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Has Marijuana Legalization Led to More Addiction?

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Over the past decade or so, marijuana use has become increasingly mainstream. More states in the US are legalizing marijuana for both medical and recreational use. Canada has recently decided to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and it may happen in Australia before long. Many countries are decriminalizing marijuana use or declining to enforce laws prohibiting marijuana. Supporters of legalization say this trend will lead to more personal freedom, less time and money wasted on enforcement, more tax revenue from legal sales, and less profit for violent drug cartels. However, critics claim marijuana legalization will lead to more misuse, addiction, accidents, crime, and escalation to harder drugs.

It may be too early to know exactly what will happen as a result of marijuana legalization. Preliminary studies have found use–and misuse–is up slightly, as is minor crime such as shoplifting, and accidents. On the other hand, use of harder drugs like cocaine and heroin among teens appears to be down slightly. Since marijuana was so widely used to begin with and enforcement has been lax for years in places that ultimately legalize, it could be that not much actually changes when marijuana finally becomes legal. 

However, some things have changed. Since marijuana can be sold openly in many places, many different sellers are competing for the market. In some ways this is good because it leads to a safer, more consistent–and therefore more predictable–product. In some ways, though, market competition might lead to some unintended consequences. For example, some products are extremely potent, delivering much more THC than you would normally get just smoking marijuana. Then there’s the advertising. There’s now a proliferation of demographically targeted ads assuring you that marijuana is safe, non-addictive, and even healthy. This is what should, perhaps, give us pause, since it echoes the tobacco ads of 50 years ago. Now we know that legal cigarettes are highly addictive and kill about seven million people every year, according to the World Health Organization.

It doesn’t appear that marijuana is either as addictive or as deadly as tobacco. We’ve known for years that it is less harmful than other illicit drugs, such as cocaine or opioids. In fact, lumping marijuana together with much more harmful drugs has led to a backlash of advocates claiming, credibly, that marijuana is perfectly safe. We know that marijuana is relatively safe. It’s impossible to fatally overdose on marijuana.

However there are risks, including excessive use and addiction. One interesting finding of early studies is that increased marijuana use tends to go along with increased binge drinking. One study found that teens in states with legal marijuana don’t switch from binge drinking to marijuana as many expected; they just use both. Another study of college students found that marijuana use increased but only among students who already drank heavily. Therefore an unexpected result of marijuana legalization might be excessive drinking, which is actually more dangerous, as it can lead to accidents and fatal overdose.

The link between marijuana use and binge drinking suggests that the problem is not marijuana per se, but rather a propensity to substance use and addiction. It just happens that alcohol and now marijuana are readily available.

For years, cannabis advocates have claimed that marijuana is not addictive, or that it’s only ‘psychologically addictive’. That does not appear to be true. Something like nine percent of people who use marijuana regularly will develop a serious addiction. However, as many as 30 percent of regular users may develop some level of dependency. By comparison, about 15 percent of alcohol users will become addicted, about 17 percent of cocaine users will become addicted, about 23 percent of heroin users will become addicted, and about 32 percent of tobacco users will become addicted. On that scale, your risk of developing a serious marijuana addiction is relatively low, but it does affect about four million people in the US alone.

Most people who seek treatment for marijuana addiction have been using daily for about 10 years and have tried to quit without success. Being unable to quit is one of the clearest signs of addiction. Other signs include spending time using marijuana instead to doing more important things, especially things related to work, school, or family. Escalating use is another big sign. If you need more and more to get the same effect, you have at least developed a physical dependence. Setting aside time specifically to use, especially if you are secretive about your use is a common sign. You may become inflexible, adhering to a regular schedule so nothing interferes with your marijuana use. The last major sign of marijuana addiction is borrowing or stealing money to use.

Withdrawal symptoms after quitting marijuana are not typically severe or dangerous compared to other substances, but they do tend to linger. They include anxiety, irritability, nausea, depression, and sleep disturbances. Many people have difficulty quitting marijuana because they started using in the first place to self-medicate some condition, often anxiety or depression. They may or may not be consciously aware of doing this. When they quit, they have the same old anxiety or depression but now it’s even worse because of withdrawal.

Successfully quitting marijuana often requires treating the underlying condition, and not merely abstaining from use. This requires integrated treatment for a dual diagnosis, where both the addiction and the mental health issue are treated simultaneously. If you are considering entering treatment for marijuana addiction, be sure the treatment center has staff that can handle both addiction and mental health, including someone who can prescribe medication if necessary.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a dual diagnosis, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. We use cutting-edge treatment modalities, including TMS and CBT to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.

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