WHEN THE STATES OF WASHINGTON AND COLORADO DECRIMINALIZED THE SALE AND USE OF MARIJUANA, IT THRUST THE DRUG INTO THE FOREFRONT OF PUBLIC DEBATE.
While marijuana is known for not being as addictive, powerful, or harmful as other illicit substances (hence the push to legalize it), it can still cause addictions and have negative physical, mental and behavioral effects on a user. It may appear innocuous, but a marijuana addiction is a real thing, and so is treatment for it.
How Popular Is Pot?
As recently as 2012, TIME magazine profiled marijuana (in this context, also known as cannabis) as “the most popular drug in the world,” citing a United Nations report on global drug use that said up to 224 million adults use it. Another study, published in The Lancet, found that marijuana is the most popular illegal drug in the world.
An August 2013 Gallup poll found that 38 percent of the American population had tried marijuana at least once. That number dropped to seven percent for the number of people who currently smoke marijuana regularly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poll found that middle-aged people have the most experience with marijuana, while young adults (18 to 29) ranked highest among those who currently use it.
In terms of gender, there is not much difference between the percentage of men who smoke marijuana (eight percent) and the number of women who smoke it (six percent). The poll found that ethnicity or income bracket does not account for significant differences in terms of which population smokes marijuana more.
The Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Abuse
Abusing marijuana leaves many telltale signs, both of its physical intake and in the behavior and thought process of the user.
Since marijuana requires some paraphernalia in order to be smoked properly, a user may have the following items in their possession:
- Specific types of pipes
- Rolling paper
While these items are specific to making or smoking marijuana, the U.S. Department of Justice defines drug paraphernalia as any equipment that is used to create, hide or use illicit drugs. Since this is such a big umbrella, and drug users are notorious for being improvisational when it comes to their drugs, even everyday items like aluminum foil and soda cans can be repurposed for the intention of producing, concealing, or consuming marijuana.
Someone trying to hide evidence of their marijuana smoking might do so by placing a rolled up towel at the foot of the door to the room where they are smoking, to prevent the smell from spreading. This is similar to placing a rolled up towel at the foot of a door to prevent smoke inhalation in the event of a fire.
Those are some of the physical signs of marijuana abuse, but what happens to the human body once cannabis is in its system? One of the most visible signs of marijuana abuse is the reddish tint in the eyes of the smoker. This is because smoking marijuana can cause the capillaries in the pupils to dilate. A user may attempt to cover this up by using eye drops to return their eyes to a normal hue.
Marijuana is famous for being a relaxant, so someone who is high on the drug may appear lethargic, lazy, or very contentedly bored. Their reflexes will be slower, they may have a difficult time following a conversation or coordinating their muscles, and their speech may become slurred and disjointed. Drugs.com warns that cannabis should not be used while operating heavy machinery
Another distinctive sign of marijuana usage is an increase in appetite, famously known as “the munchies.” According to the Smithsonian magazine, THC – the most active chemical compound in cannabis – increases sensitivity to the scents and taste of food, compelling smokers to eat while high. This is one reason that medical marijuana is prescribed to patients undergoing therapies that rob them of their appetite, such as chemotherapy for cancer patients.
Other effects of marijuana include a heightened sensitivity – music sounds better, food tastes better, etc. – and an altered sense of the passage of time. Frequently losing track of time could be a sign of marijuana abuse. Short-term memory impairment is another symptom, as THC literally “weakens neuronal connections,” per the The Guardian.
Marijuana can also make its smokers detached or uninterested in their lives. They may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed doing, preferring instead to smoke or simply not do anything at all.
A common side effect of smoking marijuana is that it can make users paranoid. THC alters a smoker’s perceptions so much that, in the words of TIME magazine, they become scared of things that would normally not bother them.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
One of the concerns cited about marijuana is that even though it is a relatively safe drug compared to cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, etc., it may lower inhibitions to the point where a user cannot resist the temptation to try harder drugs (i.e., marijuana acts as a gateway to more serious forms of substance abuse).
A 2000 study done for the journal Addiction found that participants in the study who used marijuana more than 50 instances in a year had experimented with controlled substances up to 140 times more than non-marijuana users. The study’s authors concluded that smoking marijuana was “strongly related” but non-causal to experimentation with more dangerous drugs.
Because marijuana is a relaxant, some people use it in conjunction with stimulatory drugs, like cocaine, to try and control the more powerful effects of the stimulant. The idea is that the marijuana will balance out the worst of cocaine’s effects (anxiety, paranoia, hypertension, etc.) while still allowing the user to feel the addictive euphoria of cocaine. In reality, the user often overcompensates on one drug or the other – they don’t feel relaxed enough so they take increased amounts of marijuana, or they don’t feel enough of a cocaine rush, so they take increased amounts of cocaine. They may even increase their intake of both marijuana and stimulant, putting them at grave risk for overdose or even death.
What Happens in Marijuana Rehab?
Marijuana is perhaps not as damaging as many other recreational drugs, but it can still wreak havoc on a person’s life and family. The National Institute on Drug Abuse cites a 2010 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration when it says that nine percent of people who smoke marijuana will develop a dependence on it. An addiction to marijuana is defined by the inability to stop smoking marijuana, withdrawal symptoms that occur when a user attempts to stop smoking, attempts to hide the smoking of marijuana from spouses, parents or other significant people in the smoker’s life, and the action of smoking marijuana having a direct negative effect on the smoker’s life.
If a patient wants to get clean, a professional treatment center can help them to start the rehabilitation process. The first step would be to remove the user from the people and environments that might have enabled or encouraged the addiction by having the user stay at a specialized, safe, and monitored treatment facility. This will allow the patient to detox – to purge their body of its physical dependence on marijuana. Detox can be an uncomfortable process, putting the user through periods of anxiety, stress, and other types of physical disquiet.
For this reason, treatment centers will sometimes administer anti-anxiety medications like diazepam (Valium) and lorazepam (Ativan), depending on the user’s pre-existing conditions and how difficult the detoxification process is for them. This helps the user make the transition while their body adjusts to their new post-marijuana life.
Once the detoxification process is complete, the patient will then start therapy and counseling. This stage has two purposes: helping the patient understand why they turned to marijuana and allowed their usage to get out of control, and helping the patient to develop thought processes, behaviors and skills that will enable them to stay clean and clear of using marijuana again.
This arm of treatment can utilize specific approaches, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBTseeks to change the way patients think and act about the drugs they used to take and the triggers that used to compel them to use the drugs. CBT in marijuana rehab, for example, would help patients understand more positive and healthy ways of dealing with situations that their previous selves would have used as an excuse to light up.
Other forms of psychotherapy as part of marijuana rehabilitation might involve making friends and family a part of the treatment process, so a patient will have to confront how their smoking habit has damaged their relationships, and use this knowledge as a motivator to get clean. The presence of friends and family as an active part of treatment will also create accountability partners, who can help the patient remain sober when the temptation to smoke (to relieve stress, for example) inevitably becomes too much to bear on their own.
Getting Treatment for Marijuana
While there is an entire genre of entertainment based on poking fun at the stereotypes and culture of marijuana, the actual addictions that can arise as a result of marijuana abuse are no laughing matter.
If you are, or someone you know is, showing signs of an addiction to marijuana, we can give you answers to your questions about treatment. Taking that first step by admitting that you smoke too much marijuana and that you need help to stop is a big step and a courageous one. Asking for trained, professional assistance is the next step. Just call us to get started on getting healthy again.
David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton