Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Written by Zawn Villines
Marijuana is one of the most popular recreational drugs, and it is now legal for recreational and medical use in many states. Likely because of this, questions are circulating about whether weed is addictive.
According to research, marijuana does have the potential to be addictive, especially when a person starts using it during childhood or adolescence.
Keep reading to learn more about the science behind marijuana addiction, as well as some treatment options.
Is marijuana addictive?
According to surveys of students, about 1 in 17 high school seniors reported smoking marijuana daily in 2018. The researchers behind the surveys also found that the perceived risk of the drug has fallen significantly since the mid-2000s.
With high rates of use, there is the potential for more people to develop marijuana addictions. However, most people who use the drug do not become addicted to it.
The relatively low rate of marijuana addiction has caused some advocates to claim that the drug is not addictive. This is not the case. Any mood-altering substance has the potential to become addictive, and marijuana is no exception.
Estimates of marijuana addiction vary, depending on how each research team defines addiction, which people they survey, and similar factors.
A 2011 study found that in the United States between 2001 and 2005, the overall probability of addiction among people who used marijuana was 8.9%, suggesting that 1 in 11 people who use the drug may become addicted.
Among people who used marijuana before the age of 18, addiction rates were significantly higher, with about 1 in 6 individuals experiencing this addiction.
Some estimates put the figure even higher. A 2015 study of general use in the U.S. found that 4.1% of adults reported having used marijuana in the previous year.
Among the participants who reported using marijuana, 30.6% met the criteria for a marijuana use disorder in 2012–2013. The study’s authors point out that as more adults in the country use the drug, the prevalence of associated addiction increases.
How is marijuana addictive?
Marijuana, like many other drugs, affects the way that the brain responds to dopamine. Dopamine is a type of chemical in the brain called a neurotransmitter, and the medical community believes that it supports feelings of motivation and reward.
Short-term marijuana use heightens dopamine activation in the brain, and this dopamine boost causes an increase in feelings of happiness and pleasure.
Over time, however, marijuana use can undermine dopamine production.
If this happens, some people use more of the drug or use it more frequently in order to attain the pleasurable feeling marijuana provided in the past. This pursuit of a dopamine rush can lead to dependence and addiction, as it can when the rush comes from other drugs.
Addiction begins with dependence, which refers to a person using a drug to feel normal.
Some people find that marijuana offers a means of avoiding negative experiences, such as trouble sleeping, anxiety, or depression. This can spur people to use regularly over a longer term, increasing the risk of addiction.
Meanwhile, some who stop using marijuana regularly report unpleasant effects, such as cravings, irritability, pain, and sleep problems, which may last for up to 2 weeks.
People who experience these withdrawal symptoms may start using marijuana again to relieve their symptoms, and this can intensify dependence on the drug.
How to recognize this addiction
People are more likely to develop a marijuana addiction after heavy or prolonged use, or if they use the drug to address issues such as depression or insomnia.
Some symptoms of marijuana addiction include:
- needing to use the drug to feel happy or normal
- needing to use progressively more marijuana to feel normal or experience any effects
- feeling distracted by cravings for marijuana, especially after having stopped using the drug
- experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, anger, appetite changes, and irritability
- using marijuana when doing so has significant consequences, such as causing a person to miss work
- using marijuana in spite of personal consequences, such as relationship problems or financial difficulty
- using marijuana in dangerous situations, such as while driving
- avoiding hobbies or obligations in order to find or use marijuana
- feeling unable to stop using the drug
People who experience marijuana withdrawal typically find that their symptoms get steadily worse over several hours and peak within the first week. The symptoms usually disappear within 2 weeks.
Treatment and remedies
Treatment for marijuana addiction is similar to treatment for other addictions. The right strategy depends on the person’s lifestyle and the severity of the addiction.
In rare cases, when marijuana addiction is severe or the person has other medical conditions, attending a comprehensive rehabilitation program is necessary.
Some treatment strategies include:
- Caring for mental and physical health: If a person is using the drug to cope with issues such as depression or pain, finding other treatments can make it easier to stop using marijuana.
- Therapy: This can help a person understand why they use marijuana and identify more healthful coping strategies, including ways of managing stress.
- Family or relationship counseling: When addiction causes problems in family or other relationships, this can help.
- Support groups: Groups such as 12-step programs can offer practical assistance, ongoing support, and reassurance.
- Lifestyle changes: Making changes such as exercising more, having a more healthful diet, and managing stress can help some people cope with cravings and address underlying issues, including depression.
- Avoiding reminders: Not spending time in places or with people associated with marijuana can help a person steer clear of the drug.
- Social support: Getting support from loved ones who can accept and understand the challenges of addiction is very important.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved medication to treat marijuana addiction.
However, certain medications may help manage withdrawal symptoms or address underlying issues. For example, if a person uses marijuana to deal with anxiety, a doctor may recommend antianxiety medication, and taking this may make it easier to avoid the drug.
Marijuana addiction remains the subject of much political and social debate.
Like addictions to other drugs, marijuana addiction can lead to withdrawal, trouble functioning in daily life, legal issues, and other challenges.
It is crucial that anyone who experiences addiction has support from people who understand that addiction is a medical condition, not a personal or moral failing.
People who use marijuana should be aware that there is a risk of addiction. Anyone who suspects that they have a dependence should receive help and support.