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How to Identify Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.1 Because marijuana is legal for medical and recreational use in some states, a growing number of young people don’t believe that marijuana use is hazardous.1 However, there are many risks and consequences associated with marijuana, and parents of teenagers need to know how to spot the warning signs of problem use so they can take appropriate action.

Negative Effects

It is estimated that more than 11 million young adults aged 18–25 used marijuana in 2015.1 This poses a potentially serious problem for young people, as the drug is linked to dropping out of school, lower grades, and a poorer quality of life.2

Research shows that of people with a marijuana use disorder, those who begin using the drug regularly during their teen years lose an average of 6 to 8 IQ points by the time they reach mid-adulthood.2 Marijuana use impairs coordination and alertness, and has also been linked to some mental and physical illnesses, such as psychotic disorders, respiratory problems, heart attack, stroke and testicular cancer.3

Despite the widespread belief that marijuana is not addictive,

This begs an important question: How do you know if your teen’s marijuana use has risen to the level of abuse?

How Medical Is Marijuana preview

Signs of Use

Parents who suspect their child is using marijuana can look for some common signs and side effects of the drug. Someone who is using marijuana might:2,4

  • Laugh or feel giddy for no reason.
  • Complain of being dizzy.
  • Forget things that recently happened.
  • Have bloodshot, red eyes, or use eye drops frequently.
  • Feel like time is slowing down.
  • Have an increased appetite.
  • Use heavy perfume, incense, or other deodorizers to cover up the smell.
  • Have drug-related paraphernalia, such as pipes, bongs, or rolling papers.
  • Wear clothing or jewelry that promotes marijuana use.

It’s important to note that using marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is abusing the drug. But chronic, heavy use of marijuana and/or edible cannabis products can lead to marijuana use disorder and even addiction in severe cases.5 Warning signs include:6

  • Using the drug in larger amounts or over a longer period of time than intended.
  • Having difficulty quitting even if drug use is causing severe problems in their life, including at work or school, or in personal relationships.
  • Continuing to use in spite of physical or mental health problems caused or made worse by the drug.
  • Experiencing strong cravings to use marijuana.
  • Withdrawing from friends, activities, or hobbies that were previously important in order to use marijuana.
  • Developing a tolerance to the drug (i.e., needing increasing amounts of marijuana to get the same high).
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when marijuana use is suddenly stopped. Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal can include anger, irritability, depression, insomnia, restlessness, chills, headache, and fever.

Available Treatment

inpatient treatment counseling
Addiction is a treatable but complex disease that affects behavior and brain functioning. Effective treatment should address the person rather than the disorder. For example, if your teen suffers from depression in addition to marijuana use disorder, then a treatment program will need to address both conditions in order to successfully address the patient’s needs.

People who abuse drugs are at risk of relapse even after successful treatment, which is why ongoing aftercare is a must. Staying in treatment for an adequate period is essential for long-term recovery.7 Described below are the most promising forms of treatment for cannabis use disorder.8

Motivational Enhancement Therapy

This therapy has been found to be particularly useful for people who are ambivalent or resistant to drug treatment.8 It helps the person resolve this ambivalence and engage in the rehab process. Motivational enhancement therapy produces an internally motivated change to help the person make a positive difference.8

Contingency Management

Research has shown that this type of treatment is beneficial in reinforcing positive behaviors such as abstinence.9 Contingency management is based on providing positive rewards for target behaviors, such as passing regular drug tests and attending therapy sessions.9 Rewards can include prizes, cash, or vouchers to use for food, movie passes, or other goods.9

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that substance abuse and other problem behaviors develop because of learning processes. Marijuana abuse is considered to be a learned behavior that arises in response to a combination of internal factors, such as feelings or thoughts, and external factors like the person’s environment or friend group.8 CBT focuses on skill-building. During CBT, participants learn to identify and correct problematic thoughts and behaviors that lead to cannabis use.8 They learn to adjust their actions by applying a range of coping skills to help stop drug use.8 

Support Groups

Support groups can be very helpful for people suffering from addiction. They serve as a complement to many professional treatment programs, but meetings are attended by many outside of formal treatment as well. The most well-known support group for marijuana addiction is the 12-step program Narcotics Anonymous (NA), however there are many non-12-step programs available for patients to consider. Most rehab programs encourage patients to participate in a support group both during and after treatment.10

What’s Next?

If you believe your teen is struggling with marijuana abuse and may need professional help, there are many options available. Start by offering encouragement and support to your child and work with them to get them the help they need.

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