The last two decades have seen a massive shift in legislation on medical and recreational marijuana. Whereas marijuana was classified as an illegal substance across the United States and considered as dangerous, a total of 48 states today have legalized the use of marijuana in varying degrees. As of latest count, 15 states allow recreational and medical use while 33 states allow only medical use (Berke et al., 2021). These sweeping changes are largely owed to the findings of extensive research on the effects of marijuana including its therapeutic value. But while it is true that this plant offers a lot of benefits, the question of whether marijuana is good or bad is yet to be fully settled. As this research paper shows, the use of marijuana still poses dangers. The issue of dependence on and abuse of marijuana, in particular, has been a concern to researchers and healthcare professionals. Known as marijuana use disorder, this condition can quickly develop to drug addiction and lead to an individual’s loss of control over cannabis consumption and the disruption of daily life.
Marijuana Use Disorder
In order to understand how marijuana poses the danger of addiction, it is essential to first understand what is known about this issue. Many users claim that controlling the use of cannabis is easy compared to other substances. But some evidence suggests otherwise. The National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA] recently released data showing that as many as 30% of marijuana users may be suffering from varying degrees of marijuana use disorder (2020). NIDA defines marijuana use disorder as a condition characterized by dependence on cannabis and the emergence of withdrawal symptoms when a person stops taking the substance. These symptoms include decrease in appetite or increased cravings, restlessness, irritability, dramatic shifts in mood, difficulties with sleep, and varying degrees of discomfort among others. NIDA further explains that marijuana use disorder eventually becomes an addiction when an individual loses control over using the drug to the point that it disrupts various aspects of life. NIDA estimates that around 9% of cannabis users will become dependent on the substance. The risk of dependence is higher among those who start using cannabis at an early age. Studies show that people who use cannabis before they turn 18 are four to seven times more likely to experience marijuana use disorder. In 2015 alone, over 4 million Americans were diagnosed with the condition (NIDA, 2020).
How Marijuana Tolerance Builds Up
Researchers believe that central to the development of marijuana use disorder is increased tolerance to the substance. Dependence on marijuana is a real side effect, and it occurs when users have built up a tolerance for the substance. A review of studies on tolerance conducted by Colizzi and Bhattacharyya (2018) showed that regular cannabis users eventually build up tolerance to the acute effects of the substance over time. In studies comparing regular users to non-regular users, the immediate effects of exposure to cannabis were more prominent among non-regular users than the effects on regular users. In some cases, the tolerance was complete in that exposure to a single dose of cannabinoid substance did not elicit any effect on the regular users (Colizzi & Bhattacharyya, 2018). Tolerance build up, in turn, is believed to prompt users into developing dependence. That the effects of marijuana have become more subdued compared to previous exposures can lead users to increase the amount and frequency of consumption.
When Marijuana Use Disorder Becomes Abuse
Unlike opiate abuse and other use of illegal substances, which can set in quickly through heavy use, marijuana abuse can take months and even years to develop. Unfortunately, people who use marijuana rarely realize when recreational use crosses the line to addiction. Addiction occurs when marijuana dependence becomes strong enough as to cause disruptions in various aspects of life. One commonly affected aspect is mental health. Researchers have found out that long-term use of marijuana increases the risk of developing mental disorders like schizophrenia and depression (NIDA, 2019). Chronic use has also been associated with the exacerbation of bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders, resulting in the manifestation of more severe symptoms in individuals diagnosed with these conditions (Stoner, 2017a; Stoner, 2017b). Addiction can also lead to other health issues. People who suffer from addiction may experience sudden changes in mood, altered sense of time, impaired memory, and other psychotic symptoms like delusions and hallucinations (NIDA, 2019). Addiction can also lead to problems in physical health. Long-term use of marijuana, particularly the consumption in high doses, is linked with increased risk of developing pulmonary conditions such as chronic cough, increased production of phlegm, and higher rates of lung infections. Addiction also increases risk of suffering heart attacks (NIDA, 2019).
These negative effects on mental and physical health, in turn, can cause disruptions in people’s quality of life and productivity. It goes without saying that the development of conditions or diseases resulting from cannabis addiction can prevent people from living healthier, fuller, and more stable lives. Such issues may worsen to the point that people lose the capacity to perform in school or the workplace, thereby triggering greater problems and possibly a cycle of substance abuse. For these reasons, it is imperative that users seek intervention in order to free themselves from dependence on marijuana and hopefully reverse damages sustained.
Studies about marijuana still continue today, which accounts for why it remains among the most controversial debate topics discussed in different settings including schools and legislative halls. Experts seek to find the other adverse effects marijuana can bring, while the other end of the spectrum continue to investigate its rich potential to shape the future of healthcare. At this point, what is clear is that marijuana, like many other complex substances, can bring both benefit and harm depending on a multitude of factors and conditions. Whereas cannabis offers medical wonders, it can also cause challenges and issues, among which is marijuana addiction. One can only hope that in time, a perfect balance could be set in order to finally maximize the benefits and minimize the side effects that marijuana offers.
Berke, J., Gal, S., & Lee Y. J. (2021). All the states where marijuana is legal — and 5 more that voted to legalize it in November. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/legal-marijuana-states-2018-1
Colizzi, M. & Bhattacharyya, S. (2018). Cannabis use and the development of tolerance: a systematic review of human evidence. Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews, 63, 1-25. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.07.014
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Marijuana DrugFacts. NIDA. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Marijuana research report: Is marijuana addictive? NIDA. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive
Stoner, S. A. (2017a). Effects of marijuana on mental health: anxiety disorders. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. https://adai.uw.edu/pubs/pdf/2017mjanxiety.pdf
Stoner, S. A. (2017b). Effects of marijuana on mental health: bipolar disorder. Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. https://adai.uw.edu/pubs/pdf/2017mjbipolar.pdf