Cannabis Addiction and Abuse

Cannabis – also known as marijuana (and by a huge array of pseudonyms) – is a psychoactive plant which is, by some way, the most popular illicit drug in the world. The leaves of the plant, and substances derived therefrom including oils and resins, are usually smoked (but can be consumed in other ways) to provide an initially pleasant feeling of relaxation and mild euphoria enjoyed, according to the United Nations, by over 180 million people each year. Nevertheless, despite this widespread use and its reputation as a “soft” drug, cannabis can cause users a variety of problems, some quite serious.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the mind-altering ingredient in cannabis. The quantity of THC varies with each specific variety of the plant and form of the substance. When you take the drug, THC travels to the brain through your bloodstream, where it targets cannabinoid receptors: receptive cells in the brain which can influence sensory perception, coordination, memory and thinking.

Although some people argue that cannabis is a natural plant with therapeutic benefits, it can be addictive. Even if a doctor prescribes cannabis-derived products for certain health conditions, if you use it indiscriminately, it can constitute abuse. Cannabis dependence is a growing problem, and people abuse the drug regardless of their age.

Cannabis Explained

Cannabis is a genus of flowering plants, different species of which grow in many parts of the world (and are often cultivated commercially even in areas where they are not naturally found). For recreational use, the leaves are normally dried out, crushed and smoked in a pipe (like tobacco) or paper (like a cigarette). Resins and oils derived from the plant are also consumed in this way. Cannabis is also available in the form of ‘edibles’: usually baked goods such as brownies, candies and cookies, which contain the drug and induce the same effect as smoking it.

Cannabis is used both medically and recreationally. As medication, it is used to ease stress and as a pain reliever. It also helps to increase appetite in people with eating disorders. Recreationally, cannabis is taken for its sedative effects and to attain the infamous ‘high’. Common street names for cannabis include ‘dope’, ‘pot’, ‘ganja’, ‘Mary Jane’, ‘weed’, ‘grass’ and ‘reefer’.

Cannabis has a long history of legislative battles for and against its use. There is still a blurred line between its status as an acceptable drug or a harmful one in society. Driven by misinformation and mixed feelings, there are still doubts about the risks of marijuana addiction today, and despite recent developments to the contrary in some countries it remains illegal in most jurisdictions worldwide.

History and Different Types of Cannabis

Mankind and cannabis have shared a close relationship throughout history. While science and archaeological evidence can point to periods and locations where cannabis use emerged, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact time and place of its origin.

Various researchers have suggested three plausible places of origin of the cannabis plant:

China (Along the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers): The first remains of hemp usage were discovered in China in fibre form. There are reports that ancient Chinese medical theses already identified the differences between ‘ma tze’ (non-psychoactive weed) and ‘ma fen’ (psychoactive weed).

Central Asia (from the Caucasus to the Altai Mountains): The area around to the Takla Makan desert have been described as the birthplace of the cannabis plant, because its central location could have made it easy to be passed in three directions: west towards Europe, south towards India and east towards China.

South Asia (the Himalayan Foothills and Hindu Kush Mountains): Due to the wide diversity of strains and uses of cannabis in this part of the world, it appears to be a most suitable place for the origin of the plant. However, based on Linnaeus’ description, Cannabis Sativa originated from India.

Cannabis is believed to have originated between 6000 – 8000 BC, following several paleo botanical evidences seen in ancient archaeological contexts.

There are three distinct types of marijuana plants, namely:

Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica are naturally occurring strains of the plant which have been in existence since before human consumption began, while Cannabis hybrids have been cultivated by humans by mixing both early strains.

  • Cannabis Sativa
  • Cannabis Indica
  • Cannabis hybrids
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Synthetic Marijuana

Synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as K2, Spice or a number of other brand names, is a combination of herbs and spices that are doused in a chemical with similar properties to THC, the psychoactive compound found in marijuana. Synthetic marijuana looks like dried leaves and is usually sold in small, silvery, plastic bags as ‘potpourri’ or ‘herbal essence’.

Synthetic drugs like K2 and Spice are often falsely marketed as ‘natural’, ‘safe’ and ‘legal’. However, the truth is that they are not technically legal or safe, and certainly not natural. Chemical analyses of these drugs have revealed that they contain synthetic chemicals with harmful side-effects. In addition, due to the unknown chemical composition of synthetic compounds like Spice and K2, users are unsure of the chemicals they’re putting into their body. Moreover the effects of these substances can be much stronger than, and very different from, those of “genuine” cannabis and they should be considered distinct substances from cannabis with their own problems and treatment.

Cannabis Addiction and How it Develops

Cannabis contains 113 chemical components, with at least 60 different cannabinoids. These chemical compounds act on the brain receptors to elicit the effect users experience. THC is the chemical most responsible for the psychoactive effect of marijuana, including the euphoric ‘high’. THC is like another cannabinoid – anandamide – naturally produced in your brain. It regulates sleep, mood patterns, appetite and memory.

The effects of cannabinoids on the brain is to essentially keep the neurons active, thus magnifying your perceptions and thought processes. Like caffeine, alcohol or sugar, cannabinoids affect dopamine levels in your brain, often resulting in calmness and euphoria.

Excessive intake of cannabis stretches the neurons, and over time the brain become more tolerant to the effect. When abused continuously, marijuana dependence forms, leading to the development of withdrawal symptoms.

The effects of cannabis can kick in instantly and last several hours, depending on the THC concentration. The following effects are associated with cannabis:

  • Feeling of euphoria
  • Mild hallucinations
  • Enhanced appetite
  • Reduced anxiety

Although there are no real risks of overdosing on cannabis, it accounts for the second highest rates (behind cocaine) of visits to the ICU caused by illicit substance abuse. These hospital cases are the result of accidents suffered by individuals high on cannabis.

While the risks of overdose are negligible, despite popular belief cannabis can be addictive. Addiction can be diagnosed clinically. Dependence on the drug can have a negative impact on your life. People often develop a psychological dependence on cannabis, in much the same way other addictions are formed.

Like other addictive stimulants, cannabis impacts the levels of dopamine in the brain, reducing its natural production. Dopamine is a chemical neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of pleasure and ecstasy. The sedative action of cannabis acts by suppressing this chemical, making you feel calm and relaxed.

However, continuously using cannabis increases tolerance, requiring you to use it, again and again, to feel high. This drug abuse leads to a reprogramming of the brain, where you constantly need cannabis to feel normal. If you want to quit cannabis, but are unable to do so, there’s a high chance you have developed an addiction to the drug.

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Signs of Cannabis Addiction

Cannabis addiction produces several signs indicating how it is affecting your mind and body. Symptoms can vary from individual to individual, depending on their genetics. Other factors to consider are the concentration of THC and your mode of ingestion. Your previous experience with cannabis can also affect the way you react subsequently to the drug. Some signs of addiction include:

  • Increased tolerance to the drug
  • Repeated usage, even when it poses a risk to other aspects of your life
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Adverse symptoms when you stay off the drug (withdrawal)

Withdrawal is your body ‘complaining’ about the absence of THC in the brain.

Psychological and Social Effects of Abusing Cannabis

Cannabis abuse causes a psychological addiction to the drug. It is an uncomfortable mental reaction to THC withdrawal, with symptoms including:

  • Paranoia
  • Hallucination
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal inclinations
  • Worsening pre-existing conditions of schizophrenia

In the absence of cannabis, an addicted person is extremely restless and presents a danger to themselves and those around them. This leads to certain social problems, such as:

  • Falling out with friends
  • Losing their jobs (source of income)
  • Losing meaningful relationships
  • Likelihood to commit crime
  • Risk of being arrested, fined or imprisoned
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Physical Effects of Abusing Cannabis

In addition to psychological effects, cannabis also produces specific physical signs. These obvious symptoms can help you identify abuse in a loved one or family member. If you do notice any of the following, seek professional help for them immediately.

  • Increased awareness of one’s surroundings
  • Heightened sensations
  • Ecstatic feelings
  • Mood swings
  • Reduced concentration
  • Reduced coordination
  • Diminished energy levels
  • Difficulty solving simple problems
  • Memory impairment
  • Insomnia

Although the first few minutes present temporary relief for addicted users, they can soon sink into despair when the psychoactive effect of the drug wears off. You can prevent abuse and addiction from developing by acting immediately.

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Preventing Cannabis Abuse and Addiction

Drug awareness and education have been forund to be the most successful way to prevent cannabis abuse. Communities and schools have involved teens in their awareness programmes. Many young people turn to drugs to because of personal problems and other psychological reasons. By motivating them, and boosting self-esteem with academic support and mentorship, cannabis abuse can be significantly reduced. Parents can also contribute by being more attentive to their children’s behaviour.

Education is not only effective in teenagers, as adults may also benefit by learning about the dangerous side-effects of cannabis. If you’re a recreational user, check that you don’t show signs of dependence or see an expert for a quick diagnosis.

Cannabis Abuse During Pregnancy

It is extremely dangerous to smoke cannabis during pregnancy, because of the health implications on the foetus. Cannabis can cross the placenta to your baby, so it can affect him or her directly. This can have serious effects on your child’s growth, as well as the development of their nervous system.

Many studies have shown that mothers who smoke cannabis whilst pregnant tend to have babies with low birth weight, and this can lead to adverse health consequences. When combined with tobacco or other illicit substances, cannabis increases the risk of stillbirth.

Positive Use of Cannabis

Cannabis is not all about side-effects and negative consequences. As mentioned previously, doctors in some jurisdictions can prescribe it for medicinal purposes. Based on researches and scientific evidences, medical marijuana has been recommended by physicians for the following:

  • Researchers experimented on breast cancer and discovered that cannabidiol (a component of cannabis) can slow down the spread of aggressive cancerous cells.
  • Cannabis is used in the treatment of glaucoma.
  • Cannabis was shown to control epileptic seizure in a 2003 study.
  • In 2011, studies proved that cannabis can be used to reduce inflammation and pain in joints, thus providing relief to people with rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Cannabidiol has also been proven to improve symptoms of psychosis in the treatment of schizophrenia.

There are several benefits of cannabis use. However, it is important that medical cannabis be used based on a doctor’s recommendations. Failing to do so could result in abuse and addiction, along with well-known legal ramifications.

Cannabis Legalisation

Countries including Portugal and the US have taken steps to legalise cannabis. Portugal currently practices a drug-use law where cannabis usage is legal, though flouting drug laws for other addictive drugs attracts a small fine. The US is slowly spreading its acceptance of cannabis, with California becoming the latest state to legalise it.

In the UK, cannabis remains a Class B controlled substance, with criminal penalties for possession and supply. However, with the UK once again reporting the highest number of drug overdoses in Europe for the third year in a row, there is growing pressure on the government to consider changing its current drug policies. In 2016, a group of MPs comprising Peter Lilley (former Conservative cabinet minister), Nick Clegg (former deputy PM) and Caroline Lucas (co-leader of the Green Party) sponsored a report that recommended the legalisation of cannabis.

The report was based on a study carried out by Voteface together with the Adam Smith Institute. It argued that “cannabis legalisation and regulation is now inevitable.” There has been no official response yet, but the discussion is currently an open debate amongst MPs.

What to do if Someone you Know is Abusing Cannabis

If you are sure someone you know is using cannabis indiscriminately, talk to them about the harmful side-effects of their habit. If they are willing to accept help, point them to a professional for more advice. Conversely, if they are in denial, the next step might be to organise an intervention with family and close friends. Do this with the help of an intervention specialist to avoid making mistakes.

Cannabis Treatment: Detox and Rehab

Treatment for cannabis abuse and addiction is not very different from other substance addiction. While there are no specific medications for treating cannabis addiction, good detoxification facilities can provide a safe, sound recovery for abusers to remove the drug from their system.

