According to a study published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2018, an estimated 43.5 million Americans aged 12 and over, or about 16 percent of the population, used marijuana in the year prior. While most people can stop using weed relatively easily, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people can and do become addicted to weed. Among those who started using weed during their teen years, about one in six of them become addicted.
Marijuana has a reputation for being a harmless drug—it’s not addictive or dangerous in the same way that nicotine or opioids are, and users can generally stop taking the drug without having to worry about life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to develop a dependence on marijuana. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 1 in 10 marijuana users develop a dependence on the drug. This means that their bodies have become used to the presence of weed and if they stop taking it, they experience withdrawal symptoms like irritability or sleeping difficulties.
Addiction can develop differently from one person to another. One person may develop a dependence on or addiction to marijuana fairly quickly, while others may not develop an addiction for years. For those who have unsuccessfully tried to quit using marijuana, professional help is often necessary.
Marijuana Dependency vs. Opiate Addiction
There’s a lot of controversy around the term “addiction” and how it’s used. That’s primarily because the concept itself is a little difficult to define. Some healthcare professionals determine whether a person is addicted by how much and how often they use a substance or engage in one or more addictive behaviors. Others say that addictions are defined by certain patterns of behavior related to a substance or activity and the responses that a person has when they’re not able to take the substance or complete the activity.
In some cases, someone may have the symptoms of an addiction, but they’re not addicted to the chemical itself. Instead, they’re hooked on the feelings of calmness, escape, or even euphoria that they get from certain actions or sets of actions. For example, gambling disorder is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as an addictive disorder. Those who live with gambling disorder aren’t addicted to a substance but rely on gambling to deal with feelings of distress and achieve excitement, and they’re often unable to quit despite losing jobs, relationships, and financial security.
There’s a distinct difference between a chemical addiction (like an addiction to heroin) and a behavioral addiction.
Opiates, which are substances found in drugs like morphine, hydrocodone, and heroin, are highly addictive. They create artificial endorphins in the brain, causing warm, good feelings in the user. Some opiates create over 100 times more endorphins than the body produces naturally, flooding the body with those feel-good chemicals.
Over time, opiate use tricks the brain into not producing endorphins naturally. As a result, the user begins to feel sick and depressed whenever they’re not using the drug. The only way a user can experience positive feelings is to use an opiate. At that point, the user isn’t using the drug to feel positive feelings but instead to avoid severe negative feelings like depression, suicidal thoughts, and stress. Once this switch is made, the user is considered to be addicted to opioids.
With marijuana dependence, the user feels withdrawal symptoms when they’re not using the drug. This happens when the brain has adapted to large amounts of the drug by cutting down on the production of and becoming less sensitive to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. When the dependent user stops taking marijuana, they typically experience a decreased appetite, restlessness, and other forms of discomfort for up to two weeks.
Generally speaking, marijuana addiction is recognized as a behavioral addiction, not a physical addiction. Not everyone who uses marijuana or even becomes dependent on it will begin to compulsively use it. However, if someone finds it difficult to control their weed use even though it’s causing problems in their lives, addiction treatment may be necessary.
Is It Possible to Take Weed Without Getting Addicted?
Today’s marijuana is quite a bit different than the marijuana that people used 25 years ago. It contains about three times the amount of THC, the main ingredient that creates the “high” sensation, than it did just a couple of decades ago. While there’s no research demonstrating the effects that these higher THC levels have on the brain, many scientists and healthcare professionals believe that it leads to higher rates of dependency and addiction.
Even with these higher levels of THC, a majority of users don’t develop an addiction to weed. They’re able to use weed when they want to, and their use doesn’t jeopardize their job, harm their relationships, or affect their quality of life.
How Quickly Addiction to Weed Can Occur
Because weed addiction is generally behavioral instead of physical, it can develop very quickly. The body doesn’t need a certain dose or a certain amount of time on the drug for the user to become addicted to the feelings that they experience while taking it. While anyone can develop an addiction, some people have an addictive personality and are more likely to develop a behavioral or chemical addiction.
Treatment for Weed Dependence
For those who feel as though they’re unable to function without using marijuana, it may be time to quit using weed. Even though marijuana dependency generally isn’t as debilitating as an addiction to a substance like heroin, learning to live without weed can be very difficult. We’ve compiled a list of expert-recommended tips to help marijuana users quit smoking weed, with step-by-step instructions for getting rid of marijuana, incorporating healthy habits, and learning coping mechanisms for handling stress.
Marijuana dependence and addiction are very difficult to overcome alone. In many cases, chronic pain, PTSD, anxiety disorders or depression played a role in creating the addiction. Without addressing co-occurring disorders, users are unlikely to be successful in overcoming their addictions without professional help.
Any kind of substance can be a problem, even a substance as “harmless” as marijuana. Marijuana dependence and addiction can take a significant toll on the user’s quality of life. At FHE Health, we offer multiple levels of addiction treatment, from intensive inpatient treatment to structured aftercare services. If you’re using marijuana and you’re ready to quit, FHE is here to help through personalized, medically integrated treatment.