Is Marijuana More Addictive Than We Think? A New Study Shows that Marijuana Can be Just as Addictive as Other Drugs
Marijuana is one of the hottest sociopolitical topics today. The acceptance of medical marijuana in dozens of states and the recent recreational approval in two western states has put a focus on positive aspects of marijuana use in terms of pain reduction and other possible benefits. However, scientists are still trying to discover if marijuana is more addictive than other recreational drugs and legal intoxicants. Researchers are also trying to pinpoint exactly how marijuana affects the brain and what long-term effects it might have. Two new studies that were published this fall begin to shed light on marijuana’s more addictive qualities and psychoactive powers.
One study published in the Journal of Addictive Medicine focused on a group of teens who entered outpatient treatment programs for marijuana use. The other study published in the journal PNAS studied the brains of chronic marijuana users. The findings showed that marijuana dependence mimics many other addictions. Brain scans of chronic pot smokers showed that the mass of the bilateral orbitofrontal gyri decreased. While mass decreased, connectivity and activity in this area increased.
The orbitofrontal part of the brain is related to rewards, decision making and determining what is good or bad for the body. This part of the brain also contains a large number of cannabinoid receptors that react to THC exposure. In response to a constant flood of THC, the brain kills off receptors. This explains why many chronic users experience an increased tolerance to the drug. However, the severity of the effects on the brain varied considerably depending on when the subject began smoking pot and other factors.
In the group of teens, 84 percent were diagnosed with cannabis dependence, and 40 percent showed signs of clinical withdrawal, including irritability, depression, insomnia, and anxiety. Importantly, these side effects didn’t decrease in proportion with days of abstinence. Teens who recognized that they had a drug problem and that marijuana use was responsible for difficulties in their lives had the best outcomes over the year that they were studied. Even if they reported withdrawal symptoms, this group fared better than those who did not report withdrawal. Those who did not recognize their problem had the greatest difficulty in recovery.
Is marijuana more addictive that previously thought? The answer is probably yes. However, the lifetime addiction rate is significantly lower than comparable rates for alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and heroin. While the physical symptoms and negative life consequences of marijuana use are not as severe as they are for some hard drugs, this new research shows that marijuana has strong addictive properties and long-lasting withdrawal effects for some people. These studies confirmed that marijuana users are not immune from the mental components of addiction that require all people to recognize their problems and actively seek to overcome them.