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Is Marijuana Addictive? A Neuroscientist Sets the Record Straight

PopSugar logo PopSugar 6/23/2018 Nicole Yi

Is it possible to be addicted to marijuana? "It is possible, but it's not common," says an M.D. © Getty Is it possible to be addicted to marijuana? "It is possible, but it's not common," says an M.D. With the legalization of recreational marijuana in full swing, one of the most common questions I hear is whether the Schedule I drug is addictive. As someone who's been smoking weed regularly for the past five years, I've personally never felt like I ever needed it, nor do I notice a difference when I go without cannabis for extended periods of time. But out of curiosity, I reached out to neuroscientist and cannabis expert Dr. Josh Kaplan, PhD, who educated us on the potential side effects of long-term cannabis use. 

Is it possible to be addicted to marijuana? "It is possible, but it's not common," Dr. Kaplan told POPSUGAR. But before we dive further into this question, it's important to distinguish the difference between addiction and dependence. "Often, 'addiction' and 'dependence' are used interchangeably, but this is inaccurate," he said. "When we talk about addiction, we're talking about a brain disease that causes compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences such as the inability to maintain obligations in one's family life, work, and own health."

The definition of addiction can be simplified to not being able to quit despite the fact that you're hurting yourself and others. Dependence, on the other hand, is characterized by someone who needs the substance in order to feel or function normally. Dr. Kaplan used caffeine as a common example of a drug many people are dependent on. "Someone can become dependent on a drug without meeting the criteria for addiction," he said.

Can You Be Addicted to Marijuana? © Unsplash / Tobias Tullius Can You Be Addicted to Marijuana? When it comes to cannabis, Dr. Kaplan said that around 10 percent of users are dependent due to frequent consumption. The risk also looks to be increasing as modern strains and products have been containing more THC. Adolescents in particular are at greater risk for becoming dependent on cannabis and shouldn't use it during such a crucial stage in their cognitive development. But does this mean that cannabis dependence turns into addiction? "In most cases, no," Dr. Kaplan said. "However, it depends on the individual and the type of cannabis consumed."

What's on the market now far exceeds the potency of what our parents smoked back in the day. And because THC alters the brain's dopamine signals, which are linked to our reward system, higher amounts of THC could theoretically lead to addiction, according to Dr. Kaplan.

"The cannabis industry is moving faster than the science can keep up, so most studies only report rare cases of a true cannabis addiction," he said. "Either way, to reduce risk, one should avoid especially potent THC cannabis or seek out cannabis that also have high amounts of cannabidiol [CBD], which can block some of THC's effects.

Signs of dependence include irritability, mood and sleep impairment, cravings, and physical discomfort when a person is not using. Once an individual begins neglecting personal, family, or work obligations, it's time to be concerned about their possible addiction.

Slideshow: What marijuana really does to your body and brain (Business Insider) 

a close up of a woman:  Marijuana's official designation as a Schedule 1 drug - something with "no currently accepted medical use" - means it's pretty tough to study. Yet a growing body of research and numerous anecdotal reports link cannabis with several health benefits, including pain relief and the potential to help with certain forms of epilepsy. In addition, researchers say there are many other ways marijuana might affect health that they want to better understand. Along with several other recent studies, a massive report released this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine helps  sum up exactly what we know - and what we don't - about the science of weed. What marijuana really does to your body and brain

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