Cannabis Dependence

What is Cannabis Dependence?

In light of the heated debates surrounding legalizing medical marijuana in several states, it’s worth checking into if experimental and long-term cannabis use would subject users to cannabis dependency syndromes.

In this overview, readers get a blunt description of the repercussions of cannabis use disorder.

We ask tough questions and hash out details such as:

  • How does cannabis dependence affect someone’s health?
  • How is cannabis dependence diagnosed?
  • Is cannabis disorder real?

Overview of cannabis dependence

Cannabis dependence is alternatively known as cannabis use disorder and is characterized by the prolonged abuse of marijuana.

Cannabis is still widely regarded as an illicit drug in many parts of the world. In the United States alone, it is estimated that at least 49% of the population has tried marijuana on at least one occasion, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also estimates that 22 million have used cannabis in the past month – nationally speaking. Some 9% of all cannabis users go on to develop cannabis dependence. This works out to roughly 4.3% of the American populace. Due to increasing reports of the disorder, there has been a strong push by authorities in the field to develop improved treatments.

Diagnosing cannabis dependence

Cannabis dependence treatment centers typically diagnose this disorder by counting how many times within a 12-month period the user becomes:

  • More tolerant to marijuana’s side effects
  • Irritable after attempting to withdraw from recreational use
  • Inclined to use the drug more than anticipated
  • Tempted to sacrifice other activities in favor of marijuana use
  • Obsessed with sourcing marijuana products
  • Unable to regulate how much and how often it’s used
  • Unsuccessful at quitting marijuana use, even though it’s in their best interest

If these conditions are reported three or more times within this 12-month stretch, the patient is typically diagnosed with cannabis dependence.

Repercussions of cannabis dependence

Cannabis dependents are studied to be susceptible to a range of mental and physical impairments, including:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Personality disorders
  • Co-morbid mental health diseases

The psychological effects of cannabis dependence

To scale the psychological and health effects of cannabis dependence, mental health experts, law enforcement, Congress, and other bodies of authority often refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5), authored by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s a guide that is the culmination of more than 10 years of research by authorities in the field of psychology.

The physical effects of cannabis dependence

Heavy and prolonged use is said to bring about real physical changes in the body. For example, cannabis dependence is said to deregulate certain receptors in the brain.

Additionally, in a study by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers discovered that marijuana addicts faced significant neuroadaptive changes to dopamine. This basically implies that the brain’s normal incentives are decreased and marijuana dependence ups the ante for acquiring a severe addiction to other illicit substances.

Science Direct further postulates that heavy users have a high tolerance of THC, based on studies in adolescent humans and animals.

Living with cannabis dependence

There are also secondary issues to contend with when marijuana dependence oversaturates a person’s life. For example, he or she may find it difficult to maintain a job, a relationship, or his or her finances.

Symptoms of Cannabis Dependence

One of the telltale signs of cannabis use disorder is when a recreational user is driven to acquire more of the drug, despite the negative side effects experienced. The abuse will often times consume the person’s life as he or she forgoes work and home duties to seek out the drug.

Cannabis dependents are often described as:

  • Having a nervous and restless demeanor
  • Not having a healthy appetite most of the time
  • Being anxious a lot of the time
  • Having lucid dreams
  • Experiencing difficulty falling and staying asleep

Cannabis withdrawal symptoms

Another clear sign that someone has cannabis dependence is when it becomes a challenge to stop the use altogether.

When patients undergo treatments for cannabis dependence at rehab facilities, for example, roughly 50% will experience mild withdrawal symptoms within the first week that do not count as medical emergencies.

These withdrawal symptoms go away over time and may include:

  • Dysphoria – a blend of symptoms that include anxiety, depression, and agitation
  • Sleep disorders – including insomnia and problems staying asleep
  • Changes in appetite – the majority of times, patients do not have an appetite during withdrawal

Mental symptoms of cannabis dependence

Unlike alcohol abuse, which has been shown to cause physical addiction in clinical trials, cannabis dependence is primarily studied to have psychological effects.

Marijuana abuse is understood to increase one’s susceptibility to mental health disorders, where two or more problems coexist. For example, some cannabis dependents are at risk of developing anxiety, depression, and common personality disorders.

The correlation between cannabis dependence and mental disorders

Mental health experts agree that cannabis dependence in adolescence and young adulthood predisposes users to mental health disorders later in adulthood.

In addition, the THC present in marijuana contains sedative properties, which can influence users to self-medicate and treat psychological disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

How to quit marijuana

Some mental health experts believe that past painful experiences are a powerful motivator to quit addictions.

Cannabis dependence, however, is complex in that symptoms of the disorder are not medically serious. As a result, there is little incentive to quit in this regard.

