Marijuana Abuse and Addiction: Know the Signs

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Marijuana comes from the Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica plant. It’s often made from the dried leaves and flowers of the plant and even the seeds and stems. It contains a chemical called THC, which is a psychoactive chemical.

While many people use marijuana (it's the third most commonly used addictive drug, after tobacco and alcohol) most won't become addicted. About 1 in 10 people who use marijuana will become addicted; when they start using before the age of 18, the number increases to 1 in 6.

Marijuana Abuse Symptoms - Illustration by Danie Drawnkwalter

Verywell / Danie Drankwalter

Research suggests that about 30% of people who use marijuana might have marijuana use disorder, the severity of which can vary.

Cannabis use disorder is widely defined as problematic use of cannabis that results in significant distress or impairment with at least two issues within a 12-month period, like the substance use results in not being able to meet work, social, or familial obligations, or the substance use continues even after it's affected or caused interpersonal issues.

Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Abuse and Addiction

When someone you love is abusing marijuana or addicted to it, there are often signs and symptoms to look for. Knowing what these are can help you approach your loved one in a caring way.

Marijuana Abuse

Drug abuse is when a person's drug use causes significant negative effects. This can include missing work or school, getting in trouble with the law or school authorities, or putting oneself in dangerous situations.

Signs of marijuana abuse can include:

  • Using more of the drug to get desired effects
  • Craving the substance
  • Abandoning loved activities because of the drug use
  • Repeatedly trying to cut back or stop using, to no avail
  • Spending a lot of time searching for, using, or recovering from drug use
  • Taking risks while under the influence

These signs, along with any negative consequences from marijuana use, may signal a drug abuse problem.

Marijuana Addiction

Addiction is when a drug continues to be abused even when problems related to the drug use occur. Severe drug abuse is typically classified as drug addiction.

Signs of Addiction

Signs of addiction can include:

  • Tolerance to the drug and using more of it
  • Withdrawal symptoms occur if less is used or if you stop using it
  • Withdraw from social activities
  • Continued use despite awareness of all of the problems associated with the drug use

Withdrawal Symptoms

Cannabis withdrawal syndrome is now found in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition" (DSM-5). It's characterized by the presence of at least three of these symptoms and develops within seven days of reduced marijuana use:

  • Irritability, anger, or aggression
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Restlessness
  • Depressed mood
  • Somatic symptoms: headache, nausea, sweating

Who Is At Risk for Marijuana Abuse?

Although anyone who uses marijuana has the potential to abuse it, there are risk factors that can make marijuana abuse more likely. Having these risk factors doesn't mean you definitely will develop a substance abuse problem, but you may be more at risk.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

There are various risk factors that can increase your risk of developing a substance abuse problem. These can include:

  • Poverty
  • Family history of addiction
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Lack of parental involvement
  • Abuse
  • Personal mental illness, including depression and anxiety
  • Learning disorders
  • ADHD

Protective factors can help people avoid substance use disorders. Things like extended family support, language-based discipline from parents, and a supportive peer group can help counteract some risk factors.

Marijuana Abuse in Teens

Teens naturally take risks and push the envelope. Many teens will try illicit substances.

The teenage brain is immature and still developing. If marijuana is abused during these years, it can interfere with brain development. Side effects can include:

  • Trouble thinking and concentrating
  • Memory, learning, and attention problems
  • Increased risk of mental health issues
  • Increased risk of addiction

What Are Signs My Teen Is Marijuana?

Signs of marijuana use can include:

  • Smelling like pot
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Mood swings
  • Laziness and tiredness
  • Paranoia
  • Marijuana accessories like bongs or pipes


Marijuana Abuse in Pregnancy

Marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug during pregnancy.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there's no safe amount of marijuana during pregnancy or breastfeeding. In addition to THC, there are almost 500 chemicals in marijuana.

These chemicals can cross the placenta and affect the fetus. Many studies have been done on the effects of marijuana abuse during pregnancy, and results are conflicting, possibly because of other substances used and/or abused during pregnancy, including tobacco.

There are studies of children whose mothers used marijuana when pregnant with them. These children were found to have decreased verbal reasoning skills and more hyperactivity, impulsivity, and decreased attention.

However, there may be other reasons for these findings and more research is necessary.

Treatment for Marijuana Abuse

There's treatment for marijuana abuse. If you think you might have a problem, there's help out there.

Talk Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational enhancement therapy (MET), and contingency management (CM) have all been used in treating cannabis use disorder, and it was found that a combination of all three might be most effective.

CBT helps people identify why they use, develop relapse prevention and coping skills, and come up with more effective behaviors.

MET is based on motivational interviewing and helps to increase changes in behavior by giving nonjudgmental feedback and helping people set goals.

CM uses operant conditioning with a target behavior; this means that the desired behavior is rewarded and reinforced to increase the likelihood of it occurring again.

