Marijuana addiction: When use becomes abuse

Marijuana addiction: When use becomes abuse

- in Health
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By Shamard Charles, M.D.

As marijuana legalization builds momentum across the United States — with Michigan becoming the latest state to allow recreational use by adults — researchers are warning that more studies are needed on the long-term effects of chronic pot smoking on the human brain.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, but little is known about its effect on health or how addictive it is.

According to a 2017 poll conducted by Marist College and Yahoo News, more than half of American adults have tried marijuana at least once in their lives, and nearly 55 million of them, or 22 percent, say they use it currently. Close to 35 million are what the survey calls “regular users,” people who say they use marijuana at least once or twice a month.

“Surprisingly, many people freely admit to using marijuana, but underreporting remains an issue,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a drug policy researcher and professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “To correct for that one should fudge upwards by a factor of 20 to 40 percent.”

With Michigan’s Election Day ballot measure, 10 states and the District of Columbia now allow the drug’s open use; 33 states plus D.C. allow medical use, leaving many to wonder if the U.S. will follow Canada’s lead in legalizing marijuana nationwide.

Consequences of chronic marijuana use

Nathaniel Warner, 31, a data analyst at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, first tried marijuana when he was 19, during his freshman year of college. Warner was having a hard time adjusting to campus life at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

“It was a tough transition for me and I was dealing with social anxiety,” Warner told NBC News.

Image: Nathaniel Warner
Nathaniel Warner, 31, from Rochester, Minnesota.Courtesy of Nathaniel Warner

At first he just smoked on school breaks, three or four times during the school year. “But before I knew it, it was summer and I was smoking daily,” he said. “It just gave me a feeling I had never experienced before.”

After four years of heavy use, Warner noticed that his short-term memory was starting to fray. He avoided talking to people, and festering feelings of anxiety and depression grew. He tried to mask them with weed, deepening his dependency. In 2010 Warner upended his life, quitting his job and breaking up with his girlfriend.

“I was hopeless. I realized that this lifestyle of being miserable and getting high was never going to change. I didn’t want to go through a 30- to 40-year cycle of going to work and coming home and getting high. I didn’t see an escape from that. That kind of shook me,” Warner said.

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