Do Medical Marijuana Users Have Substance Abuse Problems?

Do Medical Marijuana Users Have Substance Abuse Problems?

Do Medical Marijuana Users Have Substance Abuse Problems?

Do Medical Marijuana Users Have Substance Abuse Problems?Medical marijuana is the common term for mind- and body-altering materials from cannabis plants that are adopted for use as a treatment for legitimate medical conditions. Despite the federal illegality of all cannabis products in the U.S., local jurisdictions in nearly 20 states have laws that allow medicinal use of marijuana under controlled circumstances. In a study published in October 2013 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two U.S. institutions assessed the frequency of substance abuse problems in both first-time and repeat medical marijuana recipients.

Marijuana Basics

Marijuana contains a main active ingredient called THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). When the drug is smoked or ingested, this chemical enters the bloodstream and passes into the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), where it triggers telltale changes in normal mental and physical function. Recreational marijuana users typically prize such mind-altering effects of THC as perceptual distortion, euphoria and a shift from logical thinking to irrational or “magical” thinking. Common physical effects of marijuana/THC exposure include decreased body coordination, appetite increases and short-term increases in blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate.

Medical Marijuana Basics

In the U.S., marijuana has a history of medicinal use that extends back to at least the mid-19th century. Recognized medicinal properties of the drug (derived from the presence of THC and a number of other related chemicals) include the ability to relieve pain, the ability to relieve nausea and vomiting, the ability to stimulate appetite in both AIDS patients and cancer patients, and the ability to reduce eye pressure levels in people affected by glaucoma.

However, despite the potential medical uses for marijuana, U.S. federal law includes the drug in a group of strictly controlled substances called Schedule I substances. All substances with this designation have an unusually high potential for triggering abusive patterns of intake, as well as a corresponding potential to contribute to the onset of physical dependence and addiction. In addition, all substances with a Schedule I designation officially have no recognized or accepted role in medical treatment. Despite federal prohibitions on marijuana use, as of 2013 medical marijuana is legal (with certain restrictions) in 18 states, as well as in the District of Columbia. Current scientific evidence indicates that there are good reasons to place some sort of legal limit on marijuana use. For example, roughly 9 percent of all marijuana users will develop addiction-related issues, and substantially higher rates of addiction occur among both daily users of the drug and those who start using marijuana at an early age.

Current Findings

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the University of Michigan and the Veterans Administration examined the substance abuse rates in both first-time visitors to medical marijuana clinics and repeat visitors who seek medical marijuana prescriptions two times or more. They performed this examination at a single clinic with the help of 195 first-time visitors and 153 repeat visitors. All of these participants underwent interviews in the clinic while waiting to receive approval or re-approval for medical marijuana use.

After reviewing their findings, the study’s authors concluded that first-time seekers of medical marijuana and repeat users have roughly equal chances of experiencing problems related to alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction, as well as roughly equal overall rates of current misuse for most drugs. However, compared to those trying to fill an initial prescription, repeat users of medical marijuana have significantly higher lifetime levels of involvement in various forms of illegal drug use, including the use/abuse of hallucinogens, cocaine, inhalants and amphetamine. Repeat users also have a higher rate of nonmedical marijuana intake. Interestingly, first-time seekers of medical marijuana are more likely than repeat users to abuse prescription sedatives.


In addition to looking for indications of substance abuse, the authors of the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence looked for signs of medical marijuana’s ability to lower pain and improve mental and physical function. They concluded that, compared to those seeking initial treatment, repeat users of medical marijuana report a substantial improvement in their pain symptoms, as well as increases in their ability to perform effectively both mentally and physically. Both of these subjective findings tend to support the usefulness of prescription marijuana treatment, but do not qualify as definitive results. The authors of the study believe that further research is needed to fully outline both the substance abuse patterns and mental/physical function of medical marijuana users.

Find relief in recovery. Life gets better with addiction treatment.

Call our experts today.