Any conscientious fan of cannabis will eventually ask themselves if it is addictive. And for those using cannabis daily, you may wonder if there is cause for concern. This is an important question to ask about any substance, as it indicates mindfulness and personal responsibility.
Overall, studies conducted on cannabis and addiction have concluded that more research and long-term data collection are required to understand the issue better. However, they are firm across the board that certain individuals can be more predisposed to addiction than others. Furthermore, they agree that when cannabis use begins in adolescence, it can become addictive. This also depends on the individual’s circumstances and emotional disposition, referred to in the literature as ‘affect.’
The good news is that these studies also indicate that moderate and mindful use in adults poses few problems. And even chronic use in adults only seems to cause addiction when other issues, such as depression and anxiety, are present.
Recreational Cannabis Use Vs Medical Cannabis Use
Please note that this article is specifically addressing recreational cannabis use. Self-medicating will be loosely considered recreational to discuss ways to avoid cannabis addiction later. It’s likely that a vast amount of cannabis users receive medicinal benefits from this wondrous plant. Even most users who consider their use recreational are likely to receive benefits even if it’s minimizing drugs or alcohol consumption, alleviating anxiety or depression, or allowing a restful night’s sleep. For most users there is a level of consumption (which is both individual and situationally based) where consuming more cannabis does not provide additional medicinal benefits and may cause negative effects in their everyday life.
This article does not address the particular situation of medical cannabis patients treating the symptoms and pain of disorders and diseases like fibromyalgia, HIV, and cancer. For a closer look at the medical benefits of cannabis, we recommend the following articles:
What Is Addiction?
First, to understand why ‘it depends’ if recreational cannabis use can lead to addiction, we need to understand the medical definition of addiction. A study conducted by Zehra and colleagues in 2018, makes extensive use of the Koob and Volkow method, evaluating addiction through three stages “marked by compulsive drug seeking and intake, loss of control in limiting intake, and the emergence of a negative emotional state when access to the drug is prevented.” (Zehra et al., 2018)
These three stages are:
2) withdrawal/negative affect, and
I guess it would be up to personal interpretation and self-examination to know whether an individual is addicted to some degree.
Is Cannabis Addictive?
Addiction specialist Gabor Maté emphasizes that humans can be addicted to just about anything that brings comfort. An article on his website posted by Stephanie Lee sums it up eloquently:
“Addiction is manifested in any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up. In brief: craving, relief, pleasure, suffering, impaired control. Note that this definition is not restricted to drugs but could encompass almost any human behaviour, from sex to eating to shopping to gambling to extreme sports to TV to compulsive internet use: the list is endless.” (Maté, 2017)
However, this doesn’t diminish the chemically addictive properties of drugs that directly and potently elicit a dopamine response. Nevertheless, the scientific method is often linear and necessarily myopic, demanding concrete outcomes for a hypothesis or abstract. Therefore “identifying why some individuals are more vulnerable than others to the adverse effects of cannabis is now of paramount importance to public health.” (Curran et al., 2016)
While CBD is considered benign and wholly nonaddictive, THC’s “psychoactive properties and effects on brain dopaminergic function” appear to give cannabis the propensity to become addictive. (Zehra et al., 2018)
What Can Cause Cannabis Addiction?
Chronic use, age, and affect (emotional disposition) are the key factors that lead to cannabis addiction. Heavy daily cannabis use, particularly in adolescents, has the potential to lead to long-term issues with memory and cognition. However, this causation has not been proven in adults.
Furthermore, not all adolescents are hardwired to become addicted to cannabis or adversely affected by it. In a study conducted by Thomsen and colleagues in 2018, it was demonstrated that adolescents displaying poor impulse control were far more likely to use cannabis chronically and become addicted as a result.
Self-Medicating With Cannabis
Social anxiety, depression, stress, and other mental health troubles can cause adolescents and adults alike to gravitate towards cannabis use as a form of self-medication. “Half of a group of adolescents undergoing treatment for cannabis withdrawal had at least one comorbid diagnosis of anxiety or depression; additionally, for these adolescents, greater cannabis use was associated with increased depressive and anxiety-like symptoms (Dotard et al., 2008).” (Zehra et al., 2018)
Indeed, with chronic use and the absence of other healthy dopamine-releasing activities like exercise and socializing, cannabis can become addicting. As cannabis becomes the key source of dopamine, frequent use creates a higher tolerance and a cycle that fosters dependence.
“Chronic cannabis use is associated with an increased risk of developing substance use disorders (SUD); about 9% of those who use cannabis present with characteristic symptoms of dependence according to DSM-IV criteria.” (ibid)
Are There Cannabis Withdrawal Symptoms?
Cessation of chronic cannabis use can result in some withdrawal symptoms, usually mood-related, within 1 to 2 days, lasting between 1 to 2 weeks. These effects are seen mostly in age ranges from 13 – 23. The most common symptoms are:
Anger or Aggression
Nervousness or anxiety
Decreased appetite or weight loss
There are sometimes physical symptoms, however, these are far less common (Zehra et al., 2018):
Avoiding Cannabis Addiction
While the withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, they are not dangerous and don’t last long. Tolerance breaks, a healthy lifestyle, and talk therapy are three effective ways to prevent cannabis addiction.
