of the risk factors, it does not mean you will develop a substance use disorder. Addiction can occur to anyone, and although more likely in those individuals who frequently use substances, it can develop in individuals who infrequently use substances.

Signs of Addiction to Marijuana

You may notice several signs that you or your loved one is addicted to marijuana. These can include:6

  • Caring less about their appearance
  • Getting in trouble with the legal system
  • Having changes in their sleeping or eating habits
  • Having problems at work, school, home, or with others
  • Losing interest in things they used to be involved in
  • Performing below their average at school or work
  • Spending time with individuals who use substances
  • Spending time with new individuals

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition indicates signs of addiction may include the following:7

  • Used marijuana in a larger amount or have used marijuana longer than intended
  • Had a goal to cut down or control their marijuana use and has been unsuccessful when attempted
  • Spent a significant amount of time trying to obtain marijuana, use it, and/or recover from its effects
  • A strong desire to use marijuana, also referred to as a craving
  • Failed to meet major role obligations, such as employment or family
  • Continued to use marijuana despite it having harmful effects on your/their social and interpersonal relationships
  • Given up, or reduced, your/their recreational, social, or occupational activities
  • Been placed in physically hazardous situations due to their marijuana use
  • Continued to use despite any other psychological problems, such as anxiousness or depression

If you experience 2-3 of these symptoms within the last 12 months, your marijuana addiction may be considered mild; 4-5 symptoms, your marijuana addiction may be considered moderate; and 6 or more of these symptoms, your marijuana addiction may be considered severe.

Marijuana Addiction Treatment

Thus far, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved medication for the treatment of marijuana use disorder.8 However, many other forms of treatment are available.

Treatment for marijuana addiction can take place in several settings, including:

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment involves staying in a 24-7 highly structured rehab facility monitored by medical professionals. It usually begins with a detoxification process, and then it will include a period of time whereby you, or your loved one, will engage in learning about your addiction and learn tools to manage non-use, all while being able to solely focus on recovery.

Intensive Outpatient

Intensive outpatient treatment includes receiving services for multiple hours, multiple days of the week. While there, you or your loved one will participate in:

  • Educational groups
  • Skill-development groups
  • Individual counseling
  • Group counseling
  • Couples/family counseling
  • Recovery-based groups, traditional 12 step groups

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment typically includes counseling services. These counseling services can be individual, group, and/or family-based. Several evidence-based methods are used to treat substance use disorders. These methods include:8

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Contingency management
  • Motivational Interviewing/Motivational Enhancement Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one form of evidence-based therapy that focuses on teaching individuals how thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected. It helps teach various coping strategies and how to correct any problematic behaviors to enhance self-control, stop substance use, and address several other problems that commonly occur with substance use disorders.

Contingency Management

Contingency management (CM) is an approach that provides incentives for fulfilling a specific goal. For example, a target behavior may be a negative urine drug screen, and the incentive may be a gift card. Utilizing contingency management, a participant would be given the gift card when a negative urine drug screen is provided to their monitoring agency.

Motivational Interviewing (MI) /Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET)

Motivational interviewing and enhancement therapy are designed to help increase the level of internal motivation for behavioral change. These therapies were developed to help alleviate ambivalence, meet participants where they are at, and assist with moving toward change.

Community-Based Support Groups

Support groups are an effective way to connect with a recovery network. Support groups can be offered online or in person, depending on which works best for your situation. A couple of common support groups that individuals with a marijuana use disorder may find helpful is SMART Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous, or Narcotics Anonymous if using other substances in addition to marijuana.

Benefits to Treatment

Seeking treatment is a big decision, but one that comes with a lot of benefits. Some of these being:9

  • Developing a deeper insight into addiction and how to prevent relapse
  • Forming new skills and habits that do not include using marijuana or any other substances
  • Learning new techniques to improve how you interact with others
  • Practicing new ways to communicate

Aftercare and Ongoing Support

Aftercare is any form of care that continues the recovery process.1 Aftercare is designed to monitor you or your loved one and help respond effectively if there is a return to using marijuana or a mental health crisis. Although your treatment program should assist you or your loved one in developing a relapse prevention plan, aftercare will help support this plan.

Aftercare and ongoing support are especially important for anyone with co-occurring disorders. Aftercare typically has several goals, which include helping you or your loved one:1

  • Consolidate any changes in identity and values
  • Continue recovery efforts
  • Deepen psychological understanding
  • Obtain employment (if applicable)
  • Maintain a lack of marijuana use
  • Master living in your community without substance use
  • Resolve any family discord

Aftercare has been shown to help increase the likelihood of sustaining recovery efforts and reduce the likelihood of readmission to treatment.2 There are also many forms of aftercare services and ongoing support including:

These modalities can help achieve many goals and include various methods such as:

  • Ancillary services (i.e., services that help connect with other resources like housing)
  • Counseling
  • Educational and occupational skills
  • Family support

If you suspect you or your loved one has a marijuana addiction and you are interested in receiving treatment, call us at 800-662-4357 to speak with a treatment specialist.

Resources

  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Substance use disorder treatment for people with co-occurring disorders.
  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States.
  3. Lopez-Quintero, C., de los Cobos, J.P., Hasin, D.S., et al. Probability and predictors of transition from first use to dependence on nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine: Results of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2011;115(1-2):120-130.
  4. Grinspoon, P. (2020). Medical marijuana.
  5. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division. (2022). Alcohol and drug abuse prevention.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). What are the signs of having a problem with drugs?
  7. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Available treatment for marijuana use disorders.
  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (Third edition).

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