When we hear the term “drug addict”, we typically envision someone who is addicted to some hard-core illicit drug, like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine. Rarely do we consider pot smokers in this definition. Most Americans think that all marijuana smokers choose to smoke and could stop if they wanted to. However, scientific evidence has proven that humans can become both psychologically and physically addicted to marijuana, so much so that they exhibit symptoms of withdrawal when they cease ingesting the substance.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the US. Roughly 10% of those who experiment with the drug become addicted. In 2009, over 4 million Americans met the DSM-IV criteria for marijuana abuse or dependence. For those who begin using pot as children or teens, the risk of addiction is 17%; they represent up to half of all daily marijuana users. In 2008, almost 20% of those people entering drug rehab (over 300,000) indicated that marijuana was the primary drug that they abused.
Marijuana is made from cannabis sativa (a hemp plant), which contains over 400 chemical substances. When addiction to marijuana occurs, it is typically the body’s response to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active ingredient. THC binds to cannabinoid receptors, which are located throughout the body’s central nervous system. In the brain, the receptors are concentrated in areas that affect pleasure, memory, thought, concentration, perception, appetite, pain, and coordination.
People who use marijuana may exhibit heightened perceptions (visual, auditory, and touch), a decrease in memory, increased blood pressure and heart rate, red eyes, decreased coordination, trouble concentrating, increased appetite, slow reaction time, and paranoid thinking. Prolonged use and abuse of marijuana, including marijuana addiction, can result in respiratory problems, prolonged psychosis, and permanent cognitive impairments. Further, it can lead to a decrease in motivation, job or school performance, and impairment of social relationships.
Studies have shown that those who are addicted to marijuana often have some other type of mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression, or anxiety. Researchers are unable to say, however, whether marijuana has caused these other issues or whether presence of mental illness causes a patient to be more likely to abuse marijuana.
Like many other illicit drugs, one of the biggest symptoms associated with marijuana addiction is “craving” the substance when it has not been ingested for a period of time. Even short-term withdrawal from marijuana can result in an increase in the activation of the stress-response system and changes in nerve cells that contain dopamine, which are most commonly associated with the regulation of motivation and reward. Other withdrawal symptoms include irritability, sleep disturbances, weird dreams, lack of appetite, and anxiety.
However, there are some psychological signs of marijuana addiction to look for as well. For instance, certain marijuana addicts will actually change their lifestyle in order to be able to continue their habit. It is not unusual for a marijuana addict to surround himself only with other pot smokers or spend less time with non-pot smoking friends.
While research has proven that marijuana addiction is a very real thing, this knowledge has not taken root in mainstream American thinking. I think the biggest reason for the persistence of the “non-addictive” marijuana myth is that the likelihood of becoming addicted is much less than with other substances. For instance, very few people emerge from long-term cocaine, heroin, or narcotics use without some sort of physical dependency. However, studies have shown that marijuana addiction plagues only 10% of users. That means that roughly 90% of users do not experience addiction.
The relatively small chance of developing a marijuana addiction has two direct consequences on popular thought. First, those who can smoke marijuana without developing dependence may be less likely to believe a fellow smoker has actually become addicted. We see this phenomenon most often with alcohol addiction – not all alcohol drinkers become alcoholics and many cannot understand why others just can’t say no. Second, since the vast majority of marijuana users do not become addicted, mainstream America is not constantly being bombarded with media stories about a marijuana addiction epidemic, like with the methamphetamine or OxyContin addiction epidemics.
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