Medically reviewed by:
Dr. Conor Sheehy, PharmD., BCPS
SA Content Team
Table of Contents
Understanding Marijuana Abuse
Marijuana is a green, brown, or gray mix of dried, crumbled leaves and resinous buds from the Cannabis plant. It is usually smoked, like tobacco. Its main psychoactive compound is delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC, and other, non-psychoactive, cannabinoid molecules in marijuana are under investigation for possible medicinal uses, and some states have legalized marijuana for recreational use.
Recreational marijuana use can cause health problems, and continued use, or marijuana abuse, can lead to a dependence on the drug.
Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Abuse
The signs and symptoms of a marijuana high can vary, and can be dramatic or subtle. Signs of significant marijuana use can include any of these:
- Difficulty with memory
- Increase in appetite
- Red or bloodshot eyes
- The smell of smoke in one’s hair and on one’s clothes
- Trouble walking
Over time, the drug can contribute to behaviour changes. These can include any of the following:
- Apathy toward school or work
- Disinterest in personal hygiene and appearance
- Disinterest in things and activities that used to matter to them
- Learning problems
- Loss of motivation
- Making excuses to smoke
- More significant memory problems
- Using drugs even while alone
Dangers of Marijuana Abuse
Despite being legalized for recreational, and medical purposes in many states, the DEA still classifies Marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which is its highest ranking for risk of abuse. Marijuana abuse can lead to the following short term and long term side effects:
Short term toxic effects of marijuana abuse:
- Altered consciousness
- Distorted perception of time
- Increased awareness of the senses
Heavier marijuana abuse side effects:
- Difficulty in memory-formation
- Inability to make decisions
- Involuntary muscle jerking
- Low blood pressure
- Poor concentration
It is in long-term marijuana use that possible dangers lie. Syndromes that appear to associated with habitual use include these:
- Breathing and lung problems, including irritation, chronic coughing
- Impaired brain development in young users
- Increased blood pressure, heart rate, and risk of heart attack
- Increased risk of cancer
- Sexual dysfunction, lowered sperm count, menstrual disruption
- Weakened immune system
- Worsening of existing mental health problems, particularly anxiety, depression, or psychosis
Ceasing marijuana after long periods of heavy use can be difficult. Some people experience withdrawal symptoms. These can include any of the following:
- Constantly feeling tired
- Having problems sleeping
- Increased anxiety and worry
- Losing weight and having no appetite
- Stomach pain
Can You Overdose on Marijuana?
Although it is not possible to overdose on marijuana, there are risks of toxic side effects when abusing the drug. Mild toxic effects of inhaled THC (2 to 3mg) may include impaired attention, short-term memory, concentration, and executive functioning. More severe toxic effects (>7.5mg) are nausea, hypotension, delirium, anxiety, panic attacks, and myoclonic jerking.
Most people with mild toxicity are managed with a dimly lit room, reassurance, and decreased stimulation. A short-acting benzodiazepine such as Ativan can be provided to decrease anxiety and paranoia. To date, the consumption of cannabis has not been reported to cause fatal overdose. Call 911 if you suspect a marijuana overdose, or if a combination of marijuana and another substance has caused someone to become unresponsive. The 911 operator will lead you through first aid measures to ensure their safety.
Addiction is most likely in people who start smoking in their early years, who smoke daily, and who use other drugs as well. It has also become an increasing concern for those who are vaping marijuana regularly, and getting much higher doses into their system more quickly.
Do you have a marijuana addiction? The diagnostic criteria for “cannabis use disorder” call for strongly affirmative answers to at least 2 of the following questions within the previous year:
- Are you having trouble cutting down?
- Do you often use more of the drug than you meant to?
- Do you spend a lot of time trying to get the drug, or use it, or recover from it?
- Do you get cravings for the drug?
- Is it interfering with your obligations at work, school, or home?
- Do you use it even when it’s causing you social or interpersonal problems?
- Have you given up any activities because of cannabis?
- Do you use cannabis in situations that are physically dangerous?
- Do you continue to use cannabis even though it’s causing physical or psychological problems?
- Are you developing a tolerance to the drug?
- If you stop, do you get withdrawal symptoms?
Marijuana Addiction Treatment
Like with most other drugs, marijuana addiction should be treated in a rehab center where medical professionals can help you make a change in your life. There aren’t any medications currently approved to treat marijuana addiction, but some are being developed to help suppress withdrawal effects.
In general, though, behavioral therapies can be beneficial to recovery. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, contingency management, and family therapy help patients by
- Teaching them better coping skills for when they experience cravings or become stressed
- Allowing them to learn and be able to recognize their triggers so they can avoid them
- Reinforcing positive behaviors like abstinence
- Getting to the root of the problem by exploring why the individual began taking marijuana in the first place
Also, support groups like Marijuana Anonymous are often part of a well-rounded treatment program where patients can safely recover from their substance abuse and learn to avoid dangerous behaviors in the future.