Cannabis Abuse, Dependence & Addiction: Exploring What We Know About the Consequences of The Drug

Cannabis Abuse, Dependence & Addiction: Exploring What We Know About the Consequences of The Drug

by Laura Geftman, LCSW 

Is it or isn’t it? Everyone wants to know. The Schedule I drug has long been said to be as addictive as cocaine and heroine with a “no acceptable medical use and a high potential for abuse.“ While cannabis has since shown many medicinal qualities and solves, it has not been federally rescheduled. But why? Is it addictive? Should we be concerned about using cannabis?

Some people claim they can use cannabis and stop without symptoms of withdrawal. Others note an inability to eat, sleep, relax, calm down, be creative, sensual…function without it. Seems like the gray area on this is considerable. So will your cannabis use lead you into a recovery treatment center? Let’s find out…

What is Cannabis Addiction and Cannabis Use Disorder? 

The latest iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (V) no longer has clinicians diagnosing abuse or dependence. Substance use is diagnosed on a continuum or scale. Cannabis use- just like all other addictive substances- is found under the category of “Addictive Disorders,” and “substance use disorders” is defined by eleven different criteria:

1. Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you’re meant to.

2. Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to.

3. Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance.

4. Cravings and urges to use the substance.

5. Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use.

6. Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships.

7. Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use.

8. Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger.

9. Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance.

10. Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance).

11. Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance.

Your evaluating clinician is to gauge how severe of a substance use disorder you maybe experiencing. Two or three symptoms indicates mild substance use disorder; four or five symptoms indicate a moderate substance use disorder, and six or more symptoms define a severe substance use disorder.  With six or more symptoms, cannabis use takes the form of addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH), “dependence occurs when the brain adapts to large amounts of the drug by reducing production of and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitter.” Therefore someone who is unable to stop using cannabis even though it interferes with many aspects of their life would be considered addicted. It is, however, possible to be dependent without being addicted. In that case, your endocannabinoid functionality maybe compromised without lifestyle difficulties. Studies suggest the 9% of people become dependent on cannabis (SOURCE , SOURCE) and about 17% in those who started use as a teen (SOURCE , SOURCE). More than 50% of regular users experience symptoms of withdrawal (SOURCE, SOURCE, SOURCE).

It’s noted that those with a family history of substance abuse are at higher risk. In two studies have proven that 50-60% of addiction is due to genetic predisposition (SOURCE, SOURCE).

Potential Addiction Factors

So what’s the potential for not just use disorder but addiction? Well there are a few factors: withdrawal, reinforcement, tolerance, dependence, and intoxication.

The potency of today’s cannabis plants increase the risk of addiction. Decades ago the psychoactive component in cannabis concentrations were less than 5% THC. Today we are able to produce much higher concentrations of THC between 20%-50%. This change in potency contributes to the diminishing of previously safer use (SOURCE).

Yup You Can Experience Cannabis Withdrawal

Most people argue that cannabis isn’t addictive because there’s no withdrawal…but there is. Not everyone experiences it. More don’t acknowledge that’s what they are experiencing. More than 50% of regular users experience symptoms of withdrawal (SOURCE, SOURCE, SOURCE).

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports withdrawal symptoms as irritability, mood and sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, cravings, restlessness and/or physical discomfort. Some even report anxiety, depression, headaches, muscle tension, nausea, nightmares, and unpleasant vivid dreams (SOURCE, SOURCE, SOURCE). Symptoms are generally experienced in the first weeks after cessation and can last up to two weeks (SOURCE, SOURCE). 

Cannabis-Induced Mental & Physical Disorders

It’s worth noting there are both mental and physical risks in using cannabis. 

The DSM V accounts for cannabis-induced mental disorders including anxiety, depression, personality changes, and psychosis. These disorders are potentially severe though temporary and resolve with the discontinuation of use (SOURCE, SOURCE, SOURCE).

There are many physical health risks to keep in mind in using cannabis including lung damage, bronchial dilation, heart attack, Brian gliomas, prostate and cervical cancer, and use during pregnancy can led to neurological developmental difficulties.

Many studies also show the significantly decreased IQ (SOURCE). 

What Contributes to Cannabis Addiction?

Defining addiction is heavily weighted by the physiological manifestation of tolerance, dependence and withdrawal. Strong indicators are behavioral, compulsive use, and relapse. 

Simply put here are some questions you should consider if you’re concerned about your use:

-How much cannabis are you using? 

-How often are you using cannabis? 

-What are the circumstances? 

-What do you experience when you stop using cannabis? 

-And can you stop using without consequence?

Need More Info…?

So yes, cannabis is addictive but has much lower probability of occurrence.  But the potential for addiction still does exist. The most important thing to consider is the effect it’s having on your life.

So did your answers surprise you? Are you concerned about your use? There’s help. Please know there’s always help. Consult your doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, etc… If you need a referral, please get in touch. 



