According to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 22.2 million people used marijuana in the month prior to the survey, making it “the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.” Although there has been increasing acceptance and legalization of marijuana use in some states, the drug still poses a risk for abuse and addiction. In 2015, “about 4.0 million people in the United States met the diagnostic criteria for a marijuana use disorder.”

What is marijuana?

Marijuana comes from the plant Cannabis sativa. The leaves, flowers, and seeds of the plant contain psychoactive compounds that are used for medicinal and recreational purposes. The primary psychoactive compound is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is what delivers the “high” that is valued by many users. Marijuana is typically smoked, vaped (heated and inhaled), eaten, sprayed under the tongue, taken by tincture, absorbed through the skin (oils), or taken by pill.

As of June 2019, eleven states have legalized marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Medical, but not recreational, use of marijuana is legal in many additional states. Medical marijuana is prescribed by a doctor to treat health symptoms or conditions. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not broadly recognized the marijuana plant as having medicinal benefits, they have approved three cannabis-based drugs, one to treat epilepsy and two others to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy.


What are the Effects of Marijuana?

THC and other chemical compounds in marijuana interact with the body’s chemical messengers to signal and activate areas of the brain that control pleasure, movement, memory, sensory perception, and an altered sense of time. Users typically describe a deep sense of relaxation and a heightened sense of pleasure. When marijuana is smoked, the effects are felt quickly, as the chemicals move rapidly through the lungs into the bloodstream. Consuming marijuana in edibles or drinks takes longer for effects to be felt, as the chemicals must first move through the digestive system before reaching the bloodstream.

The effects of marijuana are not always pleasurable. Being inexperienced, taking too much, or taking marijuana that is more potent than usual may cause some users to feel anxious or fearful or even to experience delusions or hallucinations. This can especially be a problem when consuming edibles. Because it can take up to 4 hours to experience the full effects of an edible, users may become impatient and continue to ingest more, resulting in too great of a dose. This can cause an intense, possibly frightening high.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports other symptoms that may result from using too much marijuana include:

  • extreme confusion
  • paranoia
  • panic
  • fast heart rate
  • increased blood pressure
  • severe nausea or vomiting

The CDC also cautions that any of these effects can contribute to unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes, falls, or poisoning.

Can You Overdose on Marijuana?

Other than increasing the risk of unintentional injuries, a fatal overdose from marijuana is unlikely. However, a 2019 study published in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine found an increasing number of ER visits related to cannabis use. The highest number of visits was attributed to edibles, followed by visits related to vomiting, acute psychiatric symptoms, intoxication, and cardiovascular symptoms. According to an article in Psychology Today, “Alcohol and marijuana are two drugs commonly used by people at the same time. New information indicates that combining the two may cause individuals to overuse both substances, which in some cases can result in death.”

Can you Become Addicted to Marijuana?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry…reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance abuse.” Despite negative consequences, addicts are unable to control or stop their use of the addictive substance. Whether the substance is legally used, like alcohol, or illegally used, there is a potential for addiction.

Just because many states have legalized or are in the process of legalizing marijuana does not mean there is no risk of harm, abuse, or addiction resulting from its use. Although many patients and doctors strongly believe in its therapeutic effects, there are also many adverse health effects associated with marijuana use, including the risk of addiction. Problem use of marijuana is defined as a marijuana use disorder. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states, “Recent data suggest that 30 percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder.” Although it’s not labeled as “addiction,” those with marijuana use disorder exhibit addictive behaviors.

What is Marijuana Use Disorder?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) is used by physicians to diagnose substance use disorders. The DSM-5 recognizes 10 categories of substance use disorder, one of which is marijuana use disorder.

The criteria used by the DSM-5 to diagnose and rank the severity of a marijuana use disorder is the same criteria used for any substance use disorder. The diagnostic criteria include:

  • Using in larger amounts or for longer than intended
  • Being unable to cut down/stop using despite the desire to use less
  • Spending a lot of time to get/use/recover from use
  • Cravings
  • Inability to manage commitments due to use
  • Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships
  • Giving up important activities because of use
  • Continuing to use, even when it puts you in danger
  • Continuing to use, even when physical or psychological problems may be made worse by use
  • Increasing tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Frequent users of marijuana often experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking it, which may include mood changes, irritability, restlessness, sleeping disorders, cravings, and other forms of discomfort.

The severity of a marijuana use disorder is determined by how many symptoms apply. The DSM-5 ranks fewer than 2 symptoms indicate no disorder, 2-3 indicate a mild disorder, 4-5 indicate a moderate disorder, and 6 or more indicate a severe disorder. Those with moderate to severe marijuana use disorder are advised to seek professional treatment.

Marijuana use may pose serious adverse health effects

Smoking marijuana has the potential to contribute to serious health conditions, including persistent cough, chronic bronchitis, susceptibility to lung infections like pneumonia, lung disease, damage to the cardiovascular system, and various cancers. The NIH warns that marijuana smoke “contains levels of volatile chemicals and tar that are similar to tobacco smoke, raising concerns about risk for cancer and lung disease.”

Another serious health concern is how marijuana may affect brain development, especially in teens. Referencing several studies, the NIH says, “When people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may impair thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions. Researchers are still studying how long marijuana’s effects last and whether some changes may be permanent.”

The NIH also cites several studies that have found a possible link between marijuana use and an increased risk for psychiatric disorders, including psychosis (schizophrenia), depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. These studies have found that preexisting genetic factors, amount of drug used, age at first use, and other factors may contribute to any causal relationship.

According to research presented at the American College of Cardiology’s 66th Annual Scientific Session in 2017, “Using marijuana raises the risk of stroke and heart failure even after accounting for demographic factors, other health conditions and lifestyle risk factors such as smoking and alcohol use.” The research was comprised of data from patients ages 18-55 and found “marijuana use was…associated with a 26 percent increase in the risk of stroke and a 10 percent increase in the risk of developing heart failure.”

How is Marijuana Use Disorder Treated?

A study led by Bridget Grant, Ph.D., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), Laboratory of Epidemiology and Biometry, found that marijuana use disorder often co-occurs in tandem with other substance use disorders and other behavioral and mental disorders. Grant and her colleagues also reported that people with marijuana use disorder, particularly those with severe forms of the disorder, experience considerable mental disability, and that often these disabilities continue after treatment for marijuana use disorder. Yet few people seek treatment for marijuana use disorder. Researchers found “only about 7 percent of people with past-year marijuana use disorder receive any marijuana-specific treatment.”

Marijuana use disorder may be treated in a residential treatment setting or by attending an outpatient treatment program. The program usually includes individual, group, and family therapy sessions, and education on addiction, recovery and preventing relapse. Many treatment programs utilize a 12-step approach to recovery, as that has been found to be a highly effective model. Any co-occurring disorders should always be treated at the same time as marijuana use disorder.

If you are experiencing problems in your life because of marijuana or other substance use, it’s time to talk with your doctor or an addiction specialist to determine the best course of action. When marijuana, or any addictive substance, is causing problems with your personal relationships, work, school, or health, it’s important to act before things get even worse.

Treatment at BlueCrest Recovery Center

BlueCrest Recovery Center provides a holistic approach to marijuana and substance use recovery, considering the whole person – mind, body, and spirit. Our compassionate and highly trained staff develops an individualized addiction treatment plan to meet the specific needs of each client and includes treatment of co-occurring disorders in the plan.

We also believe that any treatment that does not fully integrate 12-step principles is incomplete. BlueCrest provides education on 12-step programs and requires all clients to develop a recovery network by attending and participating in their local groups and meetings.

If you or a loved one is in need of help, please contact us at (973) 298-5776 or

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