There were many who felt that the use of marijuana, the drug of choice for the Baby Boomer Generation, was no longer the danger it once had been. From its peak in 1979, when studies found that more than 60 percent of 12th graders had tried marijuana at least once in their lives, the percentage of 12th graders who had ever used the drug dropped to 33 percent in 1992.
Still, there are a number of reasons to be concerned. Marijuana continues to be a drug of entry for many Americans. Reports indicate that the marijuana available today can be five times more potent than the marijuana of the 1970s and that teenagers can often obtain marijuana more easily than alcohol.
Marijuana – known by such names as pot, grass, reefer, weed, herb, mary jane, mj – is a greenish-gray mixture of the dried, shredded leaves, stems, seeds and flowers of Cannabis sativa, the hemp plant. Most users smoke marijuana in hand-rolled cigarettes called “joints.” Some use pipes or water pipes called bongs. Also becoming popular are marijuana cigars, called blunts, where the tobacco in cigars is replaced with marijuana and often combined with another drug, such as crack cocaine.
A lot of people say that you can’t get addicted to marijuana; but in this case, a lot of people are just plain wrong.
Most people that use marijuana do not become addicted to it, but roughly 10% of marijuana users develop an addiction and that addiction comes with a very real syndrome of withdrawal symptoms that occur with sudden cessation of use.
Many people can use marijuana recreationally, with little apparent harm to health or wellbeing, a substantial minority cannot, and those that become addicted to marijuana use very heavily, and suffer health and quality of life consequences as a result. People addicted to marijuana often have great difficulty quitting on their own and often benefit from participation in an addiction treatment program.
Is Marijuana Addiction Real?
Yes, the American Psychology Association (APA) considers marijuana dependence a real condition and includes it in its handbook of mental disorders, the DSM-IV.
Are You Addicted to Marijuana?
According to the APA, people who meet 3 or more of the following characteristics meet the medical criteria for marijuana addiction
The following addiction criteria are based on those from the DSM-IV Manual of the APA.
- Do you have a marijuana tolerance? Do you need a greater amount to get high than you needed when first using?
- When you stop using marijuana do you feel withdrawal symptoms? Or, do you take another substance (alcohol, cocaine, opiates, etc.) to keep from feeling marijuana withdrawal symptoms?
- Do you often smoke more marijuana in a session or day than you planned on?
- Do you often feel like you need to cut back on your use? Or, do you sometimes try to moderate your use (or quit using) and fail?
- Does your marijuana habit take up a lot of time, whether it is time spent using, recovering from use, trying to score or getting money to score?
- Has your use of marijuana caused you to quit or reduce your involvement in any work, recreational or social activity that used to be important to you?
- Do you keep smoking even after realizing that your use of marijuana harms you mentally, psychologically or physically?
The Extent of the Problem
More people enter into public drug treatment for marijuana than for any other illegal drug.
The Substance Abuse and Mental health Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that about 15 million Americans use marijuana in any given month and that about 4.3 million Americans use the substance at levels consistent with abuse or dependence. Marijuana is, by far, the most commonly used and abused illicit drug in America.
More people get help at publicly funded substance abuse treatment programs in America for marijuana than for any other illicit drug. Marijuana users make up 16.1% of treatment admissions, heroin users make up 13.7% and crack cocaine users make up 9.9%.
What Are the Withdrawal Symptoms of Marijuana?
Those dependent on marijuana will experience a syndrome of withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit using. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms aren’t life threatening (as with alcohol) nor are they severe (as with heroin or other opiates) but they are uncomfortable, for many they are surprising and they can often lead to relapse. As yet, no medications are available to counter marijuana withdrawal symptoms.
Some of the signs and symptoms of marijuana withdrawal include:
- Insomnia (often occurring)
- Headache (often occurring)
- A loss of appetite
- Feelings of restlessness
- Irritability (or aggression)
- Marijuana craving
Marijuana withdrawal symptoms can last with some intensity from a few days to a week.
The Health Consequences of Long Term Marijuana Use
Heavy marijuana use won’t damage the body with the severity of drugs like alcohol or cocaine, but using marijuana on a regular basis for a long period of time can have significant health consequences, including:
- Cognitive and memory impairments
- Lung damage
- An increased risk of certain cancers
- Lowered fertility
- An increased risk of mental illness (particularly an accelerated onset of psychotic disorders)
- Decreased immune system functioning
- An increased risk of heart attack after smoking
Other possible consequences of heavy long term use include:
- Financial problems from the cost of a heavy habit
- Legal problems (marijuana remains a controlled substance)
- Social/relationship impairments
- Employment underperformance
Marijuana Addiction Treatment
A SAMHSA report on marijuana addiction treatment indicates that:
- Many people who use marijuana heavily need or would benefit from addiction treatment
- People motivated to quit who get addiction treatment are better able to quit using or reduce consumption than people (also motivated to quit) that don’t receive treatment
- The more intensive the treatment involvement the better the long term outcome
No medications yet exist for marijuana addiction treatment, but psychosocial treatments work well. Some examples of commonly offered psychosocial treatments include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy
- Community reinforcement
- Contingency reinforcement
- Support group involvement
Treatment is more commonly offered on an outpatient basis. In some cases, such as when a co-occurring mental health disorder or poly drug addiction complicates the treatment, inpatient care is recommended.
You can also find support at Marijuana Anonymous meetings, as 12 step program tailored to cannabis users.
Staying Clean After Treatment
Lifestyle changes should never substitute entirely for addiction treatment, but people in marijuana recovery can take several proactive steps to reduce their risks of relapse. After treatment and cessation of marijuana use, ways to stay clean for the long-haul include:
- Avoid places and people that tempt you to smoke marijuana
- Tell people around you clearly that you have quit and ask them not to smoke around you or invite you to smoke
- Increase your physical activity – exercise is a great way to boost your mood and keep cravings at bay
- Keep a list of reasons why you quit using in your wallet, so you can remind yourself why you quit when you feel tempted to use
- Get rid of all marijuana accessories and paraphernalia
- Don’t simply switch from marijuana to another drug of abuse or another unhealthy lifestyle practice (gambling, for example)
- Get a good night’s sleep (tired people are more anxious and more apt to make snap decisions)
- Eat a balanced diet – eating well can keep your mood stable and you feeling good and strong
- Stay involved in marijuana addiction treatment
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