Modified: 22nd Jul 2019

Last updated on July 22nd, 2019 at 12:44 pm

As marijuana – also called cannabis and a slew of other slang terms – becomes legalized and more socially acceptable nationwide, you may be wondering if marijuana is really an addictive gateway drug, as we’ve always been told for years now. While it’s true that cannabis is less dangerous than “hard” drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines, marijuana can pose very real dangers for some users.

What makes the situation more complex with marijuana than other drugs is that some people can use it in moderation without getting addicted, and some people even use it to their benefit to relieve serious health conditions. For other users, marijuana can absolutely make for a life-threatening addiction.

Here’s what you need to know to determine if cannabis use by yourself or a loved one warrants intervention and treatment.

The Effects of Marijuana Abuse: How Dangerous Is It?

Marijuana is derived from the hemp plant and is usually smoked, though it can also be added to food and consumed via the digestive system. It contains a variety of chemicals that act on the brain to produce feelings of euphoria, heightened awareness, and relaxation, which encourage addictive behaviors.

The chemical THC is most responsible for producing the “high” of marijuana use because it affects the reward center of the brain, stimulating the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine that leads to feelings of pleasure and contentment.

Under strict medical supervision, cannabis is helpful for chronic nausea or pain caused by a physical disease, but recreational use of marijuana can lead to various negative consequences.

Short-term effects of marijuana abuse include:

  • Memory problems
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Poor physical coordination
  • Impaired judgment

These short-term effects can lead to high-risk sexual behaviors and other dangerous or risky behaviors, as well as injuries related to driving or playing sports while under the influence of the drug.

Chronic, long-term use of marijuana can lead to:

  • Chronic lung problems
  • Decreased motivation
  • Diminished focus on family, social, career or educational aspects of life
  • Dependence and addiction
  • Exposure to situations that can lead to the use of more dangerous drugs
  • Other health issues and medical concerns later in life

Is Marijuana Addictive?

From a physical perspective, marijuana is less addictive than harder drugs like opioids, benzos and meth. There are plenty of people who report using marijuana for years without developing a dangerous habit. However, many people also become addicted. What sets them apart?

Marijuana is often used to escape from stress, trauma and feelings of purposelessness. When the experience of getting high helps alleviate this mental and emotional pain, pot can quickly become a person’s go-to stress reliever.

This psychological dependence – the need to replace unpleasant emotions with positive ones – is the biggest danger posed by marijuana, because that’s what usually leads to addiction.

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

While marijuana use doesn’t always lead to other substance abuse, it often does. Here’s why:

  • Percentage of High Schoolers That Have Tried Marijauna Statistic InfographicBecause it is cheap and easy to grow, cannabis is the most easily available illegal substance, especially to new users.
  • Trying marijuana without major negative effects right away leads some people to feel OK with taking the next step up in illegal drug use.
  • The introduction to a cannabis-induced high leads to curiosity about the high caused by other substances.

Marijuana is the most frequently used illegal drug in the United States (as long as it’s still considered illegal), and it is often the first drug of experimentation. Teens are especially susceptible to marijuana use as a form of escape since the adolescent years are full of stressful situations that can lead to anxiety, depression, and disillusionment. Teens suffering from mental health disorders are especially at risk for early dependencies on drugs like marijuana since it’s often used to combat stress.

Does Marijuana Use Require Addiction Treatment Help?

These signs indicate that a person is caught up in a harmful marijuana addiction that warrants professional treatment:

  • Cannabis is being used regularly as an escape from the hardships of life.
  • The user no longer shows an interest in family, hobbies, etc., and generally lacks motivation.
  • The user organizes his or her life around getting high.
  • The user is getting caught up in a drug-use lifestyle and his or her friends consist mainly of other users.
  • The person is frequently getting into legal binds due to marijuana use and possession.

Does Marijuana Recovery Require Detox?

Unlike other substances, marijuana does not require an extensive detox phase. Withdrawal symptoms are relatively mild, and simply being without access to cannabis can solve the benign physical dependence in the short term. When it comes to long-term addiction treatment for marijuana, the psychological addiction is what you need to be concerned about.

The Most Important Part of Treatment for Marijuana Addiction

It’s critical for any rehabilitation program you choose to overcome marijuana addiction to have a strong emphasis on addressing the underlying psychological issues that led to addiction in the first place. This may include:

  • Addressing past traumatic experiences
  • Learning healthy ways to cope with stress
  • Finding renewed purpose in life

Attending rehab to “get clean” will only work temporarily if the source of addiction isn’t addressed. Once the person gets back out into the world with all the same stressors and the same mindset, they’ll most likely go back to marijuana – or something worse – for relief.

Marijuana Addiction Treatment Options and Insurance Coverage

Because addressing these underlying issues usually takes longer than 30 days, we advise looking for treatment centers that offer:

  • Longer programs, such as 90-day inpatient programs, with robust aftercare programs
  • 30-day inpatient programs that can then be followed up with outpatient treatment on an ongoing basis

Addiction treatment that is longer than the standard 28-day or 30-day program may or may not be covered by your insurance. It’s best to look into what your plan offers, and find alternative sources of funding if needed in order to ensure you or your loved one gets treatment that is effective in the long run. Addiction Treatment Services is here to help if you need any assistance in the intervention or treatment-seeking process.

How Do I Get Insurance Coverage for Marijuana Rehab?

Learn About Addiction Treatment Insurance

Article Reviewed by Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPA

Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPADr. Keerthy Sunder, MD is an accomplished and internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction. He has earned diplomates from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.