How Do You Know If Someone Is Addicted to Weed?
Steven Gans, MD is board-certified in psychiatry and is an active supervisor, teacher, and mentor at Massachusetts General Hospital.
If your friend smokes weed and you are concerned that it is a problem, talk to them about it. A clear sign that recreational substances, such as alcohol or marijuana, have become an addiction is when family life, daily activities, and ability to work is impeded, and/or they can’t stop using the substance even though they want to quit.
Is Marijuana Addictive?
Marijuana addiction is uncommon and can only be diagnosed in severe cases. Only a small percentage of users will develop what is known as a marijuana use disorder. The number rises significantly for those who started using weed in their teens, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). If your friend uses pot occasionally, they likely do not have an addiction to marijuana.
Marijuana Use Disorder
Rather than use the term “addiction,” health professionals prefer the term “marijuana use disorder.” The NIDA estimates that about 30% of marijuana users may have some degree of marijuana use disorder.
If your friend frequently uses marijuana and experiences withdrawal symptoms upon stopping the drug, they may be considered to have marijuana dependence. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are typically mild, peak within the first week after quitting, and may last up to two weeks. Symptoms include:
- Trouble sleeping
- Decreased appetite
Marijuana Effects on the Adolescent Brain
Research has examined how marijuana affects teens. Some studies suggest that teenagers who use marijuana frequently may experience short-term effects such as problems with memory, learning, coordination, and judgment.
There are also long-term effects. Some studies suggest an association between regular marijuana use in teens and “altered connectivity and reduced volume of specific brain regions.” But other studies “have not found significant structural differences between the brains of users and non-users.”
A large cohort study followed nearly 4,000 young adults over a 25-year period into mid-adulthood. It found that although cumulative lifetime exposure to marijuana is associated with lower verbal memory test scores, exposure did not affect other cognitive abilities like processing speed or executive function.
Studies have found that frequent use of marijuana as a teenager can be associated with an average IQ loss of eight points that were not recoverable after quitting. However, the same use in adults showed no reduction in IQ. The research data suggests marijuana’s strongest long-term impact is on young users whose brains are still developing.
Marijuana As a Gateway Drug
Marijuana is not generally considered a “gateway drug” because the majority of weed users do not go on to use harder, addictive substances, including cocaine and heroin. Social environment might be a more critical factor in determining someone’s risk for trying harder drugs.
If someone is more vulnerable to getting involved with addictive substances, they are more likely to start with substances that are more readily available, such as alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. People who have social interactions with other substance users are more likely to try other drugs.
If your friend uses weed and it does not interfere with work, family life or daily activities, it is likely that your friend does not have an addiction.
I Need to Know: ‘My friend is using ice and smoking pot. What do I do?’
Professor at the National Drug Research Institute (Melbourne), Curtin University
Nicole Lee works as a paid consultant in the alcohol and other drug sector, and as a psychologist in private practice. She has previously been awarded grants by state and federal governments, NHMRC and other public funding bodies for alcohol and other drug research.
Curtin University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.
The Conversation UK receives funding from these organisations
I Need to Know is an ongoing series for teens in search of reliable, confidential advice about life’s tricky questions.
My friend is using ice and smoking dope. He says it makes him feel good like his medication doesn’t. His parents know but don’t know what to do. I am worried, as he has stopped being chatty and is not going out or doing anything. He is changing, but worse.
Working out what to do when you are worried about a friend who is using drugs can be tricky. Just asking the question shows what a supportive friend you are and that’s a very good start.
There’s not one right way to approach it. There are many ways to help and support your friend.
Remember, they might not see their drug use as a problem (from what you have said it sounds like they view it as a solution rather than a problem).
You can’t force your friend to do anything they don’t want to do. In the end, it needs to be their decision to change, but there’s lots you can do to support and encourage them.
How do you know if it’s a problem?
One thing to remember is that most people who use drugs only use occasionally for a short time in their lives and won’t develop a serious issue.
People take drugs for lots of different reasons, including because it is fun or it makes them feel good, to “escape” from problems, and to make physical (like pain) or emotional (like anxiety) problems go away (sometimes referred to as “self-medicating”).
