Is marijuana a gateway drug? Can someone develop a dependence or addiction to marijuana? While some studies have indicated that marijuana is a gateway drug, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) finds that the majority of people who use marijuana do not then go on to use harder drugs. However, this doesn’t mean a person can’t become addicted to marijuana.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences.” Recent evidence has suggested that as many as 30% of marijuana users have marijuana use disorder or dependence on the drug, which can develop into an addiction in some severe cases.
What is Marijuana
Marijuana is the dried flowers of Cannabis sativa. It goes by many slang names, including weed, herb, pot, grass, bud, ganja, and Mary Jane. Marijuana can be smoked in joints, hand-rolled cigarettes, or in blunts, rolled in cigar wrappers. It can also be consumed via water pipes, aka bongs, or through a vaporizer.
Using marijuana in an edible form delays the drug’s effects and often causes people to consume more than they intended. Common edibles include brownies, cookies, and candies. When taken for more medicinal purposes, marijuana may be brewed in tea or mixed in with certain foods.
The main component of marijuana that produces a high is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. THC resides in the resin produced by the leaves and buds of the female cannabis plant. In addition to THC, the cannabis plant contains more than 500 other chemicals. Over 100 compounds are called cannabinoids because they are chemically related to THC.
THC acts on the areas of the brain that influence how someone feels pleasure and influences their sensory and time perception. It also affects memory, thinking, concentration, movement, and coordination.
How long the THC from marijuana stays in the body varies and can depend on how the marijuana was consumed. The effects of marijuana that has been smoked typically last for one to three hours, while if it is eaten, the reaction can last for many hours. Even once the effects fade, THC may remain in a person’s body for days or weeks.
People can experience a range of effects from marijuana use, including:
- pleasant euphoria
- sense of relaxation
- heightened sensory perception (e.g., brighter colors)
- altered perception of time
- increased appetite
The Extent of Marijuana Use
According to the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), almost 18% of Americans reported using a form of cannabis in the past 12 months. That is more than 49 million people aged 12 and up.
Many young people try marijuana. In 2021, it was estimated that as many as 7% of 8th graders had tried the drug, and more than 30% of 12 graders reported using cannabis in the past 12 months. Studies have indicated that people who begin using marijuana in their teens have an increased risk of developing a dependence or addiction. Estimates suggest that about 17% of teens fall into this category.
Signs of Marijuana Use Disorder
As with any drug, some people who use marijuana may need more of the drug over time to achieve the same effect. These are other signs someone has a dependence on marijuana:
- Using more marijuana than intended
- Trying but failing to quit using marijuana
- Spending a lot of time using marijuana
- Craving marijuana
- Using marijuana even though it causes problems at home, school, or work
- Continuing to use marijuana despite social or relationship problems.
- Giving up important activities with friends and family in favor of using marijuana.
- Using marijuana in high-risk situations, such as while driving a car.
- Continuing to use marijuana despite physical or psychological problems.
- Needing to use more marijuana to get the same high.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping marijuana use.
Additionally, the potency of marijuana has changed in the last 30 years. The average THC content in marijuana samples from the 1990s was less than 4%. The figure had almost quadrupled to 15% by 2018.
Treating Marijuana Dependency or Addiction
While the NIDA estimates 4 million or more people in the U.S. have marijuana use disorder, less than 140,000 voluntarily seek treatment each year. Behavioral therapies have shown the most promise in treating someone with a dependency or addiction to marijuana. These include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy — teaches people ways to enhance self-control and identify and correct the behaviors that led to their substance abuse.
- Contingency management — Based on frequent monitoring of the desired behavior, this therapeutic management approach uses positive rewards to encourage certain behaviors.
- Motivational enhancement therapy — A systematic intervention that mobilizes the individual’s interest in change; it’s designed to produce rapid, internally motivated change.
Research is ongoing to find a medication to help treat marijuana use disorder, but currently, there is no option.
Bridges of Hope’s treatment philosophy is based on a comprehensive and integrated approach to addressing all issues related to substance use and mental health disorders. Utilizing therapeutically proven, evidence-based clinical practices, Bridges of Hope provides superior patient care in Indiana through its all-inclusive treatment services.