Cannabis Addiction Explained
Cannabis is one of the most widely consumed recreational substances on Earth, and many people around the world are able to enjoy taking cannabis without suffering serious harm. However, for a growing number of individuals cannabis addiction is proving a destructive and life-changing condition, and more and more people are seeking help for cannabis addiction, both in the UK and worldwide.
What is Cannabis?
Cannabis – also known as marijuana and by countless other names around the world – is a drug obtained from different strains of the Cannabis plant, usually smoked as dried plant matter, oil or resin, but which can also be ingested and is increasingly supplied in other forms including vapes and patches.
The most prominent of many psychoactive ingredients in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which acts upon cannabinoid receptors found in the brain and the central nervous system (CNS). Cannabis use has a variety of psychoactive effects, and one person’s cannabis “high” may feel and appear quite different from another’s. Typically, cannabis is consumed for its euphoric and relaxing effects, and can also produce altered perception, boost libido, enhance creative impulses, and assist with self-exploration and philosophy. More negative effects of cannabis consumption can include panic attacks, nausea, impaired motor control, paranoia, anxiety, increased heart rate, incontinence, dry mouth, interference with sleeping and eating habits, cognitive impairment, poor decision-making, lethargy and mood swings.
However, in recent years a number of jurisdictions in the Western world – most prominently Canada and several states in the USA – have either fully legalised or decriminalised cannabis, and the legal cannabis industry is already worth billions of dollars globally.
In the UK, on the other hand, resistance to cannabis decriminalisation or full legalisation continues to be robust in Parliament, despite growing evidence that the British population would support at least partial decriminalisation of what is by some way the most commonly consumed illegal substance in the country. As a result, cannabis continues to be a class-B controlled substance under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Although the practice most cases of small-scale cannabis possession are dealt with via cautions or other minor penalties, the potential penalties for unlawful possession and supply of cannabis can reach five years imprisonment and an unlimited fine, and 14 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine respectively.
Cannabis’s medicinal properties have been explored thousands of years, but in recent times a growing quantity of research has been conducted into the various health benefits potentially offered by cannabis, and in particular its ingredient cannabidiol (CBD), seen as a possible treatment for pain, anxiety, movement disorders and a significant range of other health conditions. The medical marijuana industry is booming in some parts of the world, and CBD itself is legal in the UK in certain circumstances (most obviously, when it contains no more than 0.2% THC).
How does Cannabis act on Cannabinoid Receptors?
When cannabis is consumed, the THC in the drug acts upon cannabinoid receptors throughout the body. Cannabinoid receptors allow chemical signalling across cell membranes, and impact upon a number of different physiological processes including sensation, appetite, mood and memory. THC affects cannabinoid receptors – especially the CB1 and CB2 receptors, primarily found in the brain and peripheral tissues respectively – by enhancing their effects to increase dopamine release and by inhibiting the activity of chemicals including adenylate cyclase, an enzyme with various key cell-regulation properties.
Major Cannabis Strains
The genus Cannabis is often considered to be divided into three species – Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis – though a significant debate exists regarding this taxonomy. Some experts consider Cannabis ruderalis to be included within Cannabis sativa, whilst another group believes that all Cannabis plants are actually members of only one species (Cannabis sativa). Regardless of if or how the genus Cannabis is divided, the plant is generally agreed to have its origins in Central Asia.
Cannabis indica is usually considered to have the highest proportion of THC – especially when compared with another important ingredient in cannabis, CBD – of the major cannabis types, which typically makes it considered the “strongest” variety of cannabis in terms of the intensity of its effects, and therefore is commonly sought out by individuals looking for a strong intoxicating “high”.
Cannabis ruderalis – which may be its own species or part of the Cannabis sativa species – has the lowest proportion of THC, and is therefore not typically used recreationally. Its high CBD content, however, makes it of significant interest in medical research.
Cannabis sativa usually has a lower proportion of THC to CBD than Cannabis indica, making it the recreational strain of choice for individuals seeking a relaxing, soporific “high” as opposed to the more intense “high” which the latter strain typically induces. Cannabis sativa is also of great interest to health researchers thanks to its high CBD proportions.
Trade Names for Cannabis Strains
As a result of the worldwide penetration of cannabis consumption, and especially since the rapid growth of the legal cannabis industry, especially in parts of the United States, a large number of different strains of cannabis are now marketed to users, with different quantities and ratios of THC and CBD intended to provide users with different types of cannabis “high”. Some of these strains were originally cultivated prior to legalisation, while others have been developed fairly recently in the newly legalised environment. Regardless of their origins, these strains of cannabis are now often marketed quite heavily with their “trade names” used as identifiers and differentiators for customers. Some of the best-known cannabis ”brands” include:
- Amnesia Haze
- Blue Dream
- Bubba Kush
- Critical Mass
- Durban Poison
- Gorilla Glue
- Hindu Kush
- Jack Herer
- Maui Waui
- Northern Lights
- OG Kush
- Purple Haze
- Sour Diesel
- Strawberry Cough
- White Widow
- Willie Nelson
Industry Names for Cannabis Extracts
As well as the dried plant matter which is the most common form of cannabis, various different smokable, inhalable and ingestible forms of the drug are now being marketed in a number of parts of the world where cannabis is legal or decriminalised. Some of these forms are of particular interest to major cannabis producers and are marketed under different names. Some generic names for these alternative cannabis products include:
- Budder: a concentrated paste extracted from the cannabis plant
- Concentrates: a collective term for products extracted from cannabis through the use of hydrocarbon solvents or supercritical carbon dioxide.
- Honey oil: an oral form of extracted cannabis concentrate.
- Live resin: extracted fresh cannabis, which is kept at sub-zero temperatures during the extraction process as opposed to being dried.
- Shatter: a brittle, usually transparent form of extracted cannabis concentrate
- Wax: a waxy type of cannabis concentrate, varying in constituency
Routes of Cannabis Administration
Cannabis is taken in a number of different ways, both recreationally and medically. The primary route of cannabis administration include:
- oral ingestion
- transdermal patch
- intravenous injection
- sublingual absorption
- rectal suppository
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Street Slang for Cannabis
Because of the very long history of human consumption of cannabis, its worldwide proliferation, and depictions of cannabis and cannabis use in art, literature and modern media, as well as the drive to discuss cannabis in surreptitious terms caused by criminalisation, there are a staggering number of different street names for cannabis and cannabis products used around the world: well over 3,000 such names have been recorded and more arise each year. Some of the most common terms for cannabis include:
- Marijuana (or marihuana)
- Mary Jane
- Aunt Mary
- Baby Bhang
- Bobo Bush
- Dinkie Dow
- Dona Juana (or Juanita)
- Flower, Flower Tops
- Giggle Smoke
- Good Giggles
- Good Butt
- Hot Stick
- Jolly Green
- Joy Smoke, Joy Stick
Slang Terms for Cannabis Consumption
Primarily because of the illegal nature of cannabis consumption in much of the world, numerous euphemisms have been created to describe the act of taking cannabis, including:
- Burn one
- Clam bake
- Fly Mexican airlines
- Get high
- Hot box
- Puff the dragon
- Tea party
- Torch up
- Wake and bake
Slang Terms for Cannabis Users
The stereotypical image – especially in film and on television – of a regular cannabis user is not a positive one, emphasising slow mental responses, lethargy, clumsiness, a lack of ambition, limited care for appearance and hygiene, and a preoccupation with cannabis and related matters. Various terms have arisen to describe this stereotype, and more broadly people who consume cannabis and are regularly intoxicated by it, including but not limited to:
- Tea head
Street Terms for the Effects of Cannabis
Again because of the problematic nature of discussing cannabis consumption in a criminalised environment, a wide range of euphemisms have evolved to describe the effects of the drug on users, including but not limited to:
- Nature’s holiday
- Lit up
Medical Uses of Cannabis
Cannabis has been used medically in different parts of the world for thousands of years, primarily as an anaesthetic, but also to treat many conditions as varied as constipation, insomnia, gastrointestinal disorders, and nosebleeds.
In ancient China, cannabis was recommended as a treatment for gout, rheumatism and absentmindedness; the ancient Egyptians used cannabis suppositories to tackle haemorrhoids; physicians in the mediaeval Islamic world recognised cannabis’ diuretic, antiepileptic, antipyretic, antiemetic and analgesic properties.
