According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. As of the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), nearly nine percent of the American population aged 12 and older were considered to be current users of marijuana, equating to 24 million people.
In recent years, the drug has been decriminalized in many states. Although it remains illegal at the federal level, 30 states have legalized the drug in some form, The Washington Post reports.
There is a common misconception that marijuana is safe because it comes from a plant and is therefore “natural.” This belief is furthered because it has been legalized, at least for medicinal purposes, in most states, and it is also legal for recreational use in several states. In reality, it is not safe, and regular use can lead to addiction.
If you have a friend who is dealing with a marijuana use problem, there are various things you can do to help. First, it’s helpful to learn more about the drug and how it affects users.
Marijuana contains more than 400 chemicals, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warns, and it has mind-altering properties. The psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain, causing a person to experience both hallucinogenic and depressant effects:
- Marijuana can alter the senses
- Distort time perception
- Interfere with learning, thinking, and memory functions
- Impair coordination, movement, and balance
- Lower inhibitions and therefore increase the odds for potentially risky behaviors
- Make a person feel relaxed and drowsy
- Increase appetite
- Change moods, often resulting in a mellow high
Regular use of marijuana increases all of the potential side effects of the drug. Such use also carries additional risks, including addiction, which can have far-reaching ramifications and negative consequences.
An Addictive Drug
NIDA estimates that approximately one-third of everyone who uses marijuana struggles with at least some level of a marijuana use disorder. If a person uses it before age 18, they have four to seven times increased odds that they will battle an addiction as an adult compared to people who begin using the drug as an adult.
The reason is that marijuana impacts brain development. The journal Current Pharmaceutical Design reports that adolescent use of marijuana damages brain function and structure, and it can even cause long-term problems with thinking, learning, memory, and mood regulation.
According to the California Society of Addiction Medicine (CSAM), marijuana’s impact on the brain’s reward system can be a factor in making it an addictive substance. When a person uses marijuana, the drug fills the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, activating them and also increasing levels of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the “feel-good” chemical messenger that tells a person when to be happy. It is this surge of dopamine that causes the high people experience.
With regular and repeated use, the brain can become physically dependent on the drug and struggle to keep levels of dopamine regulated without it. When marijuana wears off, drug cravings and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms can occur, leaving a person feeling irritable, agitated, angry, anxious, depressed, unmotivated, mentally “foggy,” and restless. Physical withdrawal symptoms of marijuana include insomnia and strange dreams, chills, sweating, nausea, stomach upset, shakiness, and headaches.
The more marijuana a person uses, and the more regularly they use it, and the more likely they are to struggle with addiction to the drug. Again, use at a younger age can also raise the risk for addiction as well as behavioral and cognitive issues later in life.
Not everyone who uses the marijuana will suffer from addiction. There are some warning signs to watch for if you suspect a friend has a problem with marijuana use.
They may smoke or ingest more in a sitting than they meant to or use it for a longer period of time than they intended.
Cravings For Marijuana
These are strong urges to take more of the drug.
Desire To Stop Using Drugs
A person may make multiple attempts to cut back or stop using marijuana to no avail.
They may spend most of their time figuring out how and where to get it, using it, and then recovering from the effects of the drug.
Shifts In Priorities
Someone who is abusing marijuana will often give up social and recreational events or activities that were previously important to use the drug instead.
Marijuana In Situations
Using marijuana in situations that can be physically dangerous: They may use it in ways or places that could result in physical harm.
They will keep using the drug even with the knowledge that it will be physically, emotionally, or socially harmful to them.
Drug Tolerance And Withdrawal Symptoms
The person will have to take more of the drug each time in order to feel the desired effects and will also likely suffer from withdrawal symptoms when the drug wears off.
Inability To Keep Up
Inability to keep up with school, family, and/or work obligations: This often results in poor work or school performance and difficulties at home.
Changes In Physical Appearance
Marijuana use impacts appetite, and this can lead to weight fluctuation. Those battling addiction also often have irregular sleep patterns and neglect personal hygiene; as a result, physical appearance can decline.