Take a Tolerance Break From Cannabis
Scientific studies have been unable to show that daily cannabis use causes any long-term effects in adults. However, heavy daily cannabis use can result in a high tolerance. And an increased tolerance for cannabis can diminish the desired effects.
High tolerance can lead to a situation that feels like an addiction, where you no longer get the same effects from a smaller dose and feel the need to take a higher dose. For any mindful cannabis user, this should be a cause for concern. However, it is easily corrected with a tolerance break.
While a daily user could opt to move from herb to concentrates to achieve a punchier high, a tolerance break is recommended before taking that plunge.
In general, tolerance occurs with daily, heavy cannabis use. Our endocannabinoid system naturally produces and releases anandamide, the body’s endogenous THC molecule, in response to various internal and external triggers. Therefore, when our CB1 and CB2 receptors are already fully occupied by THC, our endocannabinoid system might slow the production of anandamide. This is what causes dependence. If you’re interested in learning how cannabinoids naturally interact with our mind and body, read our article “What Is the Endocannabinoid System?”
Just as taking a break from drinking alcohol is a popular, healthy trend, the same is true for cannabis use. Taking a break from cannabis is mostly a mind-over-matter affair. Therefore, the key to a successful tolerance break is preparation and commitment.
Taking your tolerance break with other healthy additions can maintain a positive momentum. For instance, if you regularly wake and bake, find an alternative dopamine rush. A brisk morning walk, or bike ride to work, instead of a sedentary commute is a rewarding way to release anandamide.
Cannabis, Exercise, and Diet
We mention lifestyle in several of our articles about cannabis, and that’s no accident! Cannabis and other sacred medical remedies have a proper place in healthy lifestyles. Heavy dependence is the danger zone that you want to avoid and embracing healthy habits can keep you out of cannabis dependence.
Exercise and diet are crucial elements in fortifying mental health. Regular exercise releases dopamine and boosts self-esteem and self-reliance. It also helps reduce cannabis brain fog or some of the short-term memory loss associated with higher levels of cannabis consumption. In addition, a healthy diet addresses nutritional deficiencies that can lead to poor health and poor effects.
Cannabis use should never be your only source of dopamine. Again, ‘know thyself’ becomes the best way to get started towards making healthy lifestyle choices. Perfection is not the goal, sustainable habits are. Knowing your limits and carefully challenging them is the goal.
For instance, if work is walking or biking distance from you, but you find the commitment challenging, break it down. Commit to walking home from work just one day a week and see how the habit builds. If that isn’t your preference, then substitute it with a physical activity you do enjoy when you get home. If you hate walking, find home workouts you enjoy online. Not sure what exercise you like? Research! Google “exercise for people who don’t like exercise”.
Finding your way to a healthy lifestyle is a creative lifelong journey. Make it fun, make it necessary, and commit to doing a little bit every day, even if it’s just for a minute. Setting aside even a small amount of time will create the habit of thinking about it daily. That is enough to get the snowball rolling downhill.
Talk Therapy To Prevent Cannabis Addiction
What is clear from the studies on cannabis and addiction is that those likely to become addicted have accompanying comorbidities like depression or anxiety. This is particularly clear in adolescents who take to heavy cannabis use and also lack impulse control. Since cannabis helps with depression and anxiety, you can call this self-medicating.
Sometimes it is difficult to tell which came first. Cannabis dependence and realizing that you are dependent can make you feel anxious or depressed. However, the relief that you associate with cannabis could be the result of a pre-existing condition that you are self-medicating.
While self-reporting and self-diagnosing can be associated with self-awareness, they are no substitute for talk therapy. As Gabor Mate puts it: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.” (Maté, 2017) Depression and anxiety are not always recognized for what they are.
For the effective treatment of mental health issues, a qualified therapist or clinical psychologist can be employed for diagnosis, guidance, and support. And while talk therapy carries a stigma in some communities and cultures, it provides a powerful way to address issues surrounding habitual cannabis use. Anything you discuss with a therapist is confidential and you are not obliged to divulge your attendance to anyone if it causes you stress. Therapy is meant to be self-centred and about you.
The bottom line is that chronic cannabis use can be indicative of underlying issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more. If you feel that cannabis has become a necessary relief for life stress, then talk therapy is recommended.
Is Cannabis Addictive? It Depends…
For adolescents, particularly those with impulsivity issues, chronic cannabis use can become addictive. Also, some adults with pre-existing conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD, can develop a dependence upon cannabis with chronic use. With mindful self-awareness and radical honesty, adults can effectively audit and assess their cannabis use. By implementing a tolerance break, engaging in talk therapy, and adhering to a healthy lifestyle, concerns about cannabis addiction can be addressed and minimized.
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