Moreover, when withdrawal symptoms become taxing, these experiences could trigger the dependent to pick up where they left off.

Cannabis Dependence Causes

Cannabis dependence is primarily caused by using the drug on a long-term basis. Most cannabis dependents up the dosage with every hit and subtle dependencies accumulate to severe addiction over time.

The smoking gun to the disorder happens when the methods of consumption are switched up in order to satisfy one’s cravings.

Most of the findings in social and psychological research reveals that the root causes of cannabis dependence is linked to two common denominators.

2 common denominators include:

  1. Starting marijuana use at a very young age
  2. Frequently using marijuana for a long period of time

Per the Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, the majority of adults who seek out treatment for cannabis dependence have overused the substance for more than 10 years on a daily basis. Most have also reported trying to quit on more than a half a dozen occasions.

Despite these discoveries, there are other socio-economic factors that come into play when deciphering the main causes of marijuana dependence.

Consider the following triggers:

  • A volatile home life
  • Bad parenting
  • Dropping out of high school
  • Easy access to marijuana
  • Underlying emotional issues
  • Nicotine abuse
  • Peer pressure

Genes and cannabis dependence

Do genes play a role, if any, in cannabis dependence?

In a study spearheaded by Yale psychiatrist, Joel Gelernter, MD, it was discovered that cannabis dependence is linked to major depression and other psychiatric conditions. In essence, this means that the same genes that are responsible for depression increase one’s vulnerability to cannabis addiction.

This strengthens the argument even further that comorbidity is a real threat that can quickly take over a dependent’s life.

Stop and think before acting

Based on these findings, it’s safe to conclude that before you decide to take up a joint or try an enticing marijuana cookie, it’s a good idea to check into your family history of depression and other addictions. If you see a common thread of these disorders, it may signify that recurrent marijuana use could increase your risk of developing cannabis dependence.

Treatments for Cannabis Dependence

Cannabis dependence is a serious addiction that can stop dependents from living their fullest and healthiest lives. Fortunately, there are treatments that can help.

The indicated treatment for cannabis use disorder is enrolling in an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation center. Depending on the rehab facility, physicians may be consulted to coordinate a long-term management plan and commence detox services.

Similar to alcohol rehab centers, a 12-step model is adopted to help dependents overcome the addiction and avoid common triggers.

Psychological treatments for cannabis dependence

In addition to rehab centers, psychological therapies can help. Specialists may initiate one or a combination of the following therapies in order to help create positive changes from within.

Therapies for positive change of cannabis dependence include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Contingency management
  • Family and systems interventions
  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Supportive-expressive psychotherapy

The treatments suggested by specialists are generally multidimensional and often model other forms of addiction programs, such as motivational enhancement therapy (MET) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), for example.

Organizations for cannabis dependence

Much like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous programs, similar organizations have cropped up for cannabis dependence over the past few decades. Most notably, Marijuana Anonymous is a support group for individuals struggling with cannabis dependence.

The organization serves members worldwide and provides meet up locations, phone consultations, and resources to overcome the addiction. Low-income cannabis dependents seeking treatment can find a good starting point at Marijuana Anonymous.

Drug treatments for cannabis dependence

Currently, there are no pharmaceutical drugs approved by the FDA for treating cannabis dependence. However, this shouldn’t be ruled out as there are multiple research projects in the works. For example, some drugs like entacapone and buspirone have demonstrated the ability to decrease cravings in patients.

The benefits of treating cannabis dependence

With these treatment plans available, it is more than possible to overcome cannabis dependence and transform your life.

Some of the top advantages of seeking treatment for cannabis dependence include:

  • Breaking free of bad relationships
  • Succeeding at work
  • Rebuilding trust with family and friends
  • Increasing self-confidence
  • Achieving life goals

Cannabis Dependence Prevention

One of the best ways to prevent cannabis dependence is through education.

Outreach projects throughout the United States aim to inform more people about the negative side effects of cannabis abuse, particularly in the underdeveloped brains of teens and young adults. Other advocates of recreational marijuana purport that it is a harmless substance, where the benefits outweigh the risks. Due to the mix of highs and lows of cannabis use, its legalization is still being hotly debated today.

One takeaway for readers, however, is that knowledge is power. People in favor of legal use should be aware of the risks of cannabis dependence and watch for signs of addiction. If you or someone you know appears to be consumed by heavy usage, or when other areas of life become steadily on the decline, it’s time to seek out proven treatments before cannabis dependence escalates.

As with most health and mental disorders, the sooner a diagnosis is made, the easier it becomes to treat.

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Last Reviewed:
September 25, 2017
Last Updated:
November 22, 2017
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