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Is Marijuana the Next "Big Tobacco?"


The number of Americans using marijuana is going up. As some states legalize the drug for medicinal and recreational use, more and more people are trying it, based largely on the assumption that it is non-habit forming. However, a new study shows that is far from the truth. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has found that not only is cannabis use disorder common, but it often goes untreated.

"People don't want to believe it's addictive and ignore the research that shows it is addictive because they like using it," says Elizabeth Howell, MD an addiction psychiatry expert with University of Utah Health. "If someone does not want to believe evidence, they will ignore it."

While those with cannabis use disorder may be able to ignore research, it is unlikely they will be able to ignore the mental disabilities that may result from it. "There is a marked increase in the risk of psychosis in people who have used marijuana," says Howell. "We also see an increase in depression, amotivational syndrome, and possibly a decrease in IQ."

The symptoms of cannabis use disorder are like those of any substance abuse disorder. The DSM-5 lists 11 diagnostic criteria that signify a problem, including using a larger amount over a longer period of time, large amounts of time procuring cannabis, and continued use in the face of problems caused or made worse by use. "You can also look for increased tolerance to the drug," says Howell. "Or there may be a desire to quit or cut back, but the user is unable to do so. "

Treating cannabis use disorder is similar to the treatment for other substance use issues. However, unlike some drugs, there are no immediate, dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal may take longer with marijuana than it does with other drugs. "Acute marijuana withdrawal can take up to a month," says Howell. "The person who stops for a month then resumes use thinks that they have stopped for a month; however, they may not even be free of the drug before using it again."

The best way to avoid cannabis use disorder, of course, is not to begin using in the first place. However, that may happen less and less as marijuana use is normalized more and more. It's a trend Howell finds disturbing. "The marijuana industry is likely going to turn into the next Big Tobacco, profiting off addiction and spreading misinformation," she says.