Support Groups

Support groups may be another option for treatment. Finding others who are dealing with the same issues as you can be validating, and you can learn from one another about different ways to cope. Marijuana Anonymous is one such support group based on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Motivational Incentives

Motivational incentives are part of CM, since it uses operant conditioning on positive behaviors you want to increase. The incentives are most effective when there are plenty of opportunities to get reinforcement. The reinforcement immediately follows the behavior, and the value of the motivator is significant to the person.

Medication for Underlying Conditions

Cannabis use disorder is significantly higher in those with mental illness than in the general population.

Cannabis use disorder is higher in those who have:

Accurate diagnosis of mental health disorders and appropriate treatment, including medication, may help to reduce attempts to self-medicate with marijuana.

Coping With Marijuana Abuse

It can be hard when you’re living with marijuana abuse or watching someone you care about deal with it. You don’t have to manage it alone. Talk with your healthcare professional. They can help identify treatment options that are appropriate for your situation and provide resources for family and friends.

Other things you can do to help cope with abuse or addiction include:

  • Seek counseling with a licensed counselor.
  • Attend a support group.
  • Keep your schedule busy with other sober individuals so you're not tempted to use.
  • Adopt stress-relieving activities like exercise, yoga, or other things that help relax you.

Outlook

With the ongoing legalization of marijuana in the United States and around the world, it can be hard to say how this will impact marijuana use and abuse. More research needs to be done on potential treatments for marijuana abuse and how to increase support and accessibility for existing treatments.

Marijuana Use

Many people can use marijuana safely without becoming addicted or abusing it. But like any mind-altering substance, there's always a chance that it can become problematic. This is nothing to be ashamed about. There is effective treatment available for you.

Preventing Marijuana Use and Addiction

Many people think marijuana use is harmless, especially because it’s a natural product. While many people are able to use it without becoming addicted or abusing it, it's not a benign substance. Even though you may not be able to prevent marijuana abuse and addiction, there are things you can do to reduce the risk.

Tips for Reducing Addiction Risk

  • Increase family support and supervision.
  • Discuss the risks and side effects of drugs, including marijuana.
  • Encourage open conversations about substances and risks.
  • Model healthy behavior.
  • Implement prevention programs in schools and communities.

Summary

Although marijuana is becoming legal in more states, there's still the potential for abuse and addiction. Using more to get the same effect, giving up once-loved activities in order to use, and withdrawal symptoms like irritability, mood changes, and disruptions to sleep and/or appetite can all signal that someone might be experiencing marijuana abuse.

There are multiple treatments available, like talk therapy, support groups, and even medication when necessary for underlying issues. Recovery is possible.

A Word From VeryWell

Many people use marijuana at one point or another. However, if the use is becoming a need or you're experiencing negative consequences because of it, it may be a problem. If you or someone you love may be experiencing marijuana abuse or addiction, talk with a trusted healthcare professional. They will work with you to get properly evaluated and the appropriate treatment.

Drug abuse and addiction can be scary and uncertain, but it's treatable, and there's help out there. There are a variety of treatments available, and if one doesn’t work, another one may be better for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is marijuana addictive?

    It can be. Marijuana use can lead to dependence if a person has withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it.

    Addiction is when the person has to use it even after it negatively affects their life. It's hard to get accurate numbers because many studies conflate dependence and addiction. Still, those studies report about 9% of marijuana users will become dependent, and 17% if they start as a teenager.


  • Is marijuana a gateway drug?

    More research needs to be done, but it might be a gateway drug for some people more at risk than others.

Was this page helpful?
15 Sources
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.
  1. National Institutes of Health. What is marijuana?

  2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Know the risks of marijuana.

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Is marijuana addictive?

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Substance abuse/chemical dependency.

  5. Bahji A, Stephenson C, Tyo R, et al. Prevalence of cannabis withdrawal symptoms among people with regular or dependent use of cannabinoids. JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(4):e202370. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.2370

  6. Youth.Gov. Risk and protective factors.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What you need to know about marijuana use in teens.

  8. American Addiction Centers. Signs of marijuana use in teens: how to tell if your child is high.

  9. Ryan SA, Ammerman SD, O'Connor ME, et al. Marijuana use during pregnancy and breastfeeding: Implications for neonatal and childhood outcomes. Pediatrics. 2018;142(3):e20181889. doi:10.1542/peds.2018-1889

  10. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Marijuana and pregnancy.

  11. Stickrath E. Marijuana use in pregnancy: An updated look at marijuana use and its impact on pregnancy. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2019;62(1):185-190. doi:10.1097/GRF.0000000000000415

  12. Sherman BJ, McRae-Clark AL. Treatment of cannabis use disorder: current science and future outlook. Pharmacotherapy. 2016;36(5):511-535. doi:10.1002/phar.1747

  13. Marijuana Anonymous.

  14. Lowe DJE, Sasiadek JD, Coles AS, George TP. Cannabis and mental illness: a review. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2019;269(1):107-120. doi:10.1007/s00406-018-0970-7

  15. Williams AR. Cannabis as a gateway drug for opioid use disorder. J Law Med Ethics. 2020;48(2):268-274. doi:10.1177/1073110520935338