Marijuana has a distinctive smell, both exotic and sweet at the same time. People who have never previously been exposed to marijuana in their lives may have no idea what they’re smelling when the perfume hits their nostrils. Many people, however, can identify marijuana smoke right away, and in fact, this smoke has been appearing in more and more public spaces. A quick online search of the words “odor” and “marijuana” will bring back pages of news results, typically describing arrests that occurred in public places because police officers noticed the smell. Some news reports even state that people smoked marijuana openly in the parks during the Occupy movement, and the smoke wafted across the street and caused no stir whatsoever.
It’s safe to assume that use of marijuana in this country is becoming both more acceptable and more prevalent. This is a dangerous combination in the world of addiction. As larger numbers of people begin to use the drug, and as more people feel comfortable putting their marijuana use out in the open, the risk of addiction rises.
The Scope of the Problem
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, about two in five people have used marijuana at least once in their lifetime. Some of these people may use marijuana just once, as a form of experimentation, and then never use the drug again. Other people may use the drug for a short period of time, and then choose to stop altogether. While it might be easy to praise these people for their willpower and their ability to leave marijuana behind without the use of medications or therapy, it’s important to remember one fact: Marijuana addiction occurs not because the addict is lazy, but because the addict undergoes a series of chemical changes as a result of the use. These people may have a genetic predisposition to addiction, and the chemical changes they undergo make it impossible for them to stop. They’re not weak, but they do have a medical problem that should be addressed.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that about nine percent of people who use marijuana will become addicted to it. The risk goes up, however, when age goes down. People who start using marijuana at a young age (typically during their teen years) have a one in six chance of becoming addicted.
Marijuana, the Brain and Addiction
The active ingredient in marijuana, known as THC, is responsible for the vast majority of symptoms people feel when they take the drug. While the body has a wide variety of receptors dotted throughout the body that can pick up this drug, the vast majority of those receptors are located in the brain. When the user takes the drug, the THC heads directly to the brain and begins work. When marijuana reaches the brain, it attaches to those receptors and a series of chemical reactions occur. Those reactions can provide a wide variety of symptoms including:
- Red eyes
- Dry mouth
- Sense of hunger
- Increased sense of smell
Some of these symptoms may be appealing, but most users take marijuana in order to feel a “rush” or a sense of euphoria. When the receptors attach to marijuana particles, they release a series of chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These chemicals are typically released in low doses when someone experiences something pleasurable. Eating good food or seeing a friend can release a low dose of neurotransmitters. Taking drugs can release a large amount of the chemicals, and the user could feel extremely happy and silly.
This chain reaction is known as the “dopamine pathway,” after the main neurotransmitter that’s released. This is the same pathway that’s triggered when someone takes heroin or prescription painkillers, and it’s a strong addictive force. Some people find they simply cannot live without this infusion of chemicals, and they return to the drugs again and again to feel it. Over time, the body begins to scale back its own production of neurotransmitters, so the user might only feel happy when on drugs. There’s no natural way to get those feelings when the pathway has been disrupted. This could trap the user into lifetime marijuana abuse. It’s the only way to feel “normal.”
Teens might be particularly at risk for these dopamine disruptions, and this is partly why marijuana abuse is so dangerous for teens. Marijuana has been called a “gateway drug,” and with good reason. Often teens begin experimenting with marijuana, and once they’ve broken that taboo, they begin to experiment with other substances to try to replicate or even augment the sensations they felt while under the influence.
According to the NIDA, a study on fraternal twins found that a twin who used marijuana prior to age 17 had an elevated risk of drug use later in life, compared to the twin who did not use drugs prior to that age. This seems to suggest that the teen brain is particularly vulnerable to addiction, and changes that the brain undergoes as a result of marijuana use could set the teen up for a lifetime of problems.
In addition to these changes in the brain, marijuana can impact other systems in the body. For example, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, THC can increase heart rate and cause changes in blood pressure. Sudden changes in blood pressure might not be difficult for healthy people to absorb, according to the study’s authors, but people who have heart disease or some other underlying medical condition that impacts the heart could face heart attacks or strokes due to marijuana use. This is a significant problem.
Marijuana can also cause the user to feel slow and sedated, and the user’s behavior can change accordingly. Their reaction times are slow, and their reflexes are poor. In driving situations, this could be deadly. People who use marijuana and then drive might face a
significant risk of causing a severe crash. According to a study published in the journal Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, people who were given marijuana performed at the same impaired cognitive level as people who were given alcohol. While some people might never drink to excess and drive, they might use marijuana and drive, especially if they are in the grips of addiction.
There are many, many more studies that could be quoted, and many more marijuana health risks that could be named, but one thing should be clear: Marijuana addiction is real, and left untreated, it can cause serious problems. At Michael’s House, we want to raise awareness of this issue, and encourage more people to get the help they need to beat addiction. Treatment works.
Spotting Use and Getting Help
Sometimes, it’s easy to spot a person who is using marijuana. The smell might be a trigger, or you might notice a proliferation of drug paraphernalia, such as water pipes, cigarette papers or lighters.These other signs could point to addiction, according to the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign:
- Replacing old friends with new friends who also use drugs
- Scent of perfume or incense in the air as the user tries to mask the smell of drugs
- Bottles of eye drops as the addict tries to reduce the red eyes caused by drug use
- Frequent calls for money, or increase in theft or crime in order to raise money for drugs
- Calls for privacy
While you might be tempted to encourage the person to simply stop using marijuana right now, the addict may not be able to stop without help. It’s important to remember that the chemical process that sits behind the addiction is still there, and it’s almost impossible for the addict to simply kick that chemical change away without help.
It may be true that people in the past have been able to stop using marijuana without outside assistance, but the process can be incredibly painful. To prove this point, researchers asked a series of marijuana users to submit to a controlled environment for 21 days. During this time, they were sometimes given active marijuana and sometimes they were given a placebo. The researchers published the results in the journal Psychopharmacology, and noted that participants felt anxious and irritable without taking the proper dose of active marijuana, and some complained of gastrointestinal pain. The researchers suggest that these symptoms could cause some addicts to return to use, even when they don’t want to use, as a way to make the symptoms cease. It can be hard for a marijuana addict to stop using alone, due to these symptoms.
In addition, many addicts have built their entire lives around their addictions, choosing their friends based on their use and doing activities that support their drug use. It’s not reasonable to expect an addict to turn on a dime and leave all of this behind. Instead, it’s best to steer the addict into a formal treatment program that can address both the physical and chemical basis for the addiction. It’s the best way to provide help and allow the person to move forward into a life of sobriety.