By Patrick O’Neil, Group Facilitator, CAST Centers
Marijuana is the most widely abused mind-altering substance in the United States and Europe. The general attitude and widely held belief is that weed is not addictive or life threatening as the other notoriously destructive drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, or cocaine. However, long term marijuana abuse has the user at risk for developing an addiction that is just as damaging with similar negative effects on the body and brain as the aforementioned big three. Due to easy access and the various ways the user gets high, acquiring this addiction to cannabis can easily happen, possibly easier than most people realize.
While there are persuasive arguments for the benefits—controlled medicinal marijuana use for pain management—24 million Americans currently use it recreationally and over 4 million of those “recreational users” have developed an addiction and that number is growing. Yet in order to establish exactly what addiction means let’s turn to Psychology Today’s definition, “a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behavior for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences.” In his study, “Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment,” Dr. Alan Budney, a Professor at the Geisel School of Medicine writes, “Although some people question the concept of marijuana dependence or addiction clinical studies clearly indicate that the condition exists, is important, and causes harm.”
So if marijuana is addictive than what is the criterion for determining that a user has crossed over from recreational use to dependency? According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain.” In her recent Vice article, “Yes, You Can Be Addicted to Weed,” Diana Tourjée further explores this question by interviewing Dr. Norman Hoffmann, a Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University and a well-known addiction specialist. Dr. Hoffman related that if the weed user can commit to abstaining from using for a designated period of time then, “the individual is probably not addicted.” However, he went on to clarify his statement and said, “In [my] clinical practice, I never had a person I had identified as addicted make it past the second week.“
Yet the more immediate and less discussed issue involving “recreational” marijuana use is the aforementioned “compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behavior despite detrimental consequences” which directly coincides with the question, “what are the long-term effects of marijuana addiction?” In a study titled, “Telling True From False: Cannabis Users Show Increased Susceptibility To False Memories,” published in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers discovered that heavy use of marijuana caused “false memories,” where weed smokers had vivid and detailed memories of events that never actually took place. Which is chilling in itself as the line between reality and psychosis is being blurred. Dr. Matthew James Smith, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, confirmed this “false memory” phenomenon, “These false and altered memories are the result of the fact that memory formation is a progressive, malleable process that is therefore subject to distortion,” and the distortive factor we’re talking about here is the prolonged abuse of marijuana.
However, it isn’t just the addict’s memory that is being adversely affected. In her study “Trends And Correlates Of Cannabis-Involved Emergency Department Visits,” published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, Dr. He Zhu found that cannabis involved emergency room visits had almost doubled in the last ten years—coinciding with the rapidly increasing availability of marijuana. While Dr. Nora D. Volkow’s study, “Adverse Health Effects Of Marijuana Use” published in the New England Medical Journal brought more light on one reason why these ER visits had grown, “Both immediate exposure and long-term exposure to marijuana impair[s] driving ability; marijuana is the illicit drug most frequently reported in connection with impaired driving and accidents, including fatal accidents.”
So, with all that said, how do you know if you are smoking too much weed? Well, how’s your memory, any DUIs, and have you been to the ER lately? But seriously, practically every addict believes they can stop using drugs on their own, they just tell themselves that they don’t want to. But prolonged marijuana addiction and the resulting dishonest behaviors around obtaining and using the drug almost always creates a sense of hopelessness with intense feelings of failure, shame, and guilt. Most addicts inherently know that they are addicted and try to stop using only to relapse over and over. Research has shown that long-term drug abuse causes changes in the way the brain actually functions including an inability to control the impulse to use drugs despite adverse consequences. If this sounds familiar than you already know you’re smoking too much and are more than likely addicted to weed.
The treatment options for marijuana addiction are similar to treatment for most other addictions such as alcohol and other drugs. Outpatient treatment, abstinence, and evidence-based therapies such as Twelve Step meetings, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and group therapy are highly effective methods. The success of these various treatments depends on the individual’s situation, possible addiction to other substances, behaviors, and needs. Recovery is a process and the first step is admitting there is a problem. The second step is seeking help.
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