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Is Marijuana Physically or Psychologically Addictive?

Written by Shannon Weir, RN | Updated on Apr 26, 2023

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Marijuana prescribed for medical purposes is now legal in more than half of U.S. states. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have also legalized the possession and use of marijuana recreationally. But legalization does not mean the use of marijuana is without risk.

Health experts warn that marijuana can cause severe physical and psychological damage to chronic users and may lead to addiction. Even short-term use of marijuana can be dangerous, increasing the risk for heart attack and other adverse reactions.

What is Addiction?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines drug addiction as “a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking, continued use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain.”

Suppose you cannot stop using marijuana despite “clinically significant impairment,” which includes a negative impact on your life. In that case, you may fit the criteria for marijuana addiction, clinically known as marijuana use disorder.

A report released by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that about six million Americans struggled with marijuana use disorder in the year studied. The NIH study also linked marijuana use disorder to other substance use disorders, behavioral problems, and disabilities.

Is There a Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction?

Psychological dependence is related to an emotional need to use marijuana rather than a physical condition. If you spend a large portion of your day focusing on how soon you can use marijuana and find it difficult to enjoy your day without the drug, you may be psychologically addicted. However, if you stop using marijuana, you are unlikely to suffer physical withdrawal symptoms unless you are physically addicted. You may experience emotional withdrawal symptoms, including irritability, anxiety, and depression.

Physical addiction means marijuana use has caused chemical changes in your body and brain, some of which can be long-lasting. Your body craves the effects of the drug, and, over time, you may be unable to feel pleasure without using marijuana. Once you have developed a physical addiction to marijuana and then stop using the drug, you will experience physical withdrawal symptoms.

The physical withdrawal symptoms may include insomnia, headaches, vomiting, and gastrointestinal distress. In some cases, withdrawal symptoms may be severe and consist of nightmares, tremors, and significant cravings. If you use alcohol or other drugs with marijuana, withdrawal symptoms can be more extreme.

When you start using marijuana, the younger you are, the greater your risk for addiction and permanent physical damage, especially if you are a heavy user.

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

While the marijuana plant contains many naturally occurring chemical compounds, THC and CBD are best known. THC and CBD affect different brain regions and produce psychoactive effects, but only THC gives the sense of euphoria sought by many users. CBD affects another area of the brain, and while it does not deliver a “high,” it does help relieve anxiety, depression, seizures, and pain.

THC activates areas of the brain that regulate pleasure, cognition, movement, coordination, and time perception. Marijuana triggers specific brain responses when you are under the influence, increasing the brain’s pleasure response and disrupting movement, coordination, and memory. Prolonged or heavy use can damage normal brain pathways.

Addictive substances like marijuana trigger an unnaturally intense level of pleasure in the brain, reinforcing your desire to repeat the experience. As your substance use continues, you can develop a tolerance to your regular dose, and your brain will demand increasingly higher amounts of marijuana to achieve the desired response. Tolerance often leads to dependence and addiction. At this point, withdrawal symptoms will occur if you stop using.

Researchers find marijuana has become more addictive over the past few decades, primarily due to increased THC content. Before the 1990s, marijuana contained less than two percent THC. Today, some popular strains contain up to 28 percent THC, making the product highly addictive and posing a much greater health risk.

If you take large doses of high potency marijuana, you may even be vulnerable to severe reactions. These can include hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, heart attack, and a worsening of symptoms if you have schizophrenia or another mental health disorder.

Studies have linked long-term marijuana use with changes in the brain’s structure, leading to learning and memory problems, lack of impulse control, declines in IQ, and more.

Psychological Effects of Marijuana

If you use marijuana to relax, slow down, relieve anxiety, and feel a greater sense of well-being, you are not alone. However, marijuana can deliver unwanted effects, especially in high doses. Drug use can make you jumpy, irritable, and even trigger paranoia.

For some people, marijuana use can worsen depression and increase suicidality. Suicide risk increases for young people using marijuana. (If you are concerned about suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.)

Signs that you have developed an emotional or psychological attachment to marijuana use may include:

  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Lack of motivation
  • Problems with interpersonal relations
  • Inability to control or stop marijuana use
  • Worsening short-term memory, learning difficulties, trouble focusing

Symptoms of Marijuana Addiction

If you are addicted to marijuana, you are likely exhibiting both psychological and physical symptoms, including:

  • Craving marijuana despite negative consequences at home, school, or work
  • Continuing to use marijuana despite adversely affecting meaningful relationships
  • Withdrawing from family and friends who do not use marijuana
  • Centering activities around marijuana use
  • Engaging in risky behavior while using, like driving, swimming, and unsafe sex
  • Hoarding marijuana so you will not run out
  • Spending money on marijuana rather than meeting financial obligations
  • Needing increasingly higher doses to get the desired effect
  • Using drugs while pregnant despite possible harm to developing fetus
  • Experiencing withdrawal signs when not using

Researchers warn that the use of marijuana increases the risk for abuse of other addictive drugs or alcohol. Studies have found that alcohol increases the level and rate of absorption of THC, intensifying the effects. If you use both substances simultaneously, you are more likely to drive under the influence, experience negative social consequences, and self-harm.

Benefits of Quitting Marijuana

No matter how long you have used marijuana, quitting delivers mental and physical benefits, beginning within days or weeks of quitting. You will start to have more energy and motivation, your breathing will improve, and your mood will improve. Here are just a few possible benefits of quitting marijuana use:

  • Within one to three days, your lungs can begin to heal
  • Within one week, your physical discomfort and mood swings will peak
  • At about two weeks, your withdrawal symptoms should decrease, although you may continue to experience sleep disturbances for several weeks or months
  • At about four weeks, your brain receptors should return to normal function. Memory, mental acuity, and attention span can improve.

Detoxification is the First Step in Recovery

Detoxification, or detox, is the first step on your recovery journey. When your body is physically addicted to marijuana, withdrawal can cause unpleasant and potentially severe effects. We strongly recommend you choose a medically supervised detoxification program to protect your physical and mental health when you quit marijuana. Such a program will also ensure that you are as physically comfortable as possible throughout the process.

Upon completion of detox, you have many treatment options for marijuana addiction. Ask your doctor or an addiction specialist for resources. Your chances for long-term recovery are more significant if you attend individual, group, and family counseling and attend a support group. Marijuana Anonymous offers support services for you and your family.

If you have alcohol use disorder or another mental health disorder in addition to marijuana addiction, it is essential that you work with a mental health specialist on a recovery plan.

Our team at Gallus Medical Detox Centers uses the most current, scientifically proven detox methods to deliver a safe, effective, and comfortable program for people struggling with substance use disorder. We will tailor your treatment plan to meet your specific needs. The compassionate professionals at Gallus promise to treat you with the respect and dignity you deserve.

Contact us today to find out how we can help you start your recovery journey.

Shannon Weir, RN

Shannon Weir, RN is the Chief Nursing Officer at Gallus Medical Detox Centers. She has been a Registered Nurse for 30 years, Shannon’s experience ranges from critical care to flight nursing, medical detox, sexual assault exams, and SWAT nursing. Shannon has been with Gallus Medical Detox Centers since 2010 and is a vital part of our organization.

Last medically reviewed on February 01, 2022

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If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use, call Gallus at
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