In modern times, especially the Western world, the medical use of cannabis has been restricted due to its criminalisation; although cannabis was introduced into Western medicine as early as the 1830s, it fell out of favour by the beginning of the 20th century. However, as a growing number of people – especially cancer and AIDS patients – began to testify to the therapeutic effects of cannabis, more and more jurisdictions began to soften their stance on medical cannabis, and now dozens of countries around the world have either fully legalised the medical use of cannabis or allow it in restricted or experimental circumstances.
Cannabis has been suggested as a treatment for a very large number of conditions, though its efficacy has only been established thus far in a limited number. Cannabis is known to help with chronic pain, to reduce muscle spasms, to minimise nausea during chemotherapy, to help ameliorate some sleep disorders, and to reduce the frequency and severity of tics in Tourette’s syndrome. Cannabis is also prescribed to treat anorexia, migraine, glaucoma and arthritis, and research is ongoing into its value as a treatment for neurological problems including multiple sclerosis (MS).
Pharmacology of Cannabis and Addiction
As with all addictions, cannabis addiction is a disorder of the brain’s reward system in which the affected individual’s compulsion to engage in cannabis consumption regardless of any negative consequences which may result. Addiction is now thought to be primarily driven by the overexpression of the gene transcription factor DeltaFOSB in areas of the brain including the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, and the mesolimbic pathway connecting those two, which causes an intensification of addictive behaviour including cannabis consumption.
Addiction is often closely related to the phenomenon of dependence, and indeed the two terms are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Dependence develops when an individual consumes an addictive substance over a period of time, and their system becomes reliant upon that substance for normal functioning, with potentially unpleasant and even dangerous symptoms of withdrawal manifesting upon cessation of use.
Until fairly recently, cannabis was not considered to be an addictive drug and even long-term cannabis use was thought unlikely to result in dependence – and this is still a view held by many members of the public. However, it is now generally accepted that cannabis use can in fact result in both dependence and addiction, and some leading authorities including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) of the American Psychiatric Association (APA) estimate that approximately 9% of all cannabis users will go on to develop cannabis dependence.
Synthetic Recreational Cannabis
In recent decades, driven by the criminal nature of cannabis in much of the world and the huge profits associated with the production and sale of cannabis, new products have been developed which aim to replicate the effects of cannabis without originating from the cannabis plant itself and therefore contravening any relevant laws in place. This so-called “synthetic cannabis”, however, is frequently very dissimilar from actual cannabis in terms of the nature and strength of its effects. A huge number of different products are now available on the street, despite legislation brought in in 2016 in the UK which outlaws so-called “new psychoactive substances” (NPS) including synthetic cannabinoids.
The consequences for physical and mental health of products sold as synthetic cannabinoids – often called “spice” after one of the earliest such products to reach the market – are various and potentially devastating, since a complete lack of regulation around the contents of such products means that they may contain various ingredients potentially harmful to humans, including industrial and household chemicals. A number of politicians, health experts and other commentators have described the proliferation of synthetic cannabinoids in the UK as a “spice epidemic”, and synthetic cannabinoids are now viewed as a huge social ill with their effects visible on the streets of towns and cities across the country, especially amongst the homeless community, and in UK prisons where they are considered one of the leading challenges to the health and security of inmates.
Risk Factors for Cannabis Addiction
Addiction is now a comparatively well understood phenomenon. However, medical science has not yet established why a given individual will go on to develop an addiction while another in very similar circumstances will not. Nevertheless, numerous factors are known to increase the likelihood that a given individual will at some point develop a cannabis addiction.
Various environmental risk factors for cannabis addiction are recognised, including:
- easy access to cannabis
- being prescribed cannabis-based medication
- growing up in a household featuring substance abuse and addiction
- experiencing stress
- experiencing trauma
- a personal history of substance abuse and addiction
- associating with a peer group within which cannabis abuse is widespread
Genetics are thought to be responsible for about 50% of the phenomenon of addiction. A family history of substance abuse and addiction is the single most prominent sign that someone risks developing a cannabis. Other genetic factors thought to contribute to the onset of addiction include:
- diseases of genetic origin for which cannabis-based medications may be prescribed
- mental health issues of genetic origin
- inherited characteristics such as a proclivity towards risk-taking behaviour
Dangers Associated with Cannabis Abuse
Although cannabis is usually considered amongst the safest of recreational substances, and it is certainly less obviously immediately perilous than many other illegal drugs, it is not without its dangers. Cannabis intoxication can lead to accidents and risky behaviour with potentially life-changing consequences. Smoking cannabis with tobacco greatly increases the risk of developing cancer and a variety of pulmonary and respiratory disorders. Engaging in criminal activity related to cannabis, including cannabis production and/or supply, can result in very serious penalties including long-term imprisonment. Associating with drug dealers greatly increases the likelihood that an individual will suffer acts of violence.
