Many cannabis advocates claim that the drug is harmless because it’s ‘organic.’ As we’ll see, this is simply not the case. Moreover, the opinion that marijuana isn’t addictive is just that—an opinion. It’s an assertion that is not supported by science. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a little under ten percent of people who try marijuana will develop a cannabis addiction to it at some point.
In this post, we’ll explore how the active ingredient in cannabis hijacks the brain’s reward pathway, paving the way for addiction. Then, we’ll show you how to recognize the warning signs of cannabis addiction. We’ll also share must-know tips for avoiding use triggers.
Let’s get started.
How Cannabis Affects the Brain
Some folks believe that marijuana use is a harmless hobby. Putting aside the potential health effects of inhaling smoke from any source, it’s important to understand how the drug affects the brain in order to gauge its potential danger. Research, as referenced throughout this post, shows time and again that frequent cannabis use does come with risks.
What’s more, those risks are amplified if use begins in the teen years.
The first fact that weakens the ‘cannabis is harmless’ argument is that the compound affects judgment in the short term. The drug can impact:
- Motor function
What’s more, these effects can linger up to 24 hours after use. In particular, the drug’s effect on attention and motor control makes driving while high a risky proposition.
These side effects combine in long term users to create a cluster of symptoms that can result in poor academic or work performance. Finally, long term users may become addicted to THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.
In their quest to find out why marijuana affects the brain the way it does, researchers discovered a communication system within the brain. They named this the endocannabinoid system. The ES consists of cannabinoid receptors. The body produces its own cannabinoid receptors, namely 2-AG and anandamide. These brain chemicals are neurotransmitters. They fit into cannabinoid receptors like a key in a lock. By activating their respective receptor, they can send important chemical messages back and forth between neurons.
These natural neurotransmitters affect various brain areas, and they can influence:
- The perception of pleasure
- The formation of memory
- Overall cognition
- Movement & coordination
- Management of sensory input information
- Time perception
It just so happens that a natural compound present in some plants, THC— tetrahydrocannabinol—is similar enough to our own natural transmitters that they fit into cannabinoid receptors. One of these plants is cannabis.
The endocannabinoid system plays a vital role in healthy brain functioning. The primary role of a cannabinoid, overall, is to slow communication between brain cells. Because THC is similar in structure to anandamide, the brain recognizes it as valid. But, of course, THC is not an endogenous transmitter, meaning it was not produced by the body. In other words, because the brain didn’t produce it, it doesn’t work in the brain exactly like anandamide would.
THC changes brain function, primarily in the hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex. But THC doesn’t stop there. It also reaches the cerebellum and basal ganglia, producing various motor control symptoms.
Finally, THC also activates the brain’s reward pathway, releasing large amounts of dopamine. This produces the high the drug is so famous for. But as with anything that activates the reward pathway, the development of tolerance and dependence is a possibility with repeated use.
Summary: THC is similar in structure to endogenous cannabinoid receptors. When smoked, large amounts of THC gets to the brain, much more than the brain would produce naturally. THC overwhelms the brain’s endocannabinoid system, producing the side effects listed above.
Cannabis addiction is a very real phenomenon. In general, if you take a drug in order to feel good, then it’s possible to become addicted to that drug. This is because of tolerance and dependence, both of which we’ll discuss shortly.
Cannabis use disorder has been with us for centuries, but it has been overshadowed by opioid and cocaine addiction, as well as addictions caused by other hard drugs. These harder drugs produce addiction more quickly and tend to have more devastating effects. However, while more addictive substances exist, you should not underestimate the addictive potential of cannabis.
Understanding Tolerance & Dependence
Like anandamide, dopamine is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain. Dopamine wears a lot of hats, and there are several distinct dopamine pathways in the brain. One of these helps us recognize when we’ve done something worth doing. In other words, it plays a role in motivation. This is an important survival mechanism.
For instance, if you’re hungry, you seek food. If you succeed in finding food, your brain releases a burst of feel-good dopamine. This leads you to think, ‘Hey, that was worth doing. I should do that again when I get hungry.’
When you light up a joint, the THC within cannabis throws a wrench into this process. As you discovered in the last section, one of the ways THC affects the brain is to cause it to release large amounts of dopamine. This makes you feel good.
But substances that force the brain to release large amounts of dopamine may cause the brain to down-regulate its dopamine-release response. In other words, the brain eventually tries to ignore the THC. This means that, over time, you’ll have to smoke more pot to get the same high.
This is tolerance.
Once tolerance sets in, dependence is not far behind. You know you’re developing dependence when you get withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop using cannabis.
Cannabis withdrawal symptoms include:
- Diminished appetite
- Unstable mood
- Difficulty sleeping
- Inability to focus
- Stomach issues
- Intense cravings for cannabis
Note: Cannabis abuse may cause psychosis in susceptible individuals.
When Use Becomes Abuse
In recent years, several states have legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes. This means it’s easier than ever to get access to the drug. This, in turn, means that susceptible individuals are at greater risk of developing addiction. Many people who use marijuana can stop using without issue. But that isn’t the case for everyone. In fact, according to recent research, 30 percent of regular users struggle with cannabis use disorder.
They also note that folks who use marijuana before age 18 are seven times more likely to develop dependence.
If you’re concerned that your consumption is skidding from use to abuse, there are a few tell-tale signs you can look for.
