What do you think of when you hear or read about cannabis? Cannabis – also commonly known as marijuana – has been a focus of policy and public debate for decades. As far back as the 1980s and 1990s, it was heavily depicted in media as a dangerous substance associated with crime and perversion. Since the 2010s, however, the discussion surrounding cannabis has become more nuanced. After first legalizing medical cannabis, many states have gone on to legalize its recreational use as well.
In a day and age when many parts of the United States have fully established adult-use recreational cannabis markets, Sojourner House’s experts and staff wish to remind our community that cannabis use is not a risk-free activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s possible people who use marijuana will develop cannabis use disorder (CUD). Given that 45% of Americans have tried marijuana at least once, being aware of how and when cannabis use becomes problematic is an important part of the ongoing discussions surrounding it.
The Reasons People Use Cannabis
There are multiple reasons that people might use cannabis. Generally, the two most common reasons are for recreation and medical purposes.
Interestingly, the thinking behind cannabis use changes with age. College-aged individuals, for example, are more likely to give recreational-type reasons (i.e. for fun, out of curiosity, as a social activity, etc.). Studies of “experienced” adult users, however, found that with time people were more likely to report using cannabis to help relax or for medical purposes.
While some studies seemingly reveal potential patterns behind cannabis use, Psychology Today says it best: “No single reason appears to explain marijuana use in different populations or even individuals at different times.” The reality is that there is a long list of reasons for marijuana use—such as fun, relaxation, bonding, and social facilitation, emotion regulation, and medical reasons.
Defining A Medical Disorder
It’s fair and reasonable to compare cannabis use to alcohol use. Alcohol is another example of a commonly-ingested, widely accepted altering substance. As we know, however, too much alcohol consumption is associated with health issues.
Similarly, cannabis is now seen as a more accepted altering substance – in part because, unlike alcohol, it can offer potential health benefits. But like alcohol, if cannabis use causes health and social problems – and a person cannot stop using cannabis to address these problems – that cannabis use can be classified as a medical disorder.
Research published in 2015 suggested that as many as 3 in 10 people who use cannabis in the United States have CUD. And 2021 research found that it affects roughly 10% of the 193 million cannabis users in the world.
Signs & Symptoms
According to Verywell Mind, if two or more of these symptoms occur within a 12-month period, they could indicate CUD:
- Continuing to use cannabis despite physical or psychological problems
- Continuing to use cannabis despite social or relationship problems
- Craving cannabis
- Difficulty controlling or cutting down cannabis use
- Giving up or reducing other activities in favor of cannabis use
- Problems at work, school, and home as a result of cannabis use
- Spending a lot of time on cannabis use
- Taking cannabis in high-risk situations
- Taking more cannabis than was intended
- Tolerance to cannabis
- Withdrawal when discontinuing cannabis
The number of symptoms a person experiences can also help to indicate the degree to which they’re struggling with CUD. Mild disorders present with two to three symptoms; moderate disorders with four to five symptoms; and severe disorders with six or more symptoms.
Shared Risk Factors
The following are all known risk factors for CUD:
As we’ve discussed previously, there are connections and strong correlations between substance abuse and mental health in general – usually because substance misuse becomes a coping mechanism to try and manage the underlying, untreated mental health issue.
This is especially true for CUD. Stress, emotional distress, and mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are all associated with the development of CUD. Studies have also found higher rates of CUD in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Modern research has indicated that genetics might also impact someone’s risk of developing a substance use disorder (SUD). More specifically, researchers have identified several gene variants that can increase the risk of developing cannabis dependence.
Past or Ongoing Substance Misuse
A person can struggle with more than one SUD at a time. So if someone has previously misused a substance, or they are currently struggling with another SUD, that increases their risk of turning to cannabis. CUD often co-presents with the following SUDs:
- Sedative use disorder
- Cocaine use disorder
- Stimulant use disorder
- Alcohol use disorder
Treatment for Cannabis Use Disorder
In the event that cannabis use becomes unhealthy or disorderly, there are treatment options available.
At this time, there is no single medication or prescription available to those struggling with CUD. However, several types of counseling and therapy – including cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and behavioral therapy – offer long-term benefits and help to reduce or end cannabis use.
One important thing to remember is that if someone is using cannabis to manage another condition – including mental or emotional health – then the best next step will be for an individual to receive treatment for that health issue as well as their CUD. Otherwise, the underlying conditions that led to CUD will remain present and increase the chance of relapse.
How This Knowledge Makes a Difference
Sadly, research indicates that only 10% of people who use cannabis daily seek treatment. Those who don’t seek treatment give reasons such as: fear of change, stigma, other mental health problems, and lack of access to care.
These commonly listed reasons highlight why Sojourner House continues to work to break the stigma against mental health and recovery care. Better conversations and understanding of these health issues are essential to promoting healing, recovery, and good health. And when we understand and treat people with these issues with dignity and compassion, we can support them on their journey to recovery and a brighter future.
Our team and organization is proud to offer comprehensive care that helps families make major steps towards a better life. If you or someone you know is struggling, contact Sojourner House for help.