The Truth About Cannabis Addiction

Although the use and possession of cannabis continues to be illegal under federal law, so-called “medical” and recreational marijuana use has become increasingly widespread in the United States after 38 states and Washington, DC legalized “medical” cannabis, while 23 states and DC have legalized its recreational use. 

Today, a majority of US states permit the sale of so-called “medical” marijuana for various ailments, although the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved marijuana as a medical treatment—in fact, the FDA continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Because of the continued legalization across the country and the assumption of medical benefits, however, risk perception has plummeted.

In Colorado, cannabis has been legal for “medical” use since the year 2000 and for recreational use since late 2012. In November 2000, 54 percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 20, allowing the use of marijuana in the state for approved patients with written medical consent notes (doctors cannot actually prescribe “medical” marijuana in any state because it is not an FDA-approved medication). California was the first state to legalize “medical” marijuana in 1996. Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize its recreational use back in 2012.

While many Americans, including some physicians, believe in the unproven health benefits of cannabis—some of which may or may not exist—few people know the danger of addiction and other mental health impacts of marijuana use. Recent research estimates that approximately three in ten people who use marijuana have marijuana use disorder. For people who begin using cannabis products before the age of 18, the risk of developing a marijuana addiction is even greater.

Few people are aware that the legalization is primarily driven by well-organized multi-state operators selling largely unregulated and unsafe commercial products. Foundry Treatment Center Steamboat CEO Ben Cort has been raising awareness of these issues for years. In a recent webinar for Harmony Foundation, Cort explained how the potent products the marijuana industry is selling in the 21st century are a far cry from the weed people smoked in the 1970s. The reason is the THC content of today’s cannabis products.

Marijuana is a mind-altering drug derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. It has over 480 constituents, with THC (delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol) being the main ingredient producing its psychoactive effect. 

As Cort explained during the webinar, the THC levels in cannabis products have dramatically increased in the last few decades from less than one percent THC in the seventies to well beyond 15 percent in recent years. And that’s just the plants—concentrates can reach much higher levels of THC. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Solvent-based products tend to be especially potent, with THC levels documented at an average of about 54–69 percent and reported to exceed 80 percent, while non-solvent-based extraction methods produce average THC levels between 39–60 percent.”

“The average cannabis product sold in Colorado in 2016 had a THC content of 63 percent,” Cort said. He doesn’t really want to talk about the plant anymore because the people who are treated at Foundry for cannabis use disorder (CUD) have not been smoking the pot passed around in the 1970s.

“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.” 

Boomers and Gen X Americans grew up when cannabis was far less dangerous while the risks of cannabis use were publicly exaggerated. Now, the opposite is the case: risk perception is at an all-time low while the product has become much more potent and consequently much more dangerous. 

“We now have a generation that believes cannabis is not harmful and not addictive, but cannabis use disorder is very real and not that easy to treat,” Cort said. “To downplay the significance of addiction to THC shows a lack of understanding of addiction as a whole. Addiction isolates us, destroys our families, and guts our communities from the inside. It keeps us from connecting with one another. Addiction gets in the way of living our best lives.”

THC addiction often requires long stays in treatment and antipsychotic medications, and many patients require a physical detoxification. Traditionally, about ten percent of cannabis users were expected to develop an addiction to THC but that rate appears to have gone up to 30 percent, with dramatically increased potency being the main suspect. 

Cort pointed out that the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists several specific symptoms of cannabis withdrawal syndrome, including irritability, anxiety, depressed mood, and insomnia. He presented the results of a 2020 study that found the prevalence of cannabis withdrawal syndrome to be 47 percent, with frequent users exceeding even that. “Cannabis withdrawal syndrome appears to be common among regular users of cannabis, particularly those in outpatient and inpatient settings and individuals with substance use disorders,” the authors wrote. “Clinicians should be aware of the high prevalence of cannabis withdrawal syndrome to counsel patients and support individuals who are reducing their use of cannabis.”

In his experience, symptoms of cannabis withdrawal syndrome typically peak after 3–4 days, with a strong resurgence of physical symptoms after two weeks. “Normalized use of cannabis by family members makes it hard for some members to relate and feel supported to stop using,” Cort told the webinar participants. “At Foundry Treatment Center Steamboat, we treat families in which cannabis use complicates the ability for people to enter and sustain recovery.”

Harmony Foundation has long utilized a holistic approach to healing addiction. All staff have been trained in trauma-informed care. Realizing that addiction is a biopsychosocial and spiritual disease, Harmony’s treatment program promotes physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, empowering patients to embark upon a lifelong recovery journey.

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol or drug addiction or have questions about our programs, call us today at (970) 432-8075 to get the help needed as soon as possible. Our experienced staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.