Is Cannabis Addictive? What to Know about Cannabis Use Disorder

Published on: 07 Jan 2021

Many associate the winter as a time to give into indulgences. We sleep more, snack and drink until we’re merry and bright. And, increasingly, in US states where it’s legal, consuming cannabis will become part of our winter traditions. This year’s election saw the inclusion of several states — New Jersey, Arizona, South Dakota, and Montana — legalize the plant for people who are of age.

Cannabis is widely celebrated for its medicinal and recreational qualities — it’s known to relax, uplift, and even help with pain and trauma. However, there’s one aspect that tends to be overlooked. As the third most commonly used substance in the U.S., after alcohol and tobacco, cannabis can leave a percentage of its users dependent on the drug. This dependency is known as cannabis use disorder;here’s what you need to know about it.

Is Cannabis Addictive? 

It might be surprising to learn there’s such a thing as cannabis depency. Often in TV and film, stoners are portrayed with a gentle or comical nature. Compared to withdrawal from harder drugs like heroin, which can cause illness, seizures, or even death, the idea of being addicted to cannabis can easily be downplayed. 

But according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 30% of people who use cannabis have some degree of usage disorder. There’s controversy around using the word addiction when it comes to cannabis, which is why problematic use of cannabis is often, though not always, considered a disorder or dependency. When studies examine substance use, they consider dependence as what makes someone addicted, though it’s possible to be dependent on a substance without being addicted. Physically this can manifest in withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance. 

Who’s Affected?

According to a 2020 study on cannabis use disorder, 9% of all cannabis users will experience addiction to the substance, nearly a fifth of whom began using as adolescents. As more states opt to legalize cannabis, these numbers can begin to increase. 

As with other substances, the reason a person becomes dependent on cannabis can result from numerous factors. Some of these can include sociodemographic, environmental, genetic, and maybe even neurocognitive factors.

What to Know About Cannabis Dependency

A 2018 review that thoroughly examined cannabis addiction, defined it as a “chronically relapsing disorder” marked by compulsive drug seeking and intake, loss of control in limiting intake, and the emergence of a negative emotional state when access to a drug is prevented. 

It found that withdrawal symptoms for chronic cannabis users could include: 

  • Irritability
  • Anger or aggression
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Decreased appetite or weight loss
  • Restlessness
  • Depressed mood. 

Additionally, physical withdrawal symptoms can cause significant discomfort including shakiness or tremors, sweating, fever, chills, and headaches.

Dependence on cannabis starts when brain chemistry changes as a result of the substance use, altering the levels and sensitivity of its naturally occurring endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. This disorder is considered an addiction when the user’s life is negatively impacted as a result of their usage. 

The 2020 study on cannabis use disorder outlined several points to define it as a “problematic pattern of usage that leads to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring over a 12-month period:”    

  • Cannabis is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.    
  • An unwavering desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control cannabis use.    
  • A significant amount of time spent in doing what’s necessary to obtain cannabis, use cannabis, or recover from its effects.    
  • Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use cannabis.    
  • Recurrent cannabis use that results in failure to fulfill day-to-day obligations at work, school, or home.    
  • Continued cannabis use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of cannabis.    
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of cannabis use.
  • Recurrent cannabis use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.    
  • Cannabis use continues despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by cannabis. 
  • Tolerance, as defined by either: a need for markedly increased cannabis to achieve intoxication or desired effect or a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.    
  • Withdrawal, as manifested by either (1) the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for cannabis or (2) cannabis is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

What are Treatment Options for Cannabis Dependence?

Currently, there are no FDA-approved medications that help with cannabis use disorder. However, according to the World Health Organization, there are various therapies available to help tackle these challenges. These include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT helps the user identify and address problematic patterns and behaviours as a way to strengthen self-control, and in turn, work on drug use.
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy. Motivational enhancement therapy is an approach which aims to inspire quick and internally motivated change, as opposed to doing a step-based program. 
  • Contingency Management. A behavioural therapy in which patients are “reinforced” or rewarded for positive behavioural changes. 

For teenagers struggling with cannabis dependency, family interventions were considered more effective than individual counselling in helping with abstaining from usage. 

This winter might feel like an ideal time to overindulge in cannabis, but it’s important to be aware of the effect it has on your life and on those around you. Cannabis use disorder or dependency can impact a high percentage of users, based on a variety of factors, such as how you were raised, the environment, and even genetics. For those struggling with cannabis use disorder, there are various therapy treatments available to help target those challenges. 

With Talkspace online therapy, you can speak to a licensed therapist today from the comfort of your home. 

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