New Study Finds Medical Marijuana Poses Risk for Addiction

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The narrative that marijuana has medicinal properties has been growing. Thirty-seven states have legalized medical cannabis, with millions of Americans opting for this treatment over other medical approaches.

But considering the relatively recent application of marijuana as medicine, patients should be skeptical of this approach. And given new research data which seems to suggest little to no positive outcomes from medical marijuana (and a fair degree of risk), patients may want to consider other, holistic alternatives to improving their physical and mental health.

The Findings

A recent study surveyed a group of medical marijuana patients, and two key things were observed. First, pain levels, anxiety, and depression were the three main reasons why patients had sought medicinal cannabis, and those had not diminished since the patients started the treatment. Second, marijuana dependence and addictive symptoms had gone up for patients since getting on the drug.

“We found that people who obtained medical marijuana cards were at increased risk for developing cannabis use disorder within the first 12 weeks of owning a card.”

The researchers found that people who carried medical marijuana cards were nearly two times more likely to become addicted to marijuana than those who did not. Quoting lead researcher Dr. Jodi Gilman of Harvard Medical School and the Center for Addiction Medicine: “We found that people who obtained medical marijuana cards were at increased risk for developing cannabis use disorder within the first 12 weeks of owning a card. Adults seeking to use cannabis for medical complaints through commercialized cannabis did not report relief from pain, depression or anxiety.”

The researchers stressed the importance of patients considering all their treatment options. Dr. Gilman went on to say, “For most people, there are likely better treatments for their medical conditions — treatments that have been tested thoroughly for safety and efficacy. Cannabis has been approved by legislatures or on a ballot, without testing that is required for other medicines.”

People have often lauded medical marijuana as an alternative to traditional medicines that have harmful side effects (benzodiazepines and opioids, for example). But marijuana, even when used medically, is not without risk.

Risk Factors in Marijuana Use

Using marijuana comes with considerable risk. There are several short-term and long-term side effects of using cannabis, some of which have been included below.

Drug effect

Short-term effects of marijuana use:

  • Users may experience altered senses or perceptions. They may also have an altered sense of time.
  • Marijuana users may experience impaired body movement and coordination.
  • Mood changes, and difficulty in thinking and problem-solving are also common.
  • May experience impaired memory while high.
  • Hallucinations, delusions, and psychosis may also result from marijuana use.

The more marijuana someone uses and the longer they use it, the greater the risk. While just one exposure to marijuana can be harmful, the ongoing, repeat use of the drug significantly exacerbates that harm.

Long term effects of marijuana use:

Depressed student
  • Marijuana use affects brain development. When people use the drug over time, especially when they start in their teens or twenties, they may experience impaired thinking, memory loss, and cognitive impairment. A loss of an average of 8 IQ points has also been observed in long-term marijuana use. Lost mental abilities sometimes do not fully return, even for those who quit marijuana.
  • Long-term marijuana use can also cause breathing problems and impaired lung health. Marijuana smoke irritates the lungs, and when used over time, marijuana can cause the same or similar harm as tobacco. Complications include daily cough and phlegm, more frequent lung illness, and a higher risk of lung infections.
  • Marijuana use is also harmful to heart health. Using marijuana spikes the heart rate for up to three hours after consumption, an effect that may increase the risk of heart attack (especially in older users).
  • Repeated use of marijuana can lead to Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, a condition in which the user experiences regular cycles of severe nausea, vomiting, and dehydration. This condition can worsen to the degree that the user requires emergency medical attention.

Finally, the legitimacy of the “marijuana as medicine” theory is still hotly contested. Quoting a direct statement from NIDA on the lack of information on medical marijuana as pertains to the demographics that might opt for it: “An additional concern with ‘medical marijuana’ is that little is known about the long-term impact of its use by people with health- and/or age-related vulnerabilities—such as older adults or people with cancer, AIDS, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, or other neurodegenerative diseases. Further research will be needed to determine whether people whose health has been compromised by disease or its treatment (e.g., chemotherapy) are at greater risk for adverse health outcomes from marijuana use.”

Without question, using marijuana is harmful.

But is it Actually Addictive?

According to the NIDA’s Drug Facts resource, 17% of Americans who seek addiction treatment cite marijuana as their primary drug of choice when they enter treatment. That means, of the approximately 2.6 million Americans who seek drug rehab help each year, about 442,000 of them are seeking help for marijuana addiction. This data point alone dispels the myth that marijuana is “non-addictive.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also published information on the addictive nature of marijuana, citing that at least three in 10 people who use marijuana, even just once, become addicted to it. Further, it would seem that the earlier in life one uses marijuana, the greater their odds of becoming addicted to it, a factor that makes marijuana experimentation all the more dangerous for young people.

What options are left to patients who are seeking relief? Marijuana has its harms, but so do some pharmaceutical options. And many patients opt for medical marijuana as a promising alternative to pharmacological treatments. Thankfully, there are holistic alternatives to treating pain, depression, anxiety, and other unwanted conditions that do not involve cannabis or pharmaceutical drugs. One does not have to choose between the unwanted side effects of pharmaceutical drugs and the unwanted side effects of marijuana to treat legitimate ailments.

Addiction Treatment; Where to Go When Marijuana Use Turns Into Marijuana Addiction

Whether it begins as a recreational activity or an effort to treat a legitimate medical condition, marijuana use is addictive, and people can become hooked quickly. People who use marijuana and who cannot stop using it on their own need to seek help at qualified drug and alcohol rehab centers. If you know someone struggling with marijuana addiction, please help them get into a drug rehab as soon as possible. Please don’t wait until their addiction escalates further.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, ICCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.