Marijuana Addiction and Treatment

Is Marijuana Use Addictive?

Long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction for some people; that is, they use the drug compulsively even though it often interferes with family, school, work, and recreational activities. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 21.6 million Americans aged 12 or older were classified with substance dependence or abuse (9.1% of the total population). Of the estimated 6.9 million Americans classified with dependence on or abuse of illicit drugs, 4.2 million were dependent on or abused marijuana.57 In 2002, 15% of people entering drug abuse treatment programs reported that marijuana was their primary drug of abuse.58

Along with craving, withdrawal symptoms can make it hard for long-term marijuana smokers to stop using the drug.49 People trying to quit report irritability, difficulty sleeping, and anxiety.59,60 They also display increased aggression on psychological tests, peaking approximately 1 week after they last used the drug.61

In addition to its addictive liability, research indicates that early exposure to marijuana can increase the likelihood of a lifetime of subsequent drug problems. A recent study of over 300 fraternal and identical twin pairs, who differed on whether or not they used marijuana before the age of 17, found that those who had used marijuana early had elevated rates of other drug use and drug problems later on, compared with their twins, who did not use marijuana before age 17. This study re-emphasizes the importance of primary prevention by showing that early drug initiation is associated with increased risk of later drug problems, and it provides more evidence for why preventing marijuana experimentation during adolescence could have an impact on preventing addiction.62

What Treatments Are Available For Marijuana Abusers?

Treatment programs directed solely at marijuana abuse are rare, partly because many who use marijuana do so in combination with other drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol. However, with more people seeking help to control marijuana abuse, research has focused on ways to overcome problems with abuse of this drug.63

One study of adult marijuana users found comparable benefits from a 14-session cognitive-behavioral group treatment and a 2-session individual treatment that included motivational interviewing and advice on ways to reduce marijuana use.64 Participants were mostly men in their early thirties who had smoked marijuana daily for over 10 years. By increasing patients’ awareness of what triggers their marijuana use, both treatments sought to help them devise avoidance strategies.

Use, dependence symptoms, and psychosocial problems decreased for at least 1 year after both treatments. About 30% of users were abstinent during the last 3-month followup period. Another study suggests that giving patients vouchers for abstaining from marijuana can improve outcomes.65 Vouchers can be redeemed for such goods as movie passes, sports equipment, or vocational training.

No medications are now available to treat marijuana abuse. However, recent discoveries about the workings of THC receptors have raised the possibility that scientists may eventually develop a medication that will block THC’s intoxicating effects. Such a medication might be used to prevent relapse to marijuana abuse by reducing or eliminating its appeal.

Where Can I Get Further Scientific Information About Marijuana?

To learn more about marijuana and other drugs of abuse, contact the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) at 1-800-729-6686. Information specialists are available to help you locate information and resources.

Fact sheets, including InfoFacts, on the health effects of marijuana, other drugs of abuse, and other drug abuse topics are available on the NIDA Web site (www.drugabuse.gov), and can be ordered free of charge in English and Spanish from NCADI at www.health.org. For those with hearing impairment, call 1-888-TTY-NIDA (1-888-889-6432).