If your friend is using drugs regularly it’s more likely they’ll be having negative effects. Signs that drug use is becoming a problem include:
- using weekly or more
- giving up activities they used to enjoy to use or recover from drugs
- missing school or work or becoming unreliable
- needing to use more and more to get the same effect.
Raising the issue
One of the best pieces of advice anyone has given me came from a person who was supporting a family member who was using drugs. She said, “think about what you would do if drugs weren’t involved”. How would you approach your friend if they were doing anything else that worried you?
Also think about what you would like your friends to do or say if you were doing something they were worried about.
Find a time to talk when you’re both clear headed, you’re somewhere private and you have plenty of time. You don’t need to make it formal, just make sure the setting is good for a sensitive chat when you raise the issue.
Just raising the issue and listening is helpful. from www.shutterstock.com
Think about what you want to say beforehand so you are prepared.
It doesn’t usually help to plead, persuade, preach, bribe, guilt-trip or threaten (for example, “if you keep using, I will…”). Try not to speak in a judgemental or critical tone of voice, it usually just creates resistance.
Give them time to talk and don’t cut them off. A rule of thumb I use is they should be talking half the time or more. Ask questions that show your concern rather than telling them what to do. You might say something like:
You don’t seem to want to go out much anymore. We really miss hanging out with you. Is everything ok?
I know drugs make you feel better when your medication doesn’t but I’m really worried about you and want to make sure you are OK.
If your friend doesn’t want to talk about it, it doesn’t help to take it personally or to argue the point with them. It can be a hard thing for people to talk about and they may need some time.
Let them know that you’re there to listen and support if they need it. If they know you’re open, they’re more likely to talk later. Just raising the issue and listening without judgement is helpful.
Other things you can do
How and how much you help is up to you. You might try to help your friend in practical ways, you might decide to just provide support and listen, or you might decide to step back and have less contact with them.
It’s OK if helping them becomes too much for you. You also need to look after yourself. It can be very hard seeing someone you love with problems. At times you might feel frustrated and helpless, like it’s impossible to get through to them. You might need to be patient because it can be hard to give up drugs once they have become a habit.
If you choose to provide a lot of help and support, you might want to talk to someone, such as a psychologist or counsellor, yourself.
Encourage your friend to participate in drug and alcohol-free activities. from www.shutterstock.com
Encourage them to engage in activities with you and your other friends that don’t involve alcohol or other drugs. Staying connected with friends who don’t use drugs can help prevent the problem from getting worse.
Try to keep them as safe as possible. Don’t leave them alone in a potentially dangerous situation (like walking home late at night or at a party) because you’re frustrated or angry at them for using drugs. Call an adult you trust to help if you need to, or an ambulance if they look unwell.
If things are getting worse it’s OK to suggest professional help. If they’re open to getting help, ask them what they want to do. You could say something like, “what do you think would be most helpful to you?”, or “would it help to speak to a trusted adult/school counsellor/doctor?” You could offer to go with them for support.
You could also see if the parents need some professional advice, and give them some of the numbers below. It might be helpful for your friend or their parents to talk to the doctor who prescribed their medication – the dose and effects might need to be reviewed.
Where to get help
There are many options for both you or your friend to talk to someone about your worries. Here are some of the main ones:
CounsellingOnline is a free online chat for concerns about alcohol and other drug. Anyone can use it – people using drugs and people wanting to help friends or family using drugs.
headspace and eheadspace provide face to face and online/telephone support for mental health issues for people aged 12-25.
Kids helpline is a free telephone counselling service on any issue for children and young adults aged between 5 and 25. They can be reached at 1800 55 1800.
YSAS (Youth Support and Advocacy Service) is a youth alcohol and other drugs support organisation in Victoria. They have face to face and telephone services and a good info on their website. Their number is 1800 458 685.
National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline is a free telephone information and counselling service similar to CounselingOnline, but on the phone. They can be reached at 1800 250 015.
Family helplines are telephone counselling services for friends and families of people who use drugs. Alcohol, prescription and other drug family support (APOD) can be reached at (03) 9723 8000, Family Drug Support Australia at 1300 368 186, and Family Drug Help at 1300 660 068.
This article has been updated since publication to correct an incorrect hotline number for the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline.
It can be really tricky to know what to do when someone you care about starts using drugs. Raising the issue and listening without judgement is a good place to start.