When under the influence of marijuana, a person may be mellow, content, relaxed, and pleasant; however, when it wears off, the opposite can be true. Mood swings can be unpredictable, lead to uncharacteristic behaviors, and even sometimes involve a complete personality change.
The person may begin to have problems with money as more and more is spent on marijuana. Work production can slide, leading to issues with employment.
Possible Criminal Or Legal Problems
Marijuana is still considered an illegal drug federally, classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the DEA. Possession, sale, and use of it can lead to legal and/or criminal charges.
Regular use of marijuana impacts regular brain functioning, making it harder for a person to think clearly, solve problems, remember things accurately, and feel motivated to do much of anything. In fact, long-term use can lead to the onset of amotivational syndrome, the journal Preventative Science publishes, which can cause apathy and lack of motivation and ambition. This can cause people to be less self-efficient and less able to take positive initiatives in their lives.
Heavy use can heighten a person’s risk for psychosis, hallucinations, and delusions, as well as the odds for suffering from depression and possible earlier onset schizophrenia in adolescents who are predisposed to the disease, the DEA warns. Smoking marijuana increases the risk for developing head, throat, neck, lunch, and respiratory tract cancers as well as emphysema, bronchitis, and bronchial asthma. Chronic marijuana use can also damage the immune system and make a person more prone to illness.
Getting Help for a Friend Battling Marijuana Abuse and Addiction
When a friend is struggling with problematic marijuana abuse, it is likely impacting many parts of their life. These effects are felt socially, physically, emotionally, financially, occupationally, legally, and personally.
You can help your friend to recognize that their marijuana use is an issue. Highlight the negative effects the use is having on their life. Many times this can be accomplished via short conversations that are assertive but not aggressive, and full of love and empathy.
Keep reminding your friend how much they are loved and how their drug use is influencing the people around them. Be specific when talking about certain events or times where their drug use had a personal impact. For instance, remind them of the time when they were unable to go to work and finish a project because they were stoned and you covered for them. Talk about the times you have loaned them money for rent or other bills because they spent their paycheck on marijuana. Be honest and caring without threatening or pointing fingers.
A professional interventionist can help friends and families to stage a formal intervention. An intervention is a structured and well-planned meeting between the person struggling with drug abuse and their inner circle of loved ones. During this intervention, friends and family members will share specific instances when the drug abuse affected them, and offer support and encouragement to get professional help.
The goal of an intervention is to help the person get into a treatment program. It is helpful if those hosting an intervention conduct research on treatment options ahead of time. This way, the person has options and can make the decision to enter directly into a program of their choice.
It is also important to have consequences laid out ahead of time that you are willing to stick to if a person decides not to go to treatment. Enabling behaviors need to stop, and the person who is abusing marijuana needs to understand that positive change is necessary. Friends may tell the person that they will no longer cover for them at work, loan them money, or otherwise support their addiction.
Resources for Addiction Treatment
One of the best things a friend can do for a loved one battling marijuana use disorder is to connect them with help. Compiling resources can make the process easier for them, helping them to reach out for help faster.
There are many different forms of marijuana abuse and addiction treatment available, ranging from outpatient programs to residential options. NIDA reports that there are more than 14,500 specialized drug addiction treatment centers in the United States.
Some of the resources below can provide support and information as you help your friend.
Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator: Operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), this tool offers the ability to search by zip code to find nearby treatment options.
National Helpline: This confidential and free service offers information and referral services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Marijuana Anonymous (MA): This 12-step program provides support groups, self-help information, and local resources for families, loved ones, and those struggling with marijuana addiction.
SMART Recovery: This is an alternative to AA, providing a form of peer support.
NIDA Treatment Information: This resource contains information on the types and forms of treatment that are helpful for marijuana abuse and addiction.
NIDA for Teens: This group provides information on marijuana abuse that is geared toward adolescents and teens.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): Information on mental illness, how to reduce the stigma associated with addiction, and how and where to seek help is available here.