About Laura Geftman, LCSW

Laura Geftman, LCSW

Laura Geftman, LCSW is the Founder of The Calm, Cool & Collected and a practicing therapist. Beyond all things cannabis and mental health, Laura is passionate about developing greater understanding for kindness and acceptance. In her free time, Laura can be found on her yoga mat, in a kayak or singing karaoke.



This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Rosie Law

    Cannabis just got passed in my state for medical use. I wrote a paper on medical cannabis back in 2009 and I was surprised back then on the ways that it was helpful for those with medical needs.

    1. WelcomingWeed

      Wow! Rosie, would you consider letting me read your paper? I would love to! Let me know! And yes cannabis certainly has many medicinal qualities but for some it is addictive. It’s really important for each individual to understand their own use!

  2. Rosemary

    Thank you for all this information. This subject has been an on-going debate in my family for years.

    1. WelcomingWeed

      Hi Rosemary, Yup I’m not surprised. The fact that cannabis is addictive lives in a gray area for many reasons. I’d be curious about what’s been debated in your family and happy to clear up any misconceptions. Let me know! Thanks!

  3. Katy

    An extremely informative article!

  4. Ili

    This is always been a topic in my family. I grew up in Hawaii, cannabis is easily accessible. Some family members feel that it’s natural and harmless. Others think that if it alters your mental state it’s not good for you. I’ve seen family members that use cannabis regularly transition to harder drugs and get addicted. I have also seen family members that use cannabis regularly be able to function and take care of business. This topic is becoming more prevalent because now different states are legalizing it. Interesting read. Thanks for the info…

    1. WelcomingWeed

      Aloha Ili! Thank you for your comment! This is a topic there’s SO MUCH confusion about. It really comes down to how you use it and how it effects you life. The onset for cannabis addiction is much slower than other drugs which also confuses the issue, and everyone reacts to it very differently. Some people need an altered mental state to be focused and higher-functioning. While others cannot function having used cannabis. It also come down to the type and amount a person uses. But at the end of the day for some people- it is addictive as people cannot stop using, have symptoms of withdrawal when they don’t use, and find that it irreconcilably effect their lives. I hope that helps! Please let me know if you have anymore questions or concerns! Happy to address them!

  5. Pam

    Interesting – very well researched as usual!

  6. Kat

    This is a subject i know a lot about and you did a good job outlining it! My farther works in the field so i grew up learning about it.

  7. Mrs. SBF

    So much information! Thanks for your dedication to researching the topic!

  8. Katie

    I love that you are transparent and address the possibility of addiction even though many people believe it’s not possible! People with addictive personalities aren’ t immune even though the risk is lower. Thank you for addressing this and backing it up with sources!

    1. WelcomingWeed

      Oh Katie! You are so welcomed! This is ultimately why I started this blog! Cannabis can be fun for lots of people but not as fun for others! I just wanted to get really clear about this myself and I decided to let others know as well! Thanks for your comment!

  9. Melissa Parcel

    Fascinating information. You gave many points that I had not considered before.

  10. gail

    I didn’t realize there could be withdrawal symptoms!

    1. WelcomingWeed

      Hi Gail! Most people don’t realize! But yes there certainly are symptoms! Again not everyone experiences cannabis use the same way but cannabis withdrawal can be a problem for some! Take good care!

  11. Christa

    This is such useful information. I live in a state with recreational marijuana, and there is still so educating that has to happen. Thank you for sharing!

    1. WelcomingWeed

      Hi Christa! Thanks for your comment! Please know I’m open to suggestions!!!

  12. Annick

    I’m glad you’re getting more information out there. As we learn more about marijuana we can understand the differences between it and other drug.

  13. Great research you have ! I only know that cannabis help people with chronic pain or insomnia.

  14. Ruth Iaela-Pukahi

    My ex-husband would tell me a lot about cannabis, we call weed or pakalolo here in Hawaii. He would always tell me how it’s not addictive or bad. I could never completely believe him especially when it was one of the reasons we divorced. He would smoke with friends at the beach then wouldn’t drive home cause he didn’t feel it was safe, so much time wasted. On the other side I know of how it can be helpful medically. Our Hawaiian Queen used it to deal with her monthly cramps. My new mother in law smokes to help with her Parkinsons, helps her sleep better at night. My feelings are like any helpful medical drug, it shouldn’t be taken “for fun” but for helpful health reasons.

  15. T.M. Brown

    There is still some much to learn and research. Thank you for your dedication to providing what you know.

  16. Tina

    Great article – I love that you clearly address both the positives and negatives of weed. I know several people who benefit medically from it, as it helps with pain, anxiety, and a general relaxant. But I also know others who use it all day and it interferes with their daily functioning. As anything, moderation is key.

  17. Heidi

    Interesting information!

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