Can You Be Addicted to Medical Marijuana?

Rohan Mathew

Updated on:

No patient should be deprived of a medical treatment that improves their health and wellness — even if that treatment is as controversial as cannabis. Medical marijuana treatments have been proven to be beneficial for a number of health conditions, especially in instances of severe and otherwise untreatable disease, like cancer and AIDS. Even in places that stridently refuse to legalize recreational cannabis, medical cannabis programs are available to help patients achieve health and wellbeing.

Yet, medical marijuana isn’t a foolproof treatment. Cannabis, like all drugs, comes with plenty of risks and side-effects, which can negatively impact those same patients it should aid. One of the biggest concerns regarding medical marijuana is that of addiction — can a patient using medical marijuana to treat a real disease succumb to cannabis use disorder?

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First: What Is Cannabis Use Disorder

Cannabis Use Disorder, sometimes abbreviated as CUD, is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) using the following criteria:

  • User takes cannabis in larger amounts and over longer periods than intended
  • User has a persistent desire and/or unsuccessful attempts to control cannabis consumption
  • User spends an inordinate amount of time obtaining, using or recovering from cannabis
  • User experiences strong cannabis cravings
  • User frequently neglects responsibilities at work, school or home
  • User continues to use despite recurrent social problems caused by cannabis
  • User abandons certain activities because of cannabis use
  • User consumes cannabis even when it is physically risky to do so
  • User develops cannabis tolerance
  • User undergoes symptoms of cannabis withdrawal

Cannabis users who display two or three of the above-listed criteria are considered to have a mild case of cannabis use disorder. Four to give symptoms is a moderate case of CUD, and six or more is considered severe CUD.

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Short Answer: Yes

When used as a medical treatment, cannabis offers positive health effects that can make certain conditions easier to manage. However, the same is certainly true for other medications, like opioid pain relievers and tranquilizers, yet the possibility of addiction is well-known to be high with these drugs. In truth, it is possible to become addicted to almost any substance or behavior, especially if that substance or behavior makes the body and brain feel good. Thus, medical marijuana patients could very well become physically or psychologically dependent on cannabis in an unhealthy way.

Long Answer: It Depends

However, cannabis use disorder isn’t an inevitability with medical marijuana use. In fact, it is remarkably easy for medical marijuana patients to use the drug in a way that offers them the advantages of pain relief, psychological aid, nausea alleviation and other positive effects without the risk of substance abuse or even any negative symptoms of cannabis consumption.

Here are three questions that medical marijuana patients should ask themselves at the beginning and throughout their cannabis treatment journey to help guide them to more healthful consumption habits:

What kind of medical marijuana are you using? The dominant psychoactive compound within cannabis, THC, has more noticeable effects and is more likely to result in some kind of use disorder. Patients who only benefit from the dominant non-psychoactive cannabis compound, CBD, should consider visiting Denver dispensaries and talking to budtenders about high-CBD, low-THC products that will help them manage their condition.

Are you tracking your dosage? Unlike other medications, doctors cannot prescribe a specific dose to medical marijuana patients — primarily because every patient has a unique natural tolerance to cannabis compounds, and dosing properly requires some experimentation. Still, it is possible to overdose on THC; an overdose isn’t deadly, but it is uncomfortable and can reduce the positive effects of the drug going forward. Patients should be in the habit of tracking their dosage of THC and CBD, writing down the milligrams of active ingredients and the resulting effects. Then, overdose and addiction are less likely to become issues.

Is your health care provider monitoring your consumption? Even if health care providers cannot set strict limits on cannabis consumption, they can be involved in patient treatment. In the early stages of medical marijuana use, doctors should be checking in with patients frequently to understand whether the treatment is having a positive effect on their health and wellbeing. During these checkups, doctors should ask questions about consumption habits, and if there is any indication of substance abuse, they should intervene.

There is no truth to the myth that cannabis addiction doesn’t exist, and even medical marijuana users are not invulnerable to the potential of developing cannabis use disorder. Still, with the right products, the right health care provider and the right practices, substance abuse is far from inevitable. Patients can safely use marijuana for medical benefit in the short and long term.