Cannabis is the most commonly used illegal drug in the UK, with 7.6% of adults having used it in the last year (around 2.6 million). It’s also the most popular among young adults (17.3% used it in the last year) and teens (8.1% used it in the last year).
If you take a step back, you can see how the prevalence of marijuana stacks up in the country: for all adults aged between 16 and 59, around 30% of the population have used cannabis at some point in their lives.
These are big numbers and, given the amount of misinformation surrounding marijuana use and addiction, means that there’s a lot of education needed.
Cannabis Use in Adolescents
Many people, especially teens, believe that marijuana is safer than using alcohol or other drugs, but a Canadian study has shown this to be an incorrect assumption. The study tracked adolescents over four years and found that cognitive issues (such as academic performance, learning, attention and decision making) increased as cannabis use increased. Worryingly, the effects were lasting, whereas alcohol had fewer long-term effects.
Prevalence of cannabis use in teenagers continues to increase with The World Health Organisation (WHO) Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children (HBSC) study showing that close to 20% of 15-year-old children in the UK had tried cannabis at least once. This is double the worldwide average.
The Effect of Cannabis on the Teenage Brain
When a person uses cannabis, the psychoactive chemical THC passes through the lungs (if smoked) or digestive tract (if consumed) into the bloodstream. It is transported by the blood to the brain and acts on cannabinoid receptors, primarily in the areas of the brain associated with thinking, concentration, sensory and time perception, memory, coordination and pleasure. THC causes these areas to be overactivated, resulting in a “high’. It can impair functions such as learning memory and attention for several days after the cannabis is consumed.
The Result of Short- and Long-Term Use of Marijuana in Teens
The short-term use of marijuana can lead to:
- Difficulties at school
- Impaired memory and concentration
- Higher levels of aggression
- Use of alcohol and other drugs
- Risky sexual behaviour
- Worsening of underlying mental health conditions
- Increased risk of psychosis
- Interactions with prescription medication
The long-term use of marijuana can lead to:
- Cannabis Use Disorder
- Breathing problems (including coughing, wheezing, problems with physical activity and lung cancer)
- Decreased motivation
- Lower intelligence
- Mental health issues (including irritability, anger, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, risk of suicide)
- Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (symptoms include severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration)
- Higher risk of depression
Marijuana can have other harmful long-term effects on adolescents as the teenage brain is not yet fully mature. Neurodevelopment continues until the mid-twenties, and during this time, the brain is more sensitive to drug exposure which can impact how connections are formed within the brain. Cannabis use can also cause abnormal brain shape and structure volume and interfere with neurotransmitters. The earlier cannabis use starts for adolescents, the higher the risk of developing a dependence and experiencing adverse outcomes. In addition, early use of cannabis increases the risk of “problematic cannabis consumption later in life”.
Can you become addicted or dependent on cannabis?
Cannabis addiction is possible, especially in people who are regular or heavy users. In cases like these, if you stop taking cannabis, you may experience withdrawal symptoms including increased moodiness and irritability, difficulty sleeping and eating, feeling sick, sweating, shaking and diarrhoea.
The symptoms of Cannabis Use Disorder (also known as cannabis addiction or cannabis dependency syndrome), include:
- Using marijuana more often than you intended
- Having cravings
- When using interferes with other activities
You may have started using cannabis to relax, manage chronic pain or reduce anxiety, but the downsides of marijuana may quickly begin to outweigh the benefits. For many people, the decision to quit or cut back happens when cannabis use affects their quality of life, evidenced by:
- Relationship problems
- Increased moodiness
- Decreased concentration and memory
- Reduced interest in hobbies
- Less energy for self-care
- Cannabis becoming a default activity instead of a solution to a specific symptom
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What role does tobacco play in addiction?
According to the NHS, smoking cannabis with tobacco on a regular basis increases the risk of becoming addicted as your body experiences withdrawal symptoms from both the nicotine and the cannabis if you try to cut down or quit.
A study done on young cannabis users in the UK found a link between cigarette smoking and cannabis dependence. They found that cigarette smoking, independent of how frequently cannabis was used, was related to cannabis dependence. Cigarette smoking was found to facilitate the relationship between cannabis use and cannabis dependence. This, therefore, suggests that tobacco, in part, drives cannabis dependence.
What are the health effects of marijuana?
Regular cannabis use increases your risk of developing a mental illness such as schizophrenia which causes you to have hallucinations and delusions. The risk of developing a psychotic illness is higher if you started using cannabis at a young age, smoke strong cannabis types, are a regular user, have used it for a long time or have a family history of the illness.
Other health effects of regular cannabis use include:
- Respiratory issues
- Painful, persistent cough
- Exacerbating asthma symptoms
- Reduced ability to drive
- Cannabis Use Disorder
- Risk for cancer
- Cardiovascular health
- Accidental injury
- For pregnant women and neonates, there is an increased chance of low birth weights
Practical ways of easing a cannabis addiction
If you want to overcome a cannabis addiction, the first step is to work out why you want to stop. If you can articulate your reasons for quitting, it can help you stay committed to cutting out cannabis as well as allowing you to define your success goals.
From there, you may decide to taper your use slowly. This may mean initially vaping weed to lower the risk of smoking and break the link between nicotine and cannabis addiction. You may also switch to edibles rather than smoking to decrease and monitor your use.
There are some lower-potency strains and products that have a reduced THC content. Switching to a weaker product that produces fewer psychoactive effects can make the process of decreasing your consumption easier.
What resources are available to help you overcome a cannabis addiction?
There are many resources available if you are struggling to stop using cannabis.
Talk to Frank
Frank works with people living in the UK, offering support, advice and a free drugs helpline on 0300 123 6600. You can find out everything you need to know about cannabis, its effects and the law.
The NHS has a range of services to help those struggling with cannabis addiction, and it all starts with a visit to your GP. They will assess your situation and discuss the various options in your area. Waiting times and the limitations on NHS funding can make this a discouraging option.
MA (Marijuana Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) are fellowship groups that focus on substance abuse, providing support to recovering addicts. Both follow the 12-step programme and provide free meetings throughout the UK.
Addiction counsellors cover a range of different therapies, approaches and settings (such as group or individual sessions), giving you the flexibility to find a solution that suits your needs.
Rehab offers the opportunity to recover from a cannabis addiction in a neutral environment away from the triggers of everyday life. Typically, there is an initial period of detoxification, followed by therapy in a calm, confidential setting.
Many people attempt to downplay the severity of cannabis addiction, but the long-term effects of regular and heavy use cannot be ignored. This is especially true for adolescents who may feel pressured into smoking cannabis without understanding the impact that it can have on their academic performance and their long-term physical and mental health.