Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug in the U.S. Still; some insist it’s not addictive — that pot use can be a perfectly healthy way to relax or even treat certain medical conditions. Is this true?
In 2010, marijuana was the most commonly used illegal substance in America. So it wasn’t long before many Americans began calling for the legalization and regulation of the plant.
Support for legalizing marijuana has grown so much that several states have passed laws allowing its recreational use on a limited basis. However, one question remains — how dangerous is marijuana addiction compared with other drugs like alcohol?
The debate over whether marijuana causes actual physical dependence continues today. Some scientists believe marijuana may help ease withdrawal symptoms from more harmful substances. Others say marijuana isn’t as bad a problem as we think, while others still contend there are no conclusive answers.
To understand why marijuana might cause an addiction-like condition called cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS), let’s first look at what makes up the cannabis plant. Cannabinoids are chemicals in plants and animals that produce psychoactive effects when they bind to specific receptors within your body cells.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is perhaps the best known of these cannabinoids because it delivers euphoria and relaxation when inhaling it into your lungs. This is because THC binds to cell receptors called CB1 and CB2, which exist primarily in our brain and immune system.
These receptors regulate pain perception, memory formation, appetite control, and mood. They also play a role in inflammation by affecting the release of hormones such as dopamine and serotonin.
Unfortunately, another chemical produced during the processing of cannabis, cannabidiol, doesn’t seem to affect either type of receptor. Instead, CBD acts as an antagonist, binding to different sites than THC.
Marijuana can be addictive for some individuals, but the extent of its addictive potential is still controversial among researchers. It is known that the main psychoactive component in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can activate the brain’s reward system and produce feelings of pleasure and euphoria. This can lead to repeated use of the drug and the development of a tolerance, where higher doses are needed to achieve the same effects. In some cases, this can progress to dependence and addiction, characterized by the inability to stop using the drug despite negative consequences. However, not all individuals who use marijuana will become addicted, and factors such as genetics, environment, and personal history can play a role in the development of addiction.
This means that it could potentially counteract any positive effects produced by THC. But if you’re wondering about the health benefits of using marijuana, keep reading!
The Science Of Addiction
Despite negative consequences, addiction is defined as compulsive behavior driven by desire and emotion. For example, a person addicted to cocaine would experience cravings, anxiety attacks, sleeplessness, irritability, and depression after missing doses of their favorite drug.
Cocaine users often require more significant amounts of the drug to feel normal. While treatments aren’t currently available for every form of addiction, many theories are being proposed. One theory suggests that marijuana affects the same reward pathways in the human brain as nicotine and amphetamines do.
If this proves true, marijuana addicts should suffer withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by people who quit smoking tobacco products. Another popular theory proposes that marijuana triggers the release of endocannabinoids through repeated exposure.
Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring compounds in the brain that act upon the receptors mentioned earlier. When released, endocannabinoids create sensations of relaxation and well-being. As a result, people dependent on marijuana may experience craving episodes leading them back to old habits. Since marijuana contains only trace levels of THC, however, it isn’t considered physically addicting.
Methadone is usually prescribed to heroin abusers to reduce withdrawals and prevent death related to overdose. Still, some researchers claim that marijuana use can lead to dependency problems similar to those seen in methadone patients.
Many studies show that opiate abuse occurs more frequently among marijuana smokers than non-smokers, especially those who smoke heavily. There are three possible explanations for this observation.
First, chronic marijuana usage blocks the ability of natural opioid receptors located in the brain stem.
Second, prolonged marijuana consumption leads to desensitization of delta-opioid receptors near areas associated with pleasure responses in the midbrain.
Finally, marijuana increases the production of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, all neurotransmitters linked to addiction. Because marijuana stimulates the brain differently than other abused substances, it creates less tolerance to its effects.
For example, someone trying to get high on Oxycontin will need higher dosages to achieve the desired results, whereas heavy marijuana users don’t necessarily need to take as much to feel stoned.
Cannabis research is ongoing, and conflicting reports continue to emerge regarding marijuana’s potential impact on the development of dependency disorders.