Sorry, Potheads: Study Shows Marijuana Actually Might Be Addictive

Anyone who’s ever dated a massive pothead who swears he’s not addicted to weed probably knows: marijuana’s gotta be at least a little habit-forming, no matter how often weed apologists insist it isn’t.

Long-term marijuana use disrupts the brain’s normal reward processes, which may lead to dependence on the drug and a change in how the brain processes pleasure, according to a new study.

Among 59 weed-using adults and 70 non-users who participated in a study completed by researchers at the University of Texas, in which participants were asked to rate their urge to partake in weed-related activities when presented with various images, it was determined that for long-term weed smokers, the mesocorticolimbic reward system was more active when presented with cannabis cues than with natural reward cues.

Translation: people got more excited looking at drug paraphernalia than they did looking at actual clues. Sad.

Visual cannabis cues included things such as a pipe, bong, joint or blunt, and natural reward cues included self-selected images of preferred fruit, such as a banana, an apple, grapes or an orange.

Although marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America, with nearly 22.2 million users in the past month, an increasing number of states are legalizing its use for recreational or medical purposes.

However, Dr. Filbey and colleagues note that there is limited information on how the drug might lead to problematic use: “We found that this disruption of the reward system correlates with the number of problems, such as family issues, individuals have because of their marijuana use,” Filbey said. “Continued marijuana use despite these problems is an indicator of marijuana dependence.”

The research, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, also collected self-reports from study participants to measure problems associated with marijuana use. On average, marijuana participants had used the drug for 12 years.

“This study shows that marijuana disrupts the natural reward circuitry of the brain, making marijuana highly salient to those who use it heavily,” Dr. Francesca Filbey, director of Cognitive Neuroscience Research in Addictive Disorders at the Center for BrainHealth, said in a press release. “In essence, these brain alterations could be a marker of transition from recreational marijuana use to problematic use.”

While only a small number of studies have investigated how marijuana use impacts the neural circuits of the brain to trigger cravings for the drug, the most terrifying part of this study is its suggestion that the mesocorticolimbic reward system is involved, a system which incorporates several brain regions that release dopamine – a neurotransmitter that regulates the reward and pleasure centers – in response to certain cues.

Okay, so now what? Is cannabis really that bad?

“This seems at least somewhat overblown,” Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority, told Complex Wednesday. “But even if you think marijuana is dangerous, you have to acknowledge that keeping it illegal only increases all possible harms. Drug cartels and gangs on the black market don’t test and label their products for potency and purity. As a result, consumers generally have no idea what they’re actually putting into their bodies.”

In light of this new research, the number of studies performed annually on marijuana’s impact on the brain, the body, and everything else will most likely see a drastic increase. So, that’s at least comforting.

Sort of…

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