The medical personnel will ensure that you don’t bear the brunt of withdrawal without some relief or assistance. Medication such as painkillers and sedatives are administered in case of severe anxiety or panic attack.

After detox, you will be presented with the option of an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation service. This will depend on your level of addiction to cannabis and personal preference. After rehabilitation, you will receive aftercare treatment to prevent relapse.

Steps to Quitting Cannabis

Quitting cannabis is not easy, especially if you are a long-time user, but it is possible with the right guidance from an expert and support from family and friends. The first step is to make a commitment to yourself to quit. Then start tapering your use and reduce the quantity you take every day. A professional can help you chart a course for this action.

Next, a detox is necessary. Before complete recovery from drug abuse can occur, the drug must be removed from your system. A good medical facility/rehab can help you detox. After rehab, change your habits. Avoid hanging out with friends who smoke cannabis. Discover new people or hobbies: exercise, cycle, take up running and so on.

Finally, build yourself nutritionally. Drugs deprive the body of vitamins, so take plenty of vitamin supplements: vitamin C, B complex, as well as magnesium and calcium.

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Full Cannabis Withdrawal

Withdrawal is the adverse reaction to the absence of cannabis in your body. To achieve full recovery, you must experience withdrawal until the last bit of cannabis leaves your body. Withdrawal may begin six to twelve hours from your last use, but usually lasts one to two weeks, depending on your dependence to the drug.

Never attempt withdrawal without a professional present or in an uncontrolled environment. The best place to experience withdrawal is in an accredited rehab facility or a hospital.

Avoid Relapse and Manage Cravings

After rehab, you will reintegrate with society as a clean, sober individual. However, there will be the temptation to use again, and it can come from the most unlikely places. Surround yourself with a strong support system. Many good rehab centres offer aftercare or ongoing treatment services to help you stay sober.

A good way to start is to avoid isolation; there is a high tendency to relapse when you are alone. For the first few weeks, move in with a trusted friend.  Don’t hesitate to call your sponsor if you experience challenges. Take up new habits that don’t involve smoking; yoga, painting, or music are good examples.


FAQs

What are Other Names for Cannabis?

Because of its long history and very widespread use, a full list of the euphemisms for cannabis used around the world is effectively impossible to compile. Nevertheless, some of the most common include: weed; grass; dope; blunt; Mary Jane; hash; herb; Aunt Mary; skunk; chronic; reefer; pot; green; trees; puff.

Can You Overdose on Cannabis?

It is virtually impossible to overdose on cannabis, but it is quite possible to consume more than is healthy for you. Smoking or eating too much cannabis can manifest symptoms like ataxia, disorientation, perspiration, nausea and general discomfort. While it does not cause death, it is accidents that occur during this period that may have fatal consequences.

Is Cannabis Addictive?

Yes, it is. Cannabis, like other sedatives, affects the cannabinoid receptors in the brain and impacts dopamine levels. The result is a calming effect, and in some cases, mild hallucinations may occur. The repeated use of cannabis builds tolerance for THC, and dependency is soon formed. Eventually, your brain will be unable to function ‘normally’ without the presence of THC.

How does Cannabis Affect your Body?

Long-term effects of cannabis use can cause respiratory problems (from smoking). It has the same lung-damaging effects as smoking tobacco. Cannabis can also lead to cardiovascular problems, because it elevates heart rates. People with pre-existing conditions may suffer a heart attack or stroke.

How does Cannabis Affect your Mind?

Cannabis abuse has the potential to decrease your mental acuity by causing memory impairment. Studies have shown that THC causes hallucinations that may enhance psychosis in schizophrenic patients. After the effect of cannabis wears off, abusers tend to feel depressed and some people exhibit mood swings or entertain suicidal thoughts.

How are Cannabis Abuse and Addiction Treated?

Treatment for cannabis addiction is implemented in three steps; consultation, detoxification and rehabilitation therapy. In many cases, aftercare treatment is advised. Treatment must be carried out by a medical professional or an addiction counsellor.

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