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Why Cannabis Use Disorder Should Be Taken Seriously

Why Cannabis Use Disorder Should Be Taken Seriously

“Marijuana (cannabis) use directly affects the brain — specifically the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision making, coordination, emotions, and reaction time,” warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on its fact sheet. “Long-term or frequent marijuana use has been linked to increased risk of psychosis or schizophrenia in some users.”

Despite these known health risks, 18 states have legalized recreational marijuana. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize the recreational use of cannabis following the passage of Amendment 64 and Initiative 502. Additionally, 36 states and the District of Columbia currently allow cannabis for “medical” use although the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to list cannabis as an illegal schedule I substance “due to its high potential for abuse, which is attributable in large part to the psychoactive effects of THC, and the absence of a currently accepted medical use of the plant in the United States.” 

As a result of the continuing normalization of cannabis use, a majority of Americans—including teenagers—perceive little or no risk in using it. Thirty-eight percent of high school students report having used marijuana at least once (although it is only legal for people 21 and older). 

The health risks connected with cannabis use are real, however, notwithstanding years of promoting it as a medicinal remedy. “Researchers know that prolonged and heavy cannabis use can alter brain circuitry. However, the specific pathophysiological mechanisms are yet unclear. In terms of addiction, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary molecule responsible for the reinforcing properties of marijuana,” report Jason Patel and Raman Marwaha in Cannabis Use Disorder.

THC, acting through cannabinoid receptors, activates the brain’s reward system, which includes regions that govern the response to healthy pleasurable behaviors such as sex and eating. Like most other drugs that people misuse, THC stimulates neurons in the reward system to release the signaling chemical dopamine at levels higher than typically observed in response to naturally rewarding stimuli. The surge of dopamine teaches the user to repeat the rewarding behavior, helping account for marijuana’s addictive properties.

According to a research report of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “THC is able to alter the functioning of the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex, brain areas that enable a person to form new memories and shift his or her attentional focus. As a result, using marijuana causes impaired thinking and interferes with a person’s ability to learn and perform complicated tasks. THC also disrupts the functioning of the cerebellum and basal ganglia, brain areas that regulate balance, posture, coordination, and reaction time. This is the reason people who have used marijuana may not be able to drive safely.”

Cannabis use can induce significant behavioral or psychological changes such as impaired motor coordination, euphoria, anxiety, hallucinations, a sensation of slowed time, impaired judgment, increased appetite, dry mouth, and even tachycardia.  

In his 2015 book Marijuana, psychiatrist and addiction specialist Kevin Hill listed three popular myths: that cannabis is not harmful, that it cannot lead to addiction, and that stopping the use of marijuana cannot cause withdrawal symptoms.

Cannabis or marijuana use disorder is common in the United States, is often associated with other substance use disorders, behavioral problems, and disability, and goes largely untreated, according to a 2016 study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the National Institutes of Health. 

Approximately a third of cannabis users develop a clinically diagnosable cannabis use disorder (CUD) at some point in their lives. A major study published in Oct 2020 updated the number of users developing an addiction from 10 to 30 percent, a change that is most likely driven by higher potency use. People who begin using marijuana before the age of 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder than adults.

“Often, patients who use cannabis heavily will report that it helps them with anxiety or insomnia irrespective of whether they have a common comorbid diagnosis such as general anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder,” reported Kevin Hill and Arthur Williams in 2019. “Although the short-term benefits of using cannabis may help with anxiolysis or treating early insomnia, in general cannabis, especially via rebound withdrawal symptoms, can worsen these underlying conditions over time (much like how patients with heavy alcohol use often develop worsening anxiety and irritability).”

We need to emphasize that today’s marijuana is much more harmful than it used to be. Cannabis products are now vastly more potent than the “reefers” of the 20th century.

In the seventies, joints averaged a THC concentration of about one percent, close to the natural levels of the cannabis plant. In the early nineties, the typical THC concentration had increased to three percent. Now it often exceeds 30 percent. In addition to that, cannabis is used in an extremely concentrated form called hash oil or wax. So-called “dabbing” refers to the inhalation of concentrated THC products created through butane extraction. Butane hash oil (BHO) can reach incredible concentrations of over 50 percent—that is 50 joints of the seventies rolled into one!  

The legalization of the recreational use of cannabis products in recent years has also led to the commercial production and sale of incredibly potent drugs that bear almost no resemblance to 1970s vintage joints. “To say that we have legalized weed is misleading,” Foundry Steamboat CEO Ben Cort explained in a 2018 TED talk. “We’ve commercialized THC.”

The relentless commercialization has had consequences. Advertising and location of cannabis retailers influence adolescents' intentions to use marijuana, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Health Communication by Washington State University researchers who conducted a survey of 13- to 17-year-olds in Washington State to find out how marijuana advertising and the location of marijuana retailers influence adolescents' intentions to use the drug. Their research shows regular exposure to marijuana advertising on storefronts, billboards, retailer websites, and other locations increased the likelihood of adolescents using marijuana.

Watch "Surprising truths about legalizing cannabis," a TedTalk delivered by Foundry Steamboat CEO Ben Cort.

And the billboards are advertising ever more powerful products. “Concentrates are everywhere and are not just being used by the fringe; they are mainstream and they are what many people picture when they talk about marijuana,” Cort wrote in his 2017 book Weed, Inc. “You are going to think some of this must be talking about hardcore users on the edge, but it’s not; concentrates are everywhere and have become synonymous with weed for this generation of users.” 

The higher the concentration of THC and the more frequent the use of such products, the higher the risk of addiction. The current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or DSM-5 used by psychiatrists in the United States lists—analog to other substance use disorders—eleven criteria for cannabis use disorder:

  • Cannabis is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.        
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control cannabis use.        
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain cannabis, use cannabis, or recover from its effects.        
  • Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use cannabis.        
  • Recurrent cannabis use results in failure to fulfill role obligations at work, school, or home.        
  • Continued cannabis use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of cannabis.        
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of cannabis use.
  • Recurrent cannabis use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.        
  • Cannabis use continues despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by cannabis. 
  • Tolerance, as defined by either: (1) a need for markedly increased cannabis to achieve intoxication or desired effect or (2) a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.    
  • Withdrawal, as manifested by either (1) the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for cannabis or (2) cannabis is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

The DSM-5 specifies three levels of severity for substance use disorders such as CUD. Two or three criteria indicate a mild cannabis use disorder, four or five indicate a moderate CUD, and six or more criteria indicate a severe cannabis use disorder.

According to Patel and Marwaha, cannabis misuse can also lead to a number of marijuana-related issues such as cannabis-induced sleep disorder, cannabis-induced anxiety disorder, or cannabis-induced psychotic disorder. 

Sadly, people presenting with CUD do not enjoy the same support from society as people with other substance use disorders, says Cort. “If you go to your doctor saying ‘I need to get off the bottle’ or ‘I need to stop shooting dope’ you can expect encouraging words and specialist referrals. If you say ‘I’m smoking too much weed’ you often only get a ‘so what’ kind of shrug.” Many doctors think that cannabis use is fairly harmless, if not beneficial. 

“We even encounter people in treatment whose CUD had been dismissed as ‘only weed’ because our society does not recognize cannabis as an addictive substance,” says Cort. In treatment, Foundry Steamboat has to prepare clients for a trigger-rich environment with ubiquitous “pot shops” and billboards advertising cannabis products—especially in Colorado.

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