Impact of Legalization on Marijuana Addiction Treatment

Gavel of judge next to marijuana

The use of marijuana and its legalization in numerous states around the country has been a tricky issue in many ways. States have adopted different approaches, but many have some level of legalization or decriminalization of marijuana use. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of the criminal justice population, it can also create the perception that because it’s legal, marijuana is safe, which isn’t always the case.

Marijuana use can lead to dependence and other physical and mental characteristics similar to addiction in other substances. Because it’s legal in so many places, the risks of using marijuana could be overlooked, or people might not realize they have problematic use patterns that could benefit from treatment.

The Evolution of Marijuana Legalization

In 1996, California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana, with several states following in the coming years. In 2012, Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use by adults. In 2014, Oregon and Alaska legalized the use of recreational marijuana, and several other states did as well. Several marijuana-related provisions were on the ballot in 2016, and in 2018, the Farm Bill was passed in the U.S. Congress. That legalized industrial hemp at the federal level.

Since the 2020 elections, many other states have also voted to approve recreational marijuana, including Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota.

While states have legalized its use in many cases, it’s still illegal at the federal level, although that’s something being debated by lawmakers.

The Risks of Marijuana

Just because something is legal doesn’t inherently make it safe or a good option for everyone. It’s similar to alcohol—yes, it’s legal for adults to drink, but it’s one of the most dangerous substances in terms of addiction, health, and the risk of accidents.

Marijuana is a psychoactive substance with many short- and long-term effects. The severity of the potentially damaging impact depends on the individual, the amount used, how often it’s used, and the product’s potency.

Short-term effects of marijuana can include:

  • Impaired memory and concentration, as well as impairments in cognitive function.
  • Balance, coordination, and reaction time issues.
  • Alterations in judgment and decision-making lead to risky behaviors.
  • Increased heart rate, which can be especially dangerous for people with pre-existing cardiovascular issues.
  • Psychological effects like paranoia or anxiety, and at high doses, there are instances of psychosis linked to marijuana use.
  • If someone smokes marijuana, it can cause respiratory issues like lung irritation, coughing, and persistent wheezing.

Long-term marijuana effects may include:

  • Cognitive impairment, primarily when someone uses marijuana regularly starting from an earlier age. The issues might relate to attention, learning and memory.
  • The risk of addiction is somewhat lower with marijuana than with other substances, but it is still possible, as is dependence, making it difficult to stop.
  • Chronic marijuana use is associated with a lack of motivation in some people and worsened symptoms of mental health disorders.

Marijuana, Addiction, and Dependence

Marijuana can lead to a psychological addiction for some individuals, usually because of the effects of THC, which is the psychoactive component that creates euphoric effects. Some people who frequently use it may find themselves increasingly relying on it as a coping mechanism for stress, anxiety, or difficult emotions.

Heavy marijuana use can also lead to withdrawal symptoms when someone tries to cut back or stop using it. These can include mood swings, loss of appetite, irritability, and insomnia.
Also somewhat familiar is the use of marijuana along with other addictive substances, like alcohol. The combination of substances can heighten the effects of both, raise the risk of addiction and dependence, and make quitting more complex.

There are both similarities and differences between marijuana addiction and addictions to other substances. First, it’s primarily a psychological addiction or dependence rather than a physical one. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms tend to be milder than substances like alcohol, opioids or benzodiazepines.

What Are the Signs of Problematic Marijuana Use?

The patterns of problematic use that can occur with marijuana use usually come with problems in different areas of a person’s life. Addiction is complicated and is specific to the individual. The intensity ranges from mild to severe, but in general, some of the signs someone may be struggling with their marijuana use or addicted to it include:

  • Loss of control over use, meaning an inability to control how often or how much is used, or unsuccessful attempts to either cut back or quit altogether.
  • A higher tolerance, which requires more marijuana to get the desired effects.
  • Neglecting other responsibilities because of marijuana use. These can be responsibilities at home, school, or work.
  • Withdrawal from hobbies, relationships or social activities because more time is being spent using marijuana.
  • Continuing to use it even though it’s creating negative consequences.
  • A loss of interest in other hobbies or interests that were once enjoyable.
  • Experiencing solid urges or cravings to use marijuana.
  • Developing rituals surrounding marijuana use—for example, using it at particular times of day.
  • Using marijuana as a coping tool for mental health symptoms or emotional issues.

The Impact of Marijuana Legalization On Use and Addiction Rates

Marijuana legalization has significantly affected the use of marijuana and, subsequently, rates of addiction and dependence. There’s increased accessibility to it and changes in perceived risk. The legal status of substances shapes people’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs about them.

Legalized substances are more socially acceptable, and that contributes to the concept that it’s less harmful or dangerous. When a substance is legal, it’s normalized across society, and because marijuana is under government oversight and regulation in states where it’s legal, that also influences people to think it’s safer.

It’s important to realize that even though marijuana is legal in many places and may not be as addictive as other substances, psychological dependence can still occur. The legalization of marijuana may lead fewer people to seek help in an addiction treatment program because they could feel like it’s safe and, therefore, not a problem. There’s also the issue of increasing overall rates of addiction because of accessibility and the concept that many people are polydrug users and combine marijuana with other substances.

All of these highlight the importance of seeking addiction treatment when needed. Some people who regularly use marijuana may have trouble managing their use. If you suspect you’re dealing with problematic patterns of use or someone you love, contact our team of addiction specialists at San Diego Detox.