Marijuana Addiction and Adolescents

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Marijuana is an integral phenomenon in adolescent life today. In the last five years, working with adolescents in my private practice, I have seen a definite increase in the use of Marijuana, most notably, addiction to it. What I’ve most noticed is that individuals are engaging in basic life activities, such as social interactions, school work, sports, recreational pleasures, and even examining their lives—which adolescents constantly do—including making significant life choices, while using Marijuana. As a result, they cannot access the same quality or engagement with these activities unless using Marijuana. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to addiction in light of these activities, because adolescence is the developmental period in which their cognitive abilities are rapidly becoming more complex, and the pairing of Marijuana use with the necessary outcomes of this development stage intensifies the risk of dependency and addiction.

Marijuana addiction has many of  the same characteristics as many other addictive drugs, including alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. The thing about marijuana addiction is that it is very subtle. Some people can use it occasionally and then leave it alone for extended periods of time, while others wind up using it daily, so that their lives  begin to revolve around marijuana.

Addictive drugs directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding it with dopamine, a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulates emotion, cognition, motivation, and, more specifically, feelings of pleasure. THC, Tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient specifically in Marijuana, acts upon sites in the brain, called cannaboid receptors that give users the “high” when they smoke marijuana. The highest density of cannaboid receptors are found in parts of the brain that also influence memory, thoughts, concentration, sensory and time perception, coordinated movement, as well as pleasure. When drugs of this kind are taken, they can release 2 to 10 times the amount of dopamine, and their effects can last much longer than those produced by natural rewarding behaviors, such as eating, exercise and other pleasurable activities. Our brains are designed to ensure that we will repeat pleasurable activities. Whenever this reward circuit is activated, the brain notes that something important is happening that needs to be remembered, and teaches us to do it again and again, without consciously thinking about it.

Some believe the brain adjusts to these surges in dopamine by producing less dopamine or by reducing the number of pleasure receptors. As a result, the natural effect of dopamine on the reward circuits of a drug abuser’s brain can become abnormally low, and the ability to experience pleasure without drugs is reduced. This is why the abuser eventually feels flat, lifeless, and depressed, unable to enjoy what previously brought them pleasure. This results in the compulsive, often uncontrollable, drug craving, seeking, and use that defines addictive behavior.

Signs of Marijuana use: Sleepy appearance,
Reduced motivation,
Dilated (large) pupils
Bloodshot eyes, Dry mouth, Sluggishness, Euphoria,
Impaired judgment,
Impaired short-term memory,
Inappropriate laughter,
Social withdrawal and isolation,
Difficulty thinking,
Smell on clothing, in room, or in car, Smoking devices/ rolling papers, Discolored fingers.

Addictive behaviors associated with Marijuana: Using more marijuana than intended, Unable to cut down or stop marijuana use, Lots of time spent getting high, Reduced activities, Continuing to get high despite the problems it causes, Using marijuana to escape from problems, Depending on marijuana to be creative, relax or enjoy one’s self, Choosing relationships and activities based on whether or not one will be able to get high.

No single factor can predict whether or not a person will become addicted to drugs. Scientists estimate that genetic factors account for between 40 and 60 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction. Individuals with mental disorders, such as social anxiety, stress-related disorders, and depression, often begin abusing drugs in an attempt to lessen feelings of distress (also called self-medicating), and are at greater risk for abuse and addiction. Adolescents experience a particular vulnerability to addiction, because their brains are still developing in the areas that govern decision-making, judgment, and self-control, and are especially prone to risk-taking behaviors. Parents or older family members who abuse alcohol or drugs can increase children’s risks of developing their own drug problems. Friends and acquaintances have the greatest influence during adolescence. Drug-abusing peers can sway even those without risk factors to try drugs for the first time. Academic failure or poor social skills can also put a child further at risk for drug abuse.

Along with professionals, the internet provides unlimited information about drug use, signs and typical symptoms. Parents would do well to talk to their adolescent children openly and non-judgmentally about drugs and their effects, possibly sharing their own experiences, if any. Like any difficult topic, the first order of business is demystifying the stigma that goes along with drug use. Often times Marijuana use is a means of self-treating emotional distress, such as depression and anxiety which can better be addressed through counseling. Unfortunately or otherwise, drugs are a part of our culture, and adolescents most likely will experiment with them. But if you suspect your adolescent is abusing drugs, consider having your child see a therapist, or set up a joint counseling session to facilitate a frank discussion with the adolescent. Most therapists trained to work with adolescents, also work in conjunction with families, and can ensure a productive conversation. If the adolescent’s use has crossed over into addiction,treatment may be necessary to regain control over drug craving, seeking, and use. Research studies indicate that most addicted individuals can participate actively in treatment and achieve good outcomes. Understanding that addiction has significant biological component may help explain an individual’s difficulty in achieving and maintaining abstinence without treatment.

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