Marijuana is the most frequently used illegal drug in the United States, with over 22.2 million individuals stating they had used it in the past month, per the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This also means that cannabis use disorder is more common than any other substance use disorder.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana, which also goes by the name cannabis, is mainly smoked in joints (which resemble cigarettes), blunts (which are made with hollowed-out cigars), and pipes (often called bongs). However, there are other ways for individuals to ingest the drug: Individuals may use a vaporizer or even mix it with food and brew it as a tea. The main chemical in marijuana, called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, is the ingredient that causes marijuana’s psychoactive effects.
Long-Term Effects of Marijuana
Marijuana is legal in a handful of states for both recreational and medical use, and in several states for medical use, but this does not mean it is entirely safe. First, individuals who buy it on the street cannot guarantee that it is not mixed with another drug, such as cocaine. This can increase the risk for accidental overdose. It can also cause problems with memory in both short-term, casual users and long-term, heavy users.
One study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America followed 1,037 individuals from birth to age 38. These individuals underwent neurological testing at age 13, before beginning marijuana use, and at age 38. Results showed that use of marijuana was associated with a decline in a number of neurological functions. A number of other problems can be caused by marijuana use as well, including the following:
- Problems with breathing: Marijuana can irritate the lungs and cause problems similar to those caused by smoking cigarettes. Researchers have not determined if smoking marijuana can increase the risk for lung cancer.
- Increased heart rate for up to three hours after smoking marijuana: This, especially in older individuals and those with preexisting heart problems, can cause a heart attack or cardiac arrest.
- Issues with fetal brain development: There is an increased risk for problems with the baby’s brain if a mother smokes marijuana while pregnant.
Marijuana can also increase symptoms of mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
Treatment for marijuana dependence is mainly behavioral in nature. At times, individuals will have comorbid mental illness or a dependence on another substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that, on average, individuals who seek treatment for marijuana dependence have been using marijuana near daily for more than 10 years prior to seeking treatment and have tried to quit more than six times.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used therapies for marijuana dependence. In one study published in Psychiatric Clinics of North America, the use of this type of therapy in the treatment of cannabis use disorder showed a larger pattern of effectiveness. This particular type of therapy focuses on teaching individuals to identify drug-related behaviors they have learned, so they can change them. They do so by learning different skills that they may use to deal with triggers that could potentially cause relapse. The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre gives examples of these skills: avoiding situations that put individuals at a high risk for using marijuana, managing cravings, practicing mood management, and learning how to refuse marijuana. Created as a preventative measure for relapses in alcohol dependence, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy was then used to assist in the treatment of individuals recovering from cocaine dependency.
Another form of treatment for marijuana dependence is called Contingency Management, which may promote abstinence by providing rewards for positive behaviors related to recovery, such as negative drug tests or appointment attendance. For example, NIDA offers the examples of voucher-based reinforcement and prize incentives. In voucher-based reinforcement, individuals receive vouchers as a reward that can be exchanged for gift cards, movies, and other items. NIDA’s article states that the vouchers may begin at a low value and progress toward larger values to promote prolonged abstinence. The prize incentive program involves individuals drawing for a prize with every negative drug test or appointment attended. Either of these programs would be terminated if an individual were to test positive for marijuana use.
Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) is another therapy option. With MET, individuals are encouraged to change their behaviors related to marijuana use without being confronted. This is a treatment of shorter duration, usually consisting of an assessment session followed by anywhere from 2-4 sessions with a therapist. According to NIDA, the first session will involve the therapist reviewing the assessment and discussing the individual’s personal marijuana use and coping strategies that may be beneficial to the individual. For the remaining sessions, individuals will discuss what techniques they are using to maintain abstinence while the therapist will assess progress. This type of therapy, when combined with CBT, has shown to be effective in treating marijuana dependence.
There are no medications that are specifically designed to treat marijuana dependence; there are medications, however, to help individuals manage the symptoms they may experience. These medications can include those for sleep or anxiety, both possible withdrawal symptoms. There are some medications being studied that may potentially reduce withdrawal symptoms or even inhibit the effects of marijuana if it is ingested in conjunction with the medication.