Marijuana legalization is a source of significant debate in the United States. As more states move to make medical marijuana and recreational marijuana use legal, or at least decriminalize the possession of marijuana, some worry it’s leading to more addiction and substance abuse issues.
Over the past decade, medical marijuana laws have expanded significantly, even in traditionally conservative states. Marijuana is also available on the legal market in a growing number of places, despite still being federally illegal. Marijuana policy nationwide, as well as access to marijuana, is rapidly evolving.
Tens of millions of Americans use cannabis every year in some form, including concentrates, edibles, and flowers. The commercial market is exploding with businesses capitalizing on new laws reversing traditional marijuana prohibition.
With legalization, much like alcohol, there tends to be the misconception that marijuana is free of negative consequences. It may not be an illicit drug in many states, but it doesn’t mean that marijuana is without risks.
The idea that it’s not dangerous can also come from many states having a medical marijuana program. Medical cannabis is used in a controlled way, unlike recreational cannabis. At the same time, like prescription opioids, even when it’s for medical purposes, the effects of cannabis can be negative.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Coming from the cannabis plant, this substance is psychoactive, meaning mind-altering. The primary psychoactive component in the cannabis plant is THC.
When someone smokes marijuana, THC and other chemicals move from the lungs into the bloodstream. They’re then carried to the brain. Effects of cannabis use include euphoria and relaxation. Some people may have increased sensory perception, changes in their perception of time, and increased appetite.
You can also eat marijuana in food or drinks. The psychoactive effects take longer to appear—usually 30 minutes to an hour. The drug and its chemicals have to go through the digestive system first.
While some people experience pleasant effects of marijuana, not everyone does. Some will experience panic, anxiety, and fear. Taking large doses can lead to acute psychotic symptoms, including delusions and hallucinations.
One of the particular areas of debate in the conversation about marijuana legalization is whether or not marijuana addiction is possible. If so, what the prevalence of that could be is an area of concern and study.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana can lead to marijuana use disorder. In severe cases, addiction can occur.
Young people who are heavy users and begin using marijuana before they’re 18 are anywhere from four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder than adults, based on the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
There’s also an issue of dependence. If you’re dependent on marijuana, you may go through withdrawal symptoms when you don’t use it. Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal stemming from dependence include:
- Mood problems
- Sleep problems
- Decreased appetite
- Physical discomfort
Dependence on marijuana occurs when your brain is adapting to the drug through reduction of production and sensitivity to its own endocannabinoid neurotransmitters.
Marijuana may not be as traditionally addictive as some other substances, but anything psychoactive affecting your brain has the potential for acute and long-term effects.
Is Marijuana Legalization Leading to Problematic Use?
In 2019 a study came out suggesting legalized marijuana is leading to more cannabis use and potentially addiction, especially among adults 26 and older.
The study’s lead author wrote in JAMA Psychiatry that occasional marijuana use isn’t associated with substantial problems. However, heavy, long-term use is associated with physical and psychological health concerns, lower educational attainment, car accidents, a decline in social class, and unemployment.
If legalization leads to more use and addiction, there may be significant problems for both individuals and society.
The study’s lead author, a New York University drug policy expert, warns that we shouldn’t interpret the results to mean legalization is inherently flawed. Instead, we should consider the way the country legalizes marijuana to prevent problematic use and addiction.
What about being a gateway drug?
The concept of marijuana as a gateway to harder drugs is often discussed within the conversation of legalization.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse says some research shows marijuana could precede the use of other substances, both legal and illegal. For example, there was increased responsiveness to other drugs following cannabis exposure in an animal study.
This isn’t a unique effect of cannabis, though. Similar effects are seen with nicotine and alcohol. Most people who use marijuana don’t use harder drugs, but the potential is there.
Legalization and Increasing Use
In September 2021, Columbia University published an article talking about an increase in the prevalence of marijuana use in the U.S. resulting from recreational legalization.
A study was conducted at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. According to the findings, passing marijuana legalization laws raised the odds of past-year and past-month cannabis use. That means those people who used cannabis at least once in the past year when surveyed or in the past month.
These trends were highest among Hispanic, other, and non-Hispanic white race/ethnicity compared to previous periods.
There were no changes in use observed among non-Hispanic black people or individuals aged 12 to 20 of all racial and ethnic groups.
We know marijuana affects brain development. When teens and adolescents begin using it, it can impair learning, memory, and thinking. The use of the drug also affects how the brain builds connections.
In one study from researchers at Duke University and New Zealand, there was a link between heavy marijuana smoking during the teen years and lower IQ. Teens with an ongoing marijuana use disorder lost an average of eight IQ points between the ages of 13 and 38.
The loss in mental abilities didn’t completely return to those who quit using marijuana as adults.
On the other hand, the adults who started smoking marijuana later in their life didn’t experience notable declines in IQ.
One particular area of risk that stems from marijuana use is rising THC levels. The amount of psychoactive THC in marijuana products is going up. More exposure to high THC levels could increase the chance of an adverse reaction. High THC levels may also contribute to more emergency room visits related to marijuana use.
Using edibles also increases the risks of adverse health effects for marijuana users. Since edibles take longer to produce a high, people may consume more to increase the effects.
Treatment for Marijuana Use Disorder
What does all this mean? We aren’t at a point where we can say for certain whether or not marijuana legalization will lead to pervasive, widespread public health issues, but there is evidence that it could. The adverse effects of marijuana shouldn’t be overlooked and instead should be included in conversations about public health and how to legalize marijuana to reduce harm.
On an individual level, it’s important to understand the risks and implications of marijuana use and its addiction potential.
When they start using cannabis, the younger someone is, the more likely they are to develop an addiction and other related issues.
THC does overactive brain cell receptors, potentially contributing to addiction, dependence, and adverse mental and physical health effects.
Future studies will likely focus on the larger-scale impact of medical cannabis laws and recreational legalization.