Regular cannabis consumption can lead to dependence and addiction, with very serious consequences for the affected individual’s life circumstances and prospects. The lethargy associated with cannabis consumption can result in poor levels of fitness, rendered worse by poor diet and especially by the weight gain which can often result from regularly giving into “the munchies”, a greatly intensified appetite whilst intoxicated. Smoking cannabis and falling asleep increases the risk of fire in the home or elsewhere.
Cannabis abuse, especially long-term, has been associated with the onset of serious mental health disorders including schizophrenia, though the connection between cannabis and such disorders has not yet been fully established. Cannabis when taken alongside other intoxicating substances can enhance the effects of such intoxication, exacerbating dangers associated with loss of motor control, disinhibition and other phenomena, and can make nausea and vomiting much more likely, potentially increasing the likelihood of death as a result of inhaling vomit whilst unconscious. Smoking cannabis whilst pregnant can harm the unborn child, including causing premature birth and/or low birthweight.
Can you overdose from cannabis?
No deaths from cannabis overdose have been reported, and it is extremely unlikely that someone will be able to overdose accidentally on the drug: a lethal dose of THC is estimated to be somewhere between 15-70g, which is vastly in excess of what any individual user would consume other than in a putative suicide attempt. However, cannabis can increase the likelihood that an individual will overdose from other substances of abuse.
Impaired motor function and coordination
Taking cannabis typically causes a loss of motor control and poor coordination, which can be fairly minor but in some cases may be pronounced. This greatly increases likely that an individual will suffer, and/or cause, injury or death, especially whilst driving or operating heavy machinery.
Signs and Symptoms of Cannabis Use
Although cannabis is not typically viewed as being as problematic a drug as many other illegal substances, it is still against the law to possess cannabis in the UK and many professions and employers operate a zero-tolerance policy for cannabis, whilst younger cannabis users are likely to face significant disciplinary issues at school or home. Because of this there is still an impetus to conceal cannabis use in many situations and it can therefore sometimes be difficult to identify if and when someone has taken cannabis as they may go to great lengths to conceal their activities.
Nevertheless, there are signs and symptoms may be identified which can betray cannabis use in an individual, especially including:
- Bloodshot eyes
- Altered sense of time
- Dry mouth
- Increased heart rate
- Cognitive impairment
- Impaired memory
- Slowed reflexes
- Impaired motor skills
- Increased appetite
Teen Cannabis Habits
For a host of reasons, including the comparative affordability and ubiquity of cannabis compared with many other drugs, cannabis is the popular illegal recreational substance amongst teenagers and young people. Indeed, getting high on cannabis is seen by many as a common rite of passage during adolescence. However, as well as any health risks associated with cannabis consumption, its illegal nature means that young people cope with cannabis can still face potentially life-changing legal consequences, as well as strict disciplinary measures in school and elsewhere.
Recent trends suggest that whilst still being the most popular illegal drug amongst young people, cannabis is now being consumed by a decreasing proportion of that demographic: weekly use of cannabis amongst young people in the UK dropped by more than 50% between 2002 and 2018, with 7.3% of young Britons now using cannabis weekly.
Signs your teen is using cannabis
Although teenagers typically try hard to conceal cannabis use in the attempt to avoid any trouble which may result, some signs may be visible that your teen is a cannabis user, including:
- frequently red, bloodshot eyes
- slurred speech
- impaired motor control
- slow reflexes
- impaired thinking
- possessing paraphernalia related to cannabis consumption
- altered sleeping and eating habits
- changes in peer group
- frequently smelling of herbal smoke
- being short of money
- unexplained absences
- furtive and/or deceitful behaviour
Co-Occurring Disorders and Cannabis Abuse
Substance abuse and addiction commonly co-occur with mental health disorders as the former can both cause and be caused by the latter. Cannabis addiction particular is linked with psychosis, paranoia, depression and anxiety, whilst many people suffering from any of a huge range of mental health issues use cannabis to self-medicate or as a form of escapism. When a substance use disorder such as cannabis addiction co-occurs with another mental health issue, the phenomenon is known as dual diagnosis; dual diagnosis typically requires specialist treatment, as the treatment of one issue can negatively affect that of the other.
