With increased political pressure to legalize marijuana, many people have begun to think of the drug as harmless. Unfortunately, marijuana dependence is just as common as alcohol addiction. For individuals with marijuana dependence, the effects can be every bit as devastating as alcohol dependence. Marijuana dependence is rapidly becoming an epidemic in the United States.
Marijuana is made from the dried leaves and flowers Cannabis sativa (a.k.a. the hemp plant). The active ingredient in this plant is delta-9-tetarhydro-cannabinol (THC). THC is a psychoactive chemical that can produce heightened sensory perception, euphoria, altered perceptions of time, and increased appetite. The euphoria, in particular, is thought to play a major role in the development of marijuana dependence.
A number of different street names exist for referring to marijuana. In is often referred to as weed, pot, or grass. It may alternatively be called herb, bud, ganja, Mary Jane, blunt, and a variety of other names. It can be eaten or smoked.
Marijuana dependence results from over stimulation of certain aspects of the CNS, which leads to a requirement for the drug to maintain even moderate levels of happiness. As with alcohol, limited use of pot has no serious health consequences in adults, but persistent, heavy use can lead to tolerance and addiction. Addiction to marijuana is characterized by withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped (e.g. depression, agitation, cravings, restlessness, etc.) and by changes in behavior (e.g. loss of interest in social life, loss of employment, poor performance at school/work).
Addiction is becoming increasingly common as a result of the increased concentration of THC in this drug. Thirty years ago, THC content in most marijuana averaged about 3.7%. Today, the average is 9.6% and some samples show THC levels as high as 16%. The consequences of using cannabis are magnified because the body’s reaction to the drug is magnified.
Individuals often have trouble believing that they are dependent on marijuana because the addiction develops slowly over time. Use is often manageable in the early stages of dependence, and control is lost so slowly that most people don’t realize it until it is too late.
The most common sign of dependence on any substance is the need to continually increase the dose in order to achieve the same effects. This is known as tolerance and is a common physical response of dependence. Other symptoms of include withdrawal symptoms when cannabis is not used, behavioral changes, intense cravings, and changes in sleep patterns. Signs of abuse include using the drug when it is physically dangerous to do so, using it despite negative life consequences, and using it at inappropriate times (e.g. at work, during child care, etc.).
There is substantial evidence to suggest that long-term, excessive exposure to THC can lead to permanent changes in the brain. In particular, THC can lead to memory problems, difficulty with learning, changes in how people perceive pleasure, difficulty with impulse control, and even increased risk of mental illness.
Treatment of cannabis addiction is similar to treatment for other substance abuse disorders. Though the symptoms of THC withdrawal are unpleasant, they are seldom life threatening and so do not require medical detox. Drugs for managing anxiety, a prominent feature of cannabis withdrawal, include BuSpar, Neurontin, and Ambien (improves sleep). These drugs are often used on a limited basis, though they may be used over long periods of time as well. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and relapse prevention counseling are common forms of psychological treatment for cannabis addiction.
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