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Cannabis Addiction: Is There Such a Thing?

Many people around the world use cannabis either for recreational or medicinal purposes. According to the 2017 United Nations’ World Drug Report, between 183 and 238 million people worldwide take it in some form or another. With more and more decriminalization in recent years, that number could be set to rise.

But when does cannabis use stop becoming beneficial and when does it start to actually become harmful?

The idea of cannabis addiction is not as straightforward as many people think. Researchers often point to a difference between the kind of physical or biological dependence that you get with drugs like opioids with the idea of user abuse. But there is also a psychological aspect to dependence which can be just as powerful.

Semantics aside, according to some research, cannabis addiction affects around 10% of regular users. You are also more likely to end up with a cannabis abuse problem if you start taking it in your teenage years. There are two issues that users face when it comes to cannabis addiction. The first is recognizing that they have a problem in the first place. The second is actually doing something about it.

Defining Cannabis Addiction

When most people are asked about addiction they tend to focus on the chemical addiction. You get phrases like going cold turkey, crashing and withdrawal. In other words, stopping taking the drug means you suffer physical trauma such as shakes and cravings which are associated with physical dependence. These can be more violent the more addicted you are.

That’s led to the misconception that cannabis is not addictive in the true sense of the word because you don’t get the same, violent withdrawal symptoms you get with other drugs.

The fact is that addiction takes many forms. It can be physical so that you need to take a certain amount to maintain your habit or feel the same. It can also be psychological – you’ve become mentally or emotionally dependent on the drug.

You might, for instance, take cannabis to reduce your anxiety or PTSD and believe that not taking it will cause you harm. People often become emotionally dependent on the drug which means that it can be just as addictive as, say, gambling, food or sex.

There’s also an environmental factor in cannabis addiction as with other drugs. You may find yourself craving a smoke of weed when you are in a particular location or faced with certain circumstance because you have become conditioned by the drug. Our life circumstances can determine whether we become dependent on cannabis or not. If you’re suffering from a trauma and cannabis relieves that, even for a short while, you may be tempted to try more and more to avoid further emotional pain.

Cannabis in itself is not addictive in the biological sense but there are plenty of conditions that could well make us addicted to it. In other words, cannabis addiction is a pretty complex thing.

Cannabis Use Disorder

Speak to most medical professionals and they will be loathed to use the term cannabis addiction. What they tend to focus on is the idea of a use disorder. In essence, it’s seen as a psychiatric or psychological disorder that is influenced by many other things going on in your life.

There a number of clear factors that affect whether you are diagnosed with a cannabis use disorder. These include:

  • Taking cannabis over a prolonged period and in larger amounts than you would normally recognize for a social activity.
  • A person may have a big desire to cut down their use and is constantly battling to release themselves from its influence.
  • A person may also have strong desires or cravings and spend an inordinate amount of their time trying to obtain the drug.
  • Someone might have social or personal problems associated with their cannabis use yet still be unable to control their habit, for example, stealing to buy their next hit of weed.  

With any psychological disorder like this, it’s the impact that it has on the individual and the damage that it does around them which can make the biggest difference. There are around 11 different criteria that are used to determine whether there is a cannabis addiction or use disorder.

The trouble is it often varies from state to state whether these are used to implement treatment or not. Someone who exhibits two or three factors could well be put forward for treatment in some states, in others it takes more.

This can lead to pushing someone towards treatment when it is not entirely appropriate. Someone who uses cannabis for recreational purposes, for example, and does so responsibly and quite happily could well exhibit one or more of the criteria but that doesn’t mean they have a cannabis use disorder.

Even a moderate disorder can be managed effectively without a person being forced into treatment of some kind and labelled an addict or societal problem.

The Influence of Cannabis Legalization and Addiction

In many parts of the world, including the US, the response to drug addiction in the past has been to punish the individual rather than help rehabilitate them. Someone who is addicted to cannabis and steals to fund their habit is more likely to be put in prison than given the support they really need (something that goes with a lot of a drug-related crime). Prohibition over the years has generally not worked out well when it comes to solving drug problems which could be one reason why many states are now decriminalizing cannabis.

There’s also the suggestion, however, that cannabis legalization has led to more problems with more people becoming ‘addicted’ or developing use disorders. The National Academy of Sciences recently suggested there is no evidence that legalization leads to ‘a substantial increase in marijuana use’. The common perception is that exactly the opposite is true but there has been little in the way of concentrated research that has been done in this area either.

Like most drugs, including alcohol, cannabis can be beneficial or harmful depending on the individual and their circumstances. Advocates of cannabis are quick to point out its beneficial effects but we all need to be more realistic in our attitude and understand that there are plenty of downsides as well.

Yes, cannabis can be good for us. But it can also be bad. Being caught in a cannabis addiction can not only be destructive for the individual but also for their family and friends and the society around them. Cannabis addiction can also combine with other substances including alcohol that make things more complicated and difficult to resolve for the individual.

What to Do If You Have a Cannabis Use Disorder

Admitting that you have a cannabis use disorder is the first step to doing something about it. The trouble is that many cannabis users don’t see their ‘habit’ as a problem – it’s usually other people that notice there is an issue. In America alone, around 400,000 people a year go into rehab to try and kick a problem with cannabis. That’s an even more interesting statistic when you realize that only 1 in 10 people ever seek professional help for their addiction.

For most people, quitting marijuana and getting over a cannabis use disorder is a long road that doesn’t just end when you decide to stop smoking, vaping or dabbing. It can take months and even years before you reach the point where you are no longer dependent (ask anyone who has ever given up smoking). The trouble is every person is an individual and will react in their own unique way.

If you have accepted that you have a cannabis addiction, the first step is to get some formal help. There are plenty of different organizations now that focus on helping people with a cannabis use disorder and you should make the effort to get involved or reach out to with these. You’ll be able to connect with people who have been through the same problems as you and have come out on the other side.

Most of getting over a habit like cannabis is not physical but emotional and psychological. You will find that certain triggers will affect your cravings, for instance. A certain place or group of people might give you a craving to light up. Stress at work or home can influence whether you take a step back or not. Having support in place to help you cope with these pressures is vital and one that cannot be underestimated if you feel that you have a problem.

The other thing you can do is to educate yourself about what happens after you give up cannabis. If you have been using for a long while, you may be prone to certain effects like depression or higher levels of anxiety. Understanding that this is all part of the ‘withdrawal’ process should make them easier to cope with. The good news is that after a while you should be able to get yourself back onto an even keel and begin to enjoy life more.

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