Cannabis Addiction Withdrawal Symptoms
Individuals who have developed cannabis dependence are likely to exhibit some withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of use. Cannabis dependence is more of a psychological than a physical phenomenon, but some physical symptoms may also manifest. Common symptoms of cannabis withdrawal include:
- Mood swings
Cannabis Addiction Treatment Options
As the reality of cannabis addiction has become increasingly well understood, and as a result of the very widespread use of cannabis in the UK, a growing number of public and private addiction treatment centres now treat cannabis addiction around the country. Cannabis addiction may be treated on either an inpatient or outpatient basis. Contact an addiction specialist for information about cannabis addiction treatment centres and options that may be appropriate for you.
Medications for Cannabis Addiction
There are currently no medications available designed specifically for the treatment of cannabis addiction, though some medications primarily used for other purposes are occasionally prescribed in cases of cannabis addiction. However, numerous medications are used in cannabis addiction treatment to counter the worst impact of cannabis withdrawal syndrome. Antidepressants, anxiolytics, sleep aids, antipsychotics and others may all be given to tackle specific symptoms of cannabis withdrawal either prior to, during, or even after a detoxification (detox) process.
Various different types of cannabis addiction treatment facilities can be found in the UK, both NHS and private. As with other forms of drug addiction, the most effective way to treat cannabis addiction is generally considered to be residential rehabilitation (rehab), in which cannabis addicts are treated on an inpatient basis, residing at a facility where they have 24/7 medical support and access to various facilities such as gyms, social rooms et cetera. Stays in cannabis rehab usually last for between 30 to 90 days. For more information on rehab for cannabis addiction, contact an addiction specialist.
Cannabis Rehab Treatment Process
Every rehab is unique, and every individual experience of rehab is similarly so. Nevertheless, a rough guide as to what to expect from cannabis rehab may be provided.
Typically, upon entering cannabis rehab a client will receive an initial health assessment so that doctors can establish the clients physical and mental condition and the extent and nature of their addiction. If necessary, doctors may decide to prescribe medication at this point in order to get a head start on addressing any withdrawal symptoms that might arise.
Following assessment, the client will enter a period of detox, benefiting from 24/7 medical support for their safety and comfort. Once any cannabis dependence has been largely addressed and their system has been cleansed of substance abuse via detox, the client will progress to a rehabilitation phase featuring therapy and various other elements of a treatment plan including bespoke dietary and fitness programmes.
After the client has completed a cannabis addiction treatment programme, and has been taught various coping mechanisms and psychological defences against relapse, they will leave rehab having achieved abstinence and having developed a much more positive outlook on the future. However, recovery from cannabis addiction is a long-term endeavour which is not achieved simply by leaving a facility, and good rehabs offer clients up to a year’s free aftercare after treatment in order to support their recovery.
Cannabis Abuse Statistics
- Approximately 9% of regular cannabis smokers will go on to develop cannabis addiction. Amongst daily users that figure rises to up to 20%.
- According to the United Nations, up to 232 million people around the world (4.9% of the human population aged between 15 and 65) use cannabis each year.
- In 2013 Uruguay became the first country on earth fully to legalise the recreational use of cannabis.
- The countries with the highest rates of cannabis use are Zambia, the USA, Canada, and Nigeria.
- Approximately 16% of Britons aged between 16 and 24 use cannabis each year.
Ready to get Help?
If you believe you have a problem with cannabis, do not ignore it. Just because cannabis is considered a less harmful drug than many others, that does not mean there are no dangers associated with cannabis use, and cannabis addiction can be extremely destructive. If you think you have a cannabis addiction, the sooner you can get help with your condition the better your prognosis will be – so as soon as you’re ready to reach out for help, call your GP and/or an addiction specialist to discuss your situation and the various treatment options which may be available to you.
Take control of your life – get started on the road to recovery
Chronic cannabis smokers often feel enslaved to the drug, and unable to imagine life without it. However, with the right professional help even the longest-term cannabis user can break the chains of their addiction, achieve abstinence, and go on to lead a happy and healthy life free of substance abuse. That help could be only a phone call away – so make that call today and take your first step on the path back to the life you want and deserve.
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