What are marijuana abuse and addiction?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States. It’s usually smoked in a pipe or a cigarette. It can also be eaten.

The mind-altering ingredient in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The amount of THC in marijuana varies. It’s common for marijuana to contain anywhere from 1 to 7 percent THC.

When marijuana enters your body, THC passes through your bloodstream and to the brain. The chemical targets certain brain cells called cannabinoid receptors. A large percentage of these receptive cells exist in the parts of the brain that influence memory, coordination, sensory perception, and thinking.

A doctor may prescribe you medical marijuana to treat certain health conditions. Uncontrollable or overly frequent marijuana consumption without a doctor’s prescription may indicate abuse.

Abusing marijuana can have negative health effects. It can also lead to addiction.

Read more: 18 effects of marijuana on the body »


Marijuana produces several symptoms in your body and mind. Symptoms can vary from person to person based on their genetics. Other factors that can come into play are the marijuana’s strength, as well as how you take it. Your previous experiences using marijuana can also affect your reaction to the drug.

Some symptoms are temporary, but many can last longer. Long-term symptoms may lead to physical and mental complications.

Symptoms of marijuana abuse can occur in both occasional and chronic uses of the drug. Common temporary symptoms include:

  • heightened awareness and sensations
  • elevated heart rate
  • euphoria
  • increased appetite
  • mood changes
  • decreased coordination
  • decreased concentration
  • decreased energy
  • difficulty solving problems
  • memory problems
  • trouble sleeping

Long-term use of marijuana can lead to more lasting and serious complications. Long-term physical complications include:

  • damage to the lungs
  • heart problems
  • a weaker immune system
  • learning problems

Long-term mental complications include:

  • paranoia
  • hallucinations
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • suicidal thoughts
  • exacerbating a preexisting condition of schizophrenia


As with other types of illicit drugs, marijuana abuse can lead to addiction. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about one in every 11 marijuana users will become addicted.

The difference between abuse and addiction is defined less by how often a person engages in an activity and more by how difficult it is for a person to cope without the activity or stop it for any length of time. It is difficult to say how much marijuana use causes dependence. It likely varies among individuals. It’s also possible for you to become dependent on marijuana without becoming addicted. Dependence and addiction occur in two different areas of the brain. However, it’s common for dependence and addiction to develop together.

Marijuana potency has increased in the past 20 years. A stronger THC level increases the chances of addiction. According to the Office of Alcohol and Drug Education, addiction is likely both physical and psychological. When physically addicted, your body craves the drug. When psychologically addicted, you consciously desire the drug’s effects.

Symptoms of marijuana addiction are similar to symptoms of addiction to other drugs.

Common symptoms are:

  • increased tolerance
  • continued use, even if it interferes with other areas of life
  • disengagement from friends and family
  • withdrawal symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms generally start about three weeks after the last use. Marijuana addiction withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • nausea
  • tremors
  • anxiety
  • weight loss
  • insomnia
  • irritability
  • depression
  • restlessness
  • cravings

Read more: What is addiction? »

According to NIDA, teenagers who abuse marijuana are more at risk for developing brain problems. Studies suggest that chronic marijuana use during these early years of critical brain development can lead to long-term or permanent loss of mental abilities. THC targets the receptors that affect memory, thinking, and learning. This can have lasting effects, even years after stopping the drug.

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America revealed a loss of an average of eight IQ points in persons between the ages of 13 and 38 who started smoking in their teens and continued to chronically use marijuana into adulthood. Even those who stopped using marijuana as adults still did not regain full mental capabilities. There were no significant IQ declines in individuals who began chronically smoking as adults.

The risk of developmental and behavioral problems in babies increases with marijuana abuse during a woman’s pregnancy. According to NIDA, children born from a mother who abuses the drug may experience difficultly in the areas of memory, focusing, and learning. The specific effects on the brain of a developing fetus are still unknown.

Research has also found sufficient levels of THC in breast milk from mothers who use marijuana. Healthcare professionals thus urge mothers to abstain from using marijuana while breastfeeding.

Learn more: Cannabis during pregnancy impairs baby’s brain development »

Anyone who uses marijuana can become addicted.

Additional risk factors for substance abuse include:

  • a family history of addiction
  • a psychiatric disorder
  • a lack of family involvement

Learn more: Recognizing an addiction problem »

Treatment for addiction may include counseling. This can help the person to deal with coexisting addictions or psychiatric problems. People who are addicted to marijuana are commonly addicted to other substances.

Types of counseling include:

Some beneficial online abuse and addiction help resources include:

Medication to treat marijuana withdrawal symptoms is not presently available.

Learn more: Approaching and helping an addict »

The outlook for marijuana addiction depends on how long a person has been using the drug and whether they are addicted to other substances. Various treatments can be very effective and long-lasting, though relapse is a common issue. According to NIDA, about 50 percent of people in treatment go longer than two weeks without using marijuana.

The best way to prevent marijuana abuse and addiction is to avoid using the drug, unless a medical professional prescribes it to you. Always use prescribed medications only as recommended.

Other ways you can prevent marijuana abuse and addiction are to surround yourself with supportive family and friends that you can trust. It’s also beneficial to maintain a healthy, balanced diet and get plenty of exercise. Learning coping strategies to help with stress, such as mindfulness, can also play a helpful role.