Brain and Body

Let’s Set the Record Straight: Is it Possible to Get Addicted to Weed?

January 29, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Smoking a joint of marijuana
Photo credit: ashton/flickr (CC by SA 2.0)

Science weighs in.

Recreational pot smokers will argue to the death that it’s simply impossible to get addicted to weed, but is that claim 100 percent true?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana can be addictive. Sure, the symptoms and withdrawal are extremely mild compared to other addictive drugs, but chronic marijuana smokers do build up a dependency over time — particularly a psychological one.

Over time, constant marijuana use can lead to overstimulation of the body’s endocannabinoid system, which then causes changes in the brain that lead to addiction — what NIDA defines as “a condition in which a person cannot stop using a drug even though it interferes with many aspects of his or her life.”

According to data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 9 percent of people who smoke marijuana will become dependent on the drug. If the smoker started in his or her teens, the probability of dependency goes up to 17 percent, and among daily users, it jumps to 25 to 50 percent.

SEE ALSO: Medical Marijuana Could Help You Reduce the Frequency of Your Migraines

However, there’s a lot of controversy and conflicting opinions on whether or not use of the drug can truly lead to a “marijuana addiction.” Even associating weed with addiction is enough to spark anger in most marijuana advocates, but since the symptoms of dependence and withdrawal are so mild, especially compared to other drugs, chronic smokers may not even realize how much the drug is interfering with his or her day-to-day life.

According to NIDA, the mild withdrawal might include decreased appetite, restlessness, sleep difficulties, and mood irritability, based on reports from frequent users. The discomfort peaks within the first week of quitting, and last up to 2 weeks — a drastically different experience than, say, heroin withdrawal.

Heroin withdrawal can result in diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, insomnia, and more, and relapse can be extremely hard to avoid due to intense cravings. While marijuana cravings can be largely psychological — wanting to get a mental break from anxieties and problems in life — chronic smokers won’t suffer from the same physically sickening symptoms of needing the drug as seen in opioids like heroin, morphine, and oxycodone.

So it seems that the common argument that it’s impossible to get addicted to weed may stem from the fact that most people will never report a marijuana addiction because they simply might not see the drug use as a problem. Since the withdrawal symptoms are so mild and only last up to two weeks, most people will think it’s no big deal.

However, the bigger deal when it comes to marijuana use are the psychological effects and dependence. The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health states point blank that people can become addicted to marijuana and feel anxious when they don’t have any. Further, large doses of the drug can lead to “toxic psychosis,” according to CAMH, causing people to hallucinate and become paranoid.

A writer for VICE, Kitty Gray, discusses her psychological addiction to marijuana after years of chronic use. “I can now admit that I've been psychologically addicted to weed for the past decade-plus. If I need to eat, sleep, relax, be amused, calm down, forget a horrible experience, practice self love, run errands of any kind, watch TV, or create something: I smoke.”

“Smoking numbs any pain I might have, helps me forget my troubles, makes the band Sublime sound sonically plausible, and is the ultimate hangover cure,” she continues. She said the habit eventually got so bad that “weed-related anxiety” had started running her life.

While developing a dependency on marijuana really depends on a number of factors, it is indeed possible to develop an addiction to the drug, no matter how mild the withdrawal process is compared to other drugs.

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