There's a common misconception that cannabis isn’t addictive, or habit-forming. The truth is, many drugs can become habit forming over time. Dependency or addiction to cannabis can cause issues that disrupt your daily life.
First off, dependency or addiction, are they the same thing? In the past, health-care professionals used the term addiction (some still do). We now know that addiction is a loaded word that often has negative feelings associated with it. Technically, there is no medical term called cannabis addiction, medical professionals describe cannabis dependency as Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD).
There are several factors’ doctors will look for to decide whether someone has Cannabis Use Disorder. Craving is just one of the factors used to assess CUD. Experiencing strong cravings to use a drug on an ongoing basis may be considered a sign of dependency. Withdrawal symptoms are also one of the criteria for CUD.
Some people only think of withdrawal symptoms when they think of hard drugs like cocaine or heroin. Even with cannabis, you can experience withdrawal effects although withdrawal symptoms are typically milder than with other substances. We'll discuss withdrawal symptoms more down below. Understanding the signs of dependency can help you learn what Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD) looks like. This is important to know and could help a friend, neighbour, or even yourself.
If you’re wondering about your dependency on cannabis, or how you can quit cannabis or moderate your use, you’re in the right place to learn more.
So, can cannabis be habit-forming?
The short answer is yes.
Just like other drugs, using cannabis products can create a physical dependency for your body and result in CUD. You may enjoy some of the positive effects of cannabis if you use it casually or occasionally, but there are other factors to be mindful of if you want to use it long-term or on a regular basis.
While many people experience no issues with their cannabis use, approximately one in eleven users will experience CUD. CUD is a spectrum and not every user shows the same symptoms. There are multiple signs medical professionals look for including: increased use, using higher potencies and symptoms of withdrawal. There are withdrawal effects with CUD, so suddenly stopping can result in uncomfortable symptoms such as, irritability, nervousness or anxiety, sleep disturbances and mood swings.
Despite being at risk for physical dependency, cannabis users don’t start cannabis on a Monday and have a problem by Tuesday. Developing a dependency happens over time. A key sign to watch for is increasing tolerance, but what does that mean? Increasing tolerance is when a person has to use larger and larger amounts or stronger potencies to get the same high that they did when they started using.
Another sign to watch for is using cannabis at a young age before adulthood. Research shows that the first time someone uses cannabis can be connected to increased risks of dependency later in life. Statistics show that around 17 per cent of teenagers who use cannabis are at risk of developing CUD compared to less than one per cent of regular users developing a dependency if they start using cannabis when they are older.
A third sign to watch for is how often cannabis is consumed. It makes sense that daily cannabis users are at the greatest risk of developing a dependency. Canada's Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines recommends keeping your use to one day a week or just using on the weekend.
We know that cannabis use can cause dependency, but maybe you're thinking that daily or near daily use isn’t a big deal. There are a lot of issues that can arise from frequent use, like social challenges at home, at work or at school. Dependency makes regular day-to-day life more challenging. CUD affects social, personal and work relationships and there are increased chances of experiencing those health risks we talked about above.
What are the symptoms of dependency?
Cannabis dependency can cause elevated health risks. This includes mental health side effects like anxiousness, paranoia and in rare extreme cases, psychosis. These unwanted health problems can also occur in people who are not considered dependent, so it's important to consider your own use and how it could be affecting your health and daily life.
How do I know if I have a problem?
CUD should be diagnosed by a qualified medical practitioner. There are many different signs and symptoms associated with dependency. Depending on how many signs a user is experiencing, a CUD diagnosis can be mild, moderate or severe.
You can try scoring yourself and if two or more of the following are true, you should consider reflecting on your cannabis use.
- You use larger amounts of cannabis each time or you’re using cannabis more often than you were before.
- You need more and more cannabis to get the same effect, or you get less of an effect from the same amount over time.
- You can't cut down or control your use or you constantly wish you could cut down.
- You spend a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of cannabis.
- You have strong cravings for cannabis.
- You can no longer, or struggle to, do everyday tasks at work, school, or home.
- You keep using even though it's hurting or creating issues in your relationships.
- You have stopped doing important activities because of your cannabis use.
- You use cannabis in situations where it's dangerous.
- You keep using cannabis even though you know it is causing physical or psychological health problems.
- You have uncomfortable symptoms when you try to stop using cannabis.
Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (CHS)
A rare but increasingly common side effect is Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome (CHS). CHS includes extreme stomach pain and excessive vomiting. Anyone who uses cannabis could be at risk for Cannabinoid Hyperemesis Syndrome, but those who use it regularly are at greater risk. This condition results in nausea and extreme vomiting (possibly more than 20 times day) and can last more than 24 hours.
Other symptoms of CHS may include:
- Dry mouth
- Stomach pain
- Extreme thirst
Dependency and CHS can be a cycle of using too much cannabis, becoming nauseous and vomiting almost uncontrollably, trying to soothe the symptoms (warm baths are recommended), recovering and then repeating it all again.
If you or someone you know has ever experienced CUD or CHS, you know how uncomfortable the effects are, and how important it is to get help.
How can you quit or cut back?
Whether you’re a casual user or someone looking to break the habit, taking a break or quitting cannabis can be challenging! But it is possible for everyone.
- Recognizing and identifying your triggers is an important step. Successfully avoiding the habits that drive your cannabis dependency will help you to cut back.
- Developing a plan to quit will help, too. Write down how much you’re ingesting now, how much you think you can realistically cut down in the coming weeks, and what your definite quit-day is. Remember, even cutting back gradually on your cannabis use is positive. Here's a great tool for finding your limits.
- It’s important to be patient with yourself and flexible with your quitting schedule. You may not realize how much you rely on cannabis as a coping mechanism until you try to stop.
One of the most important steps to quit cannabis is discovering new methods for dealing with stress, anxiety and your emotions in general. There are many resources available to Canadians who want to quit using cannabis. If you feel like you or someone you care about needs help, you can find helplines and resources on our support page.