Marijuana is the most popular illicit drug in the United States. Twenty million people admitted to using marijuana in the month prior to a national survey, and 81 percent of current drug abusers admitting to using marijuana in 2013.[1] Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I controlled substance by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), meaning that federally, there are no accepted medicinal uses, and the DEA considers marijuana to have a high potential for abuse and dependency.[2]

See Also: Marijuana Addiction Treatment Guide

marijuana use

Since 1996, however, 23 state organizations and Washington DC have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, as it may offer some relief for cancer patients undergoing treatment, pain reduction potential, relief of glaucoma symptoms, and relief from a variety of other ailments.[3] Additionally, four states, including Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Alaska, have also legalized the recreational sale and use of marijuana to adults aged 21 and older.[4] The District of Columbia voters also approved an initiative allowing adults aged 21 and older to grow and possess marijuana in small amounts.[5]

The debate between the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana is a hot topic in America. Some believe marijuana should be treated no differently than alcohol, while others argue that easier access will mean more people with health and psychological problems related to its abuse.

Marijuana’s Effects on the Brain and Body

Marijuana comes from the Cannabis sativa plant and generally refers to the dried leaves, stems, seeds, or flowers. The active ingredient in marijuana is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, which has mind-altering and relaxing effects. Because it comes from a plant and rarely causes overdose deaths directly, marijuana use is often labeled “safe” and even “healthy.” Proponents of the drug’s legalization claim that the drug is relatively harmless and should be legal, as they consider it less harmful than alcohol, which is legal and the cause of some of America’s top health problems.[6]

effects on body mind

The fact of the matter is that marijuana can alter the reward, motivation, and memory centers in the brain, causing long-term issues with memory. One in 10 regular marijuana smokers develops a dependency to the drug.[7] In 2011, more than 4 million Americans were classified as having a problem with marijuana abuse or dependence, and marijuana is the second most common problem drug for those enrolled in drug treatment programs.[8]

Marijuana use can also lead to additional health problems, such as respiratory illness and a lowered immune system. Marijuana abusers may also have twice the risk for developing a psychotic disorder and may be more likely to dabble in other illicit drugs.[9] Marijuana alters the senses, distorts perceptions, changes moods, increases appetite, impairs cognition and motor functions, and may cause hallucinations or delusions.

It is most commonly smoked, although it can be ingested by mixing it with food or drinks. In the short term, it makes users feel good by over-activating neurotransmitters like dopamine, creating a “high” that encourages users to want to repeat its abuse. Over time, the production of these neurotransmitters, which are the brain’s messengers, is altered with repeated marijuana abuse, and a dependency is created. Chronic abusers of marijuana may feel “out of sorts” without the drug, be unmotivated, and suffer from mood swings and other uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, paranoia, changes in appetite, and insomnia.

Ripple Effect

Imagine marijuana as the stone and all of the potential effects of legalization as the outgoing ripples. Not all of the effects are necessarily negative, as the legalization may lead to less criminalization of marijuana and its users, for instance, which may decrease criminal justice costs and lower the prison population. Colorado, which was the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, saw violent crime rates drop 6.9 percent in the first quarter of 2014 (as compared to the previous year’s rates) and property crime rates fell 11.1 percent.[10]

duis involving marijuanaThere were a host of negative effects from legalization, however. Driving while under the influence of marijuana is dangerous and considered a crime. In Colorado, fatalities from motor vehicle crashes involving drivers who test positive for marijuana have increased 100 percent from 2007-2012. Most of the arrests for driving under the influence are related to marijuana. In 25-40 percent of cases, marijuana was the only drug involved.[11] While many drug-related crimes may go down, other potentially negative consequences may increase.

Colorado is now second only to Rhode Island in the percentage of its residents who regularly abuse marijuana.[12] One in eight Colorado residents over the age of 12 admit to using marijuana in the month prior to a study.[13] National studies have found that more current marijuana users reside in states where medical marijuana is legal than in those where marijuana is not legal. The top 10 states with the highest rates all have legalized some form of marijuana use, while the 10 states with the lowest marijuana use do not have such laws in place legalizing the drug.[14]

As access to marijuana increases, so does the number of people potentially using the drug and all of the negative consequences that may result from that use. Take alcohol, for instance, which is a legal addictive substance and the most commonly used one in America.[15] Ease of access, legality, public perception, and cost may all factor in to alcohol abuse being so prevalent in the United States. One in every 12 American adults, 17.6 million people, are considered to have a problem with alcohol dependency or abuse.[16] Excessive alcohol consumption cost the American society $223.5 billion in 2006 in lost workplace production, health care, criminal justice, and motor vehicle crash costs, and alcohol-related issues are estimated to kill 88,000 people each year.[17] Those who oppose the legalization of marijuana argue that the drug may have similar consequences to alcohol abuse and that the negative costs to society will increase.

States that have legalized marijuana for medicinal use also have more issues with marijuana abuse and dependency than other states.[18] Legalization of marijuana may lead to an increased number of emergency department (ED) visits related to the drug as well. In 2011, marijuana was linked to 455,668 ED visits, or 36.4 percent of all ED visits related to illicit drug abuse that year, which is a 62 percent increase since 2004 when there were 281,619 ED visits.[19] Legalizing marijuana increases public access to the drug, thereby raising the number of people using it, which may in turn add to the number of people who will have problems with marijuana abuse or dependency and other health care issues related to the drug’s use.

Teens and Marijuana Abuse

As marijuana becomes more prevalent, accepted, and available, so does adolescent access to the drug. In 2014, the Monitoring the Future study found that 11.7 percent of 8th graders reported using marijuana in the past year, while 27.3 percent of 10th graders and 35.1 percent of high school seniors used it.[20] Colorado saw a 25 percent increase in teenage (between ages 12 and 17) past-month marijuana use after the legalization and further commercialization of the drug in 2009.[21]

marijuana use in teensThe national average of past-month adolescents (between 12 and 17) using marijuana in 2012 in states were marijuana was not legal medically was 6.7 percent. Medical marijuana states had an average of 9.4 percent of their teenagers using the drug in the past month.[22]

Adolescent brains are still growing and developing, and abusing marijuana at a young age can cause a whole host of problems. Teens who abuse marijuana regularly are more likely to get lower grades, drop out of high school, and may even suffer an 8 point drop in their IQ levels, one study found.[23]  Additionally, early use of marijuana may lead to an increased likelihood of developing an abuse or dependency issue, as 11.5 percent of teens who abused marijuana before the age of 18 met the criteria for dependency or abuse in 2013, while only 2.6 percent of those who waited until after age 18 to try the drug were classified as such.[24] Adolescent brains are underdeveloped in the prefrontal cortex and areas responsible for emotional regulation, willpower, and decision-making – all areas that can be altered with drug abuse. One in six teens who abuse marijuana on a regular basis will become dependent to the drug, and marijuana use among young people is associated with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, as well as addiction to other drugs.[25]

By legalizing marijuana, the perceived risk of the drug may decrease and thus users may increase. In 2007, the percentage of youths aged 12-17 who perceived a great risk in smoking marijuana once a month was 34.4 percent, which declined to 24.2 percent by 2013.[26] As society becomes more accepting of the drug, teen perception may also change.

Again, access is also a factor in teenage drug abuse, and if parents are buying it, chances are teens are trying it. A study of a substance abuse treatment center in Denver found that 74 percent of the teens in the program has abused another person’s medical marijuana at least 50 times.[27] Edibles and new forms of marijuana being sold in legal recreational dispensaries also may cater to a younger audience as well.

Treatment for Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana use and abuse are constantly changing; in fact, it is believed that in the past 20 years marijuana potency has tripled, and new strains are being identified and sold continually.[28] Recreational marijuana, or pot dispensaries, generally sell multiple strains and variations of legal weed. Higher levels of THC may make the drug more potent and can also potentially increase health risks and the possibility of becoming dependent on marijuana.
Treatment data does not seem to show a spike in admissions for marijuana since the legalization of the drug, however. Marijuana remains the third most common substance for those entering a drug or alcohol treatment program behind alcohol and opioids respectively.[29] This might not reflect how many people actually need treatment, however, since more than 23 million Americans required treatment for a drug or alcohol abuse or dependency issue, and only just over 2.5 million people actually received the necessary treatment in a facility catering to substance abuse and addiction.[30]
Treatment data for a marijuana dependency may be even more skewed since the drug has been legalized, as Colorado reports that 70 percent of adults over age 18 entering treatment for issues with marijuana abuse or dependency were referred through the criminal justice system between 2011 and 2013, while only 30 percent were voluntary.[31] Legalizing marijuana has decriminalized the drug; therefore, fewer marijuana-related arrests may be being made. As a result, fewer people may be being referred to or mandated into treatment programs.

Potential Difficulties in Treatment

Treatment for marijuana abuse may be complicated by poly-drug abuse. Marijuana is commonly taken in tandem with other drugs or alcohol, and it is often referred to as a “gateway drug” or drug that may open doors to trying different and potentially harder drugs. A Yale study published that men and women aged 18-25 who used marijuana were more likely to then abuse prescription painkillers, for example.[32]

Alcohol and marijuana together were involved in 25 percent of all emergency department visits involving the abuse or misuse of illicit drugs in 2011 as well.[33] Legalizing marijuana may increase incidence of poly-drug abuse and dependency.

Many times, the first step in a drug treatment program is detox, or the removal of drugs and toxic substances from the body. When multiple drugs or substances are involved, there may be more complications and health risks that potentially require medical monitoring and intervention.

support for marijuana

In addition to multiple drugs, marijuana abuse and dependency may also co-occur with an underlying mental disorder. Marijuana can make mental health symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, worse. Considering one-third of Americans battling schizophrenia also regularly abuse marijuana, this may be of particular concern.[34] When two disorders occur in the same person at the same time, the disorders are said to be co-occurring and integrated treatment models, which treat both mental illness and drug dependency simultaneously, may offer the best success rates.