- You started using cannabis to get high, but now you use it out of habit, regardless of how you feel
- You use more cannabis than you mean to, resulting in you having to go out and buy more
- You think about cutting back and even try to do so, but you find this very difficult or even impossible
- You spend a lot of time seeking marijuana or recovering from its effects
- Your grades or work performance has suffered since you started using
- You continue to use even though it’s causing relationship problems
- You’ve given up other hobbies you enjoyed so you can get high more often
- You use cannabis in dangerous situations such as while driving
The presence of at least two of these symptoms means you may want to consider seeking treatment for cannabis addiction.
Cannabis Use Triggers
Cannabis, more so than harder drugs like heroin or crack cocaine, is a social drug. One the major triggers reported by individuals undergoing treatment for cannabis addiction is watching other people use. If you think you might have a cannabis use problem, therefore, avoiding these social pressures is key.
If you’re determined to cut back or quit altogether, you’ll need to let your friends know that you’re not using. Note that many people who give cannabis up for several years get back into it after smoking just one joint in a social situation. Once drug use alters the reward system in the brain, the brain doesn’t go back to its original condition.
This means that while you can, with treatment, manage addiction, you should view it as a chronic condition. You must be on guard any time you think you’ll be around people who use cannabis because you can experience intense cravings—even years after you stop using.
It’s not uncommon for people who have stopped using cannabis to think, ‘I’ll never use it again,’ only to find themselves using at a social function. Once use resumes, full relapse is possible.
To manage the temptation to use, there are a few practical steps you can take right now.
#1 Get Rid of Cannabis-Related Paraphernalia
If you’ve decided to stop using, go ahead and get rid of the bowl, bong or rolling paper. You don’t need them, and keeping these items will only trigger you to use once cravings set in.
#2 Look for Stashes You May Have ‘Forgotten’
It’s not uncommon for people to keep small stashes around the house. This becomes more common as dependence sets in and people find themselves using more than they intended to. Make a list of the places you usually hide the drug and then check these locations one by one. Chances are good you’ll find some. Toss it.
#3 Plan to Say No Ahead of Time
Because cannabis is so common in social situations, you’ll need to come up with a default, go-to response when offered the drug. Many ex-users have noticed that saying, “No, thank you,” is often not enough. Some people become defensive or passive aggressive when their friends stop using a drug they also use. If you can come up with a light-hearted, witty way to say no, though, they may more readily accept this.
#4 Do Something With Your Body
When you abruptly stop using a compound that was triggering dopamine release, your brain will need time to adjust. One thing you can do to ease the transition is to develop an exercise habit. Intense exercise—anything that gets you sweating—releases endorphins. Endorphins are another type of feel-good brain chemical. Some folks also find yoga helpful in managing withdrawal symptoms.
#5 Embrace Variety
If you first started marijuana as a way to deal with boredom, it’s important to address the underlying cause of this boredom when you quit. Small variations can add up and can keep your mind engaged. For instance, you could eat new foods, listen to a new type of music and find other routes to work.
#6 Learn to Delegate
When you stop using cannabis, you’ll need to learn how to manage stress. If you’re in a managerial position or are an entrepreneur, look for ways to delegate. Don’t take on more than you need to. If someone else should be doing what you’re doing right now, assign them the task. You need to keep your stress levels low.
Drug addiction tends to progress through four stages. These are:
- Experimental use. You use the drug because you’re curious about its effects or because of peer pressure.
- Regular use. You start using the drug on a regular basis, usually in order to get high or as a way to self-medicate.
- You begin to focus more and more on the drug and its desirable effects. At the same time, you think less about the negative consequences of drug use.
- You become unable to function without the drug. If you stop using, you experience withdrawal symptoms.
If you use cannabis but aren’t sure whether you need to seek help, or aren’t sure where you might be on the above spectrum, consider the following.
As dependence develops, most people go through a phase where they try to cut back or quit, but they find it difficult or impossible to do so. If this is you, then you’ve already moved through the tolerance phase and into dependence. While trying to cut back, you likely experienced withdrawal that had the following characteristics:
- You react negatively to cutting back. You may experience mood swings, anger, or anxiety.
- You start thinking about using again because you miss being high, and you want to alleviate the emotional side effects of cutting back.
- You use again. Initially you feel relief, but this is always followed by intense guilt. Eventually, the cycle repeats.
While you may be managing this cycle for now, that may not be the case forever. As dependence becomes cannabis addiction, you may:
- Allow relationships that are important to you to wither or fade away so you can continue using
- Give up hobbies that previously gave you lots of joy
- Suffer poor grades or perform poorly at your job, which can lead to failing a grade or job loss
- Give up on what you’re truly passionate about in order to use
- Engage in anti-social behaviors in order to secure access to drugs
- Suffer low self-esteem
- Suffer chronically elevated stress levels
- Use harder drugs that provide a more intense high, such as heroin or cocaine
- Suffer accidents
- Experience legal troubles
- Find yourself with financial issues
- Contemplate suicide
If any of these already apply to you, the time to seek help is now. Don’t wait.
A qualified treatment center like The Hills can help you detox in a safe environment. Trained specialists know what you’re going through, and they can help you cope with withdrawal symptoms. What’s more, therapists can teach you proven coping mechanisms such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Once you learn these tools, you can manage your cravings on your own.
If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love who struggles with their cannabis use, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction.