Is Marijuana Addictive?

In light of the legalization of marijuana, many people have wondered about the substance, its safety, and whether it's addictive. Marijuana—also called weed, cannabis, and other names—is a species of plant that is used as a medical and recreational drug.

People can become addicted to marijuana. While it is possible to try and use the substance without becoming addicted, that is not the case for everyone. There are risks of use, even medicinally, and addiction is one of them.

Like any drug used medicinally, the potential risks of use are weighed against the potential benefits when deciding what should and should not be tried. Learn more about marijuana addiction, risk factors, effects on the brain, and more.

a man and woman sitting across from each other smoking

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Is Marijuana Addictive?

While some people can try and use marijuana without becoming addicted, it can also be addictive for some people. Marijuana use disorder, also known as cannabis use disorder, is when the use of marijuana negatively impacts a person's health or life but they continue to use it anyway.

Although the numbers are not entirely known, it is estimated that 6.3 percent of adults have experienced marijuana use disorder, and that percentage is increasing. As many as 30 percent of people who use marijuana may experience marijuana use disorder. Marijuana use can also be associated with addiction and dependency.

Addiction vs. Dependency

Addiction and dependency are two terms that are often used interchangeably. There are differences between the two.

Addiction happens when a person uses a substance such as alcohol, marijuana, or another drug in excess. It is usually marked by a change in behavior, where the person becomes consistently focused on using that substance regardless of potential negative outcomes. Addiction can be physical, psychological, or both at the same time.

Substance dependence, also called chemical dependence, is when a person experiences physical dependence on a substance but is not addicted to it. One example is when a person who has taken a prescription medication for a long time stops taking that medication and experiences physical or mental withdrawal symptoms. Dependence symptoms can be cognitive, behavioral, and physical.

Dependence presents as a pattern. A person first uses a substance such as marijuana repeatedly. After regular use over time, they build a tolerance, where the effects of the substance are not noticed as much or at all. The person experiences symptoms when they stop using the substance, which makes them feel the need to use it again.

Symptoms of Cannabis Use Disorder

Cannabis use disorder, or marijuana use disorder, is when a person continues to use the substance even though they experience negative health or life effects from use. Symptoms include excessive focus on marijuana use; ignoring school, work, or relationships; other problems caused by marijuana use such as an inability to resist cravings; and more. These can range from mild to severe depending on the person.

Symptoms may include:

  • Changes in sleep, appetite, or mood
  • Cravings to use marijuana
  • Decreased control of marijuana use
  • Decreased fulfillment of responsibilities
  • Decline in school, work, or athletic performance
  • Headache, abdominal pain, chills, or sweating when not using
  • Needing to use more to get the same effect
  • Negative feelings associated with use
  • Overuse of marijuana and using more than intended
  • Risk-taking behaviors
  • Social withdrawal related to marijuana use

Risk Factors

One of the biggest risk factors of marijuana addiction may be age. People are up to seven times as likely to experience marijuana use disorder when they start using before the age of 18. Additionally, men are twice as likely as women to experience marijuana use disorder.

Other risk factors include:

  • Family history of substance use disorder
  • Friends and peers who use marijuana
  • Adverse childhood experiences such as sexual abuse
  • Use of cigarettes

Effect on the Brain

Marijuana use has a negative impact on the brain. THC, which stands for tetrahydrocannabinol, is the part of the cannabis plant that causes the mental effect. THC can cause changes to the brain that impact the structure and ability to function, including learning, memory, cognitive ability, and behavior—including future substance use. This is an increased concern for younger people exposed to THC, including babies during pregnancy.

The use of marijuana has also been found to be connected with lower IQ scores, compromised memory and cognitive ability, and decreased performance on tests. The negative effects of use appear to be more of an issue for those who use more often and over a longer period of time. However, research is limited and the details of the negative effects on the brain are not fully understood.

Is Recreational Marijuana to Blame?

The negative effects of marijuana are not limited to recreational marijuana. Medicinal marijuana use comes with risks too. Like other medicinal treatments for medical conditions, medicinal marijuana can have negative effects even though it is used to treat medical conditions.

Additionally, over 80 percent of people who use medicinal marijuana also use it recreationally. This can lead to more use and an increased risk of marijuana use disorder.

Medicinal Use of Marijuana

Medicinal marijuana is used to treat and manage a variety of medical concerns, including physical and mental health challenges. Despite the risks, studies of medicinal marijuana use have shown effectiveness. Nearly 90 percent of people who use medicinal marijuana claim that it helps them to manage their disease and symptoms, and many find that they are able to decrease their use of other medications.

Conditions commonly treated with medical marijuana include:

Marijuana Addiction Criteria

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) classifies the diagnostic criteria for cannabis use disorder. Use of the substance must be associated with impairment or distress. Diagnosis of this condition requires at least two of the 11 criteria within one year.

Cannabis Use Disorder DSM-5 Criteria

  • More use than intended
  • Unable to decrease use despite desire or effort
  • Excessive time spent on activities related to use, including getting access and recovering
  • Urges or cravings
  • Work, school, or home obligations not fulfilled due to use
  • A problem of social or interpersonal problems associated with use and continued use
  • Withdrawal from social, work, or recreational activities due to use despite importance
  • Physically hazardous use
  • Knowingly experiencing problems associated with use and continued use
  • Tolerance, defined by either needing more to get the effect or decreased effect with the same amount
  • Withdrawal, defined by either DSM-5 cannabis withdrawal symptoms or use of a substance to address symptoms of withdrawal

Help for Cannabis Use Disorder

Cannabis use disorder is treatable. This condition can be diagnosed by a healthcare professional such as a medical doctor or psychologist. Treatment methods include psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medications. More specifically, motivational interviewing, contingency management, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be used. Medications to control cravings may be used alongside nonmedicinal interventions.

Substance Use Helpline

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Summary

It is possible to become addicted to marijuana. Cannabis use disorder involves continued use of the substance even though the person experiences negative health or life effects from it. Men and young people are at an increased risk.

While this is a serious medical concern, it can also be treated. Healthcare professionals can support by diagnosing and then providing talk therapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

A Word From Verywell

Marijuana addiction can be challenging both for the person experiencing the addiction and for those around them. Marijuana use disorder, addiction, and dependence are treatable.

If you suspect marijuana use disorder, dependence, or addiction in yourself or someone else, help is available. Reach out to a healthcare professional such as a primary care provider or a psychologist for support. Substance use resources are also available in local communities and at the state level.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How addictive is marijuana compared to alcohol?

    Compared to alcohol, marijuana is considered to be less addictive for most people. However, that does not mean there are no risks, and marijuana can still be addictive.

  • What part of the brain does THC change?

    THC affects the hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex. This impairs focus, memory, and functioning. It can also be addictive.

  • Are medical marijuana patients at a higher risk of addiction?

    Compared to recreational marijuana, medicinal marijuana typically contains a higher percentage of cannabidiol (CBD) and lower percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), making it less likely to be addictive. However, it does contain THC and patients can become addicted.

  • How do you reset your tolerance?

    Tolerance for marijuana can be reset by taking a break from use. These breaks can range from a couple of days to a few weeks or even longer. Some people take breaks and decide they do not want to begin using marijuana again.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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