With marijuana perceptions changing and public opinion now favoring the legalization of marijuana – 51 percent of Americans support legalizing the drug and 86 percent of Americans support marijuana’s prescription for medicinal purposes – perhaps treatment options will expand as well.[35]  Marijuana treatment programs vary and may depend on the user’s level of dependency to the drug, family history, age, and how long the person has abused the drug.

Comprehensive programs may be either inpatient, where patients stay on site in residential units for a period of time, or outpatient, wherein the patient returns home in the evenings. Behavioral therapies are very effective in helping to increase self-esteem levels and reduce self-destructive and drug-seeking behaviors.

No medications are currently approved for the treatment of marijuana dependency; however, antidepressant or anti-anxiety prescription medications may be helpful during detox to help manage withdrawal symptoms. Group and individual counseling sessions may provide educational opportunities and teach new and valuable life skills and coping mechanisms to diminish cravings and limit instances of relapse. Family counseling can help all loved ones to be one the same page during recovery and help to heal interpersonal relationships that may be damaged by the disease that is addiction. A marijuana support group filled with peers all battling marijuana dependency can work together to create a positive network during treatment to build healthy bonds that can last into recovery. While addiction can be lonely and isolating, recovery does not need to be.

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake boasts a highly professional and compassionate staff with expertise in helping patients achieve and maintain personal successes. Staff members specialize in the treatment of substance abuse, dependency, and co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact an admissions coordinator today for information on how to enact positive changes in your life.



Citations

[1] June 2015. “Marijuana.” The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[2] (n.d.). “Drug Scheduling.” Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[3] (n.d.). “Marijuana Resource Center: State Laws Related to Marijuana.” White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[4] Ibid.
[5][5] Ibid.
[6] (n.d.) “Alcohol & Drug Information.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD). Accessed June 25, 2015.
[7] Perrone, J. (Oct. 2014). “The ‘Junk’ Science Behind the Marijuana Legalization Movement.” The Washington Post. Accessed, June 23, 2015.
[8] (n.d.). “Public Health Consequences of Marijuana Legalization.” WhiteHouse.gov. Accessed June 23, 2015.
[9] Perrone, J. (Oct. 2014). “The ‘Junk’ Science Behind the Marijuana Legalization Movement.” The Washington Post. Accessed, June 23, 2015.
[10] Delmore, E. (April 2014). “Study: Marijuana Legalization Doesn’t Increase Crime.” MSNBC. Accessed June 24, 2015.
[11] (Aug. 2014). “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact.” Rocky Mountain High Impact Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[12] Ingold, J. (Dec. 2014). “Marijuana Use Increases in Colorado, According to New Federal Study.” Denver Post. Accessed June 23, 2015.
[13] Ibid.
[14] (Aug. 2014). “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact.” Rocky Mountain High Impact Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[15] (n.d.) “Alcohol & Drug Information.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. (NCADD). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[16] Ibid.
[17] (April 2014). “Excessive Drinking Costs U.S. $223.5 Billion.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[18] Cerda, M., Galea, S., Hasin, D., Keyes, K., Wall, M. (Jan. 2012). “Medical Marijuana Laws in 50 States: Investigating the Relationship Between State Legalization and Medical Marijuana Use, Abuse and Dependence.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence. Accessed June 23, 2015.
[19] (May 2013). “Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2011: National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[20] (June 2015). “What is the Scope of Marijuana Use in the United States.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[21] (Aug. 2014). “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact.” Rocky Mountain High Impact Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[22] Ibid.
[23] (Nov. 2013). “Marijuana Use and Educational Outcomes.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[24] (Dec. 2014). “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed June 23, 2015.
[25] Perrone, J. (Oct. 2014). “The ‘Junk’ Science Behind the Marijuana Legalization Movement.” The Washington Post. Accessed, June 24, 2015.
[26] (Dec. 2014). “Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[27] (Aug. 2014). “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact.” Rocky Mountain High Impact Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[28] (n.d.). “Marijuana Resource Center: State Laws Related to Marijuana.” White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[29] (Mar. 2011). “DrugFacts: Treatment Statistics.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[30] Ibid.
[31] (Aug. 2014). “The Legalization of Marijuana in Colorado: The Impact.” Rocky Mountain High Impact Drug Trafficking Area (RMHIDTA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[32] Cuda, A. (Aug. 2012). “Yale Study: Marijuana May Really be a Gateway Drug.” Connecticut Post. Accessed June 24, 2015.
[33] (May 2013). “Drug Abuse Warning Network, 2011: National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[34] Duckworth, K., M.D., Freedman, J., M.D. (Mar. 2013). “Marijuana and Mental Illness.” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Accessed June 24, 2015.
[35] Backus, F., De Pintus, J., Dutton, S., Salvanto, A. (Jan. 2014). “Majority of Americans Now Support Legal Pot, Poll Says.” CBS News. Accessed June 24, 2015.