For years, the conventional wisdom, at least among many pot users, has been that marijuana isn’t addictive. Unlike heroin, cocaine, and alcohol users, few people who smoke weed regularly develop a crippling dependence on the drug. Yet it’s not strictly true that marijuana addiction doesn’t exist.
First-time pot users have about a 9% chance of becoming dependent, according to a 1994 study, as reported in Scientific American. Compared to the 32% of first-time cigarette smokers who will become addicted to nicotine, the 23% of heroin users who will develop an addiction, or 15% of drinkers who will become alcoholics, the number of marijuana users who develop a serious dependence is pretty low. Still, low is not the same as zero. And there’s evidence an even greater number of users might have problems with the drug.
Roughly 3 out of 10 marijuana users show at least some signs of marijuana use disorder, according to a 2015 study published in JAMA Psychiatry. That’s significantly more than the commonly cited figure of 9% of users becoming dependent. What’s the source of the discrepancy? Part of it may have to do with the changes in the way doctors identify problematic marijuana use, The Stranger explained. In 2013, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lumped signs of marijuana dependence and marijuana abuse into one broad category. (This change happened with other addictive substances, including heroin and alcohol, as well, not just pot.) Now, doctors can classify someone as having a “cannabis use disorder” if they exhibit at least two of 11 specific symptoms in a 12-month period.
Part of the confusion surrounding marijuana addiction is also because it doesn’t come with the extreme physical symptoms of withdrawal associated with substances like heroin or alcohol. That can lead some to downplay the drug’s seriousness. You also aren’t going to overdose on marijuana like you might with heroin or cocaine. Nonetheless, marijuana use can cross the line into abuse and dependence in some situations.
Here are the 11 signs of marijuana dependence, according to the DSM-5 via Medscape.
- You smoke more often or for a longer time than you intended.
- You’ve tried to cut back on your marijuana use but have failed.
- You spend a lot of time using marijuana, thinking about how to get it, and recovering from using it.
- You experience marijuana cravings.
- Your marijuana habit is making it difficult or impossible to fulfill your obligations at work, school, or home.
- You continue to use marijuana, even though it’s having a negative effect on your relationships.
- You’re losing friends or giving up on hobbies or other social activities because of your pot habit.
- You repeatedly use the drug in situations that are unsafe.
- You keep using marijuana even though you know it’s caused you physical or psychological problems in the past.
- You’ve developed a marijuana tolerance, where you need to use more of the drug to get high.
- You experience withdrawal symptoms and may continue using marijuana to avoid those symptoms.
Exhibiting two of the symptoms within a 12-month period is a sign you might have a mild problem with pot. Four or five symptoms indicated a moderate use problem, and six or more symptoms point to a severe issue with marijuana. Men are more likely to develop the disorder than women, and the condition is more common in people under the age of 45, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Some people who recognize themselves in the above list of symptoms might try to cut back on their marijuana use, but that can be difficult (after all, one of the signs you have a problem with pot is an inability to quit using it even when you want to). Statistics also suggest that it’s fairly unusual for marijuana users to seek out treatment on their own. Only 18% of people receiving treatment for a marijuana addiction are doing so of their own volition, while 52% are there because of an order from the courts or criminal justice system, data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows. In contrast, 58% of people in treatment for heroin addiction were self-referred.
Many marijuana users are able to use the drug without negative consequences. A minority may have symptoms of abuse or dependence. Though the idea of being addicted to weed is often treated as a joke, it’s a real issue for some people. Those who are worried about their marijuana use and having trouble quitting on their own might benefit from treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or from joining a support group like Marijuana Anonymous.
“If you are getting in trouble because you are using or going after an illegal drug, the illegality, and the fact that you don’t stop, and the fact that you keep getting in trouble over it, says that you have a high degree of a substance use disorder, and that you need treatment,” Michael Kuhar, Ph.D., a professor of neuropharmacology at Emory University’s School of Medicine, told Healthline. “If you’re doing something that’s wreaking havoc in your life, you need help. Forget what we call it.”