Since cannabis is being increasingly legalized for both recreational and medical use, doctors have identified a new medical effect of heavy cannabis consumption: Cannabis Use Disorder. Like alcoholism, CUD has a host of physical and mental symptoms, including lung problems and mental illness. Scientists have been studying the effects of heavy cannabis use, and they found that CUD is on the rise, especially among adolescents. Many heavy cannabis users start in adolescence, but there’s hope for treatment of cannabis use disorder and marijuana addiction. Interestingly, these new treatments involve CBD hemp oil, with similar chemicals as smoked cannabis.
Before we delve into the growing problem of adolescent cannabis use disorder, let’s define exactly what we’re talking about in the first place. What are the symptoms of CUD? Is it just psychological and behavioral, or medical as well? It’s a little difficult to nail down the beginning of CUD, especially with growing medical cannabis users, because there isn’t a very good definition of “heavy cannabis use” for researchers and doctors to start with.
However, side effects of “heavy” cannabis use and CUD are more well defined because of recent research into hemp, cannabinoids like THC and CBD, and their effects on the human brain.
What is Cannabis Use Disorder?
CUD can be diagnosed by a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a medical doctor given the proper training, though doctors mostly rely on self-reporting, or when someone tells a doctor or psychologist that they are smoking too much marijuana and want to stop. Many times, this disorder isn’t caught until patients start to show symptoms like anxiety, altered perceptions, or other mental problems. Early detection of CUD in adolescents is key to eliminating this disorder.
Medical professionals use the following criteria to diagnose CUD in adolescents (and adults), ranked in order from least to most problematic for heavy marijuana users:
- Problems with interpersonal relationships, such as friends and family; withdrawal from family; strife in the home, inability to keep up with housework.
- Trouble holding down a job; getting in frequent car wrecks (if driving) or falls (when walking); being disorganized in regards to daily activities.
- Inability to solve problems, including personal issues like relationships or housing; mild cognitive impairment while using; slow thinking, impaired judgment.
- Abusing other drugs like alcohol and prescription medications; engaging in high risk behavior and dangerous drug-seeking behavior; overeating, reckless spending, manic episodes.
- Legal problems from cannabis use, but also from car wrecks, parking tickets, expired licenses, DUIs, and other peripheral drug legal troubles.
- Mental illness ranging from depression to anxiety; with heavy use, distancing from reality and an absorption in inner thoughts and emotions; sometimes even hallucinations and perceptual distortions.
- Medical problems related to smoking cannabis (and often tobacco as well), including lung disease and lung cancer; major tooth decay; high blood pressure.
- Impaired intellectual functioning in what’s called “executive functions” like controlling one’s thoughts and behavior, short term and working memory, as well as mental flexibility.
If this looks like a super long list, that’s because it is! And unfortunately, all of these symptoms are related. For example, when a chronic cannabis user can’t properly solve problems and regulate their emotions, they can fly off the handle at little things and behave negatively toward family members and friends. This contributes to interpersonal problems, just like poor decision making skills can lead to life consequences such as losing a job or a housing situation. When you throw other drugs into the mix, the risks associated with cannabis abuse are high, and certainly higher for adolescents.
The Impact of CUD on Adolescents
Recently, scientists have been studying the prevalence of cannabis use disorders among different populations. They found that “In each racial/ethnic group, adolescent cannabis users generally showed greater odds of CUD than adult users.” This is particularly disturbing, as cannabis use while the brain is still developing can cause permanent alteration to brain chemistry and affect overall outcomes for teens later in life. While in and of itself, light cannabis use hasn’t been shown to be harmful, heavy marijuana use, especially at a young age, has medical and psychological consequences.
Scientists have found that among chronic cannabis users aged 20-30, CUD patients started using marijuana at the average age of 13-14. Most individuals who develop CUD do so over time, and many the effects of heavy cannabis use are cumulative. We do know that starting drug use so young can alter the way the brain produces important neurotransmitters like dopamine, which can lead to further self-medication with other drugs, which can compound their health problems. Treating cannabis use disorders in adolescence is the best way to prevent these negative consequences and let teens grow up to live happy, productive lives.
New Treatments for CUD
While early intervention is key, there are many ways to help adolescents suffering from cannabis use disorders. New treatments have been able to help heavy users to both quit marijuana and regain their health. Traditionally, psychologists and doctors have treated the symptoms they see separately, and many recovering cannabis addicts get only prescription medicine to deal with mental illnesses like depression or anxiety.
Ironically, one of the newest treatments for CUD is made from the hemp plant, a close relative to the cannabis plant. Hemp has none of the THC responsible for the “high” and many of the negative symptoms associated with heavy marijuana use. Hemp seeds contain CBD oil, which is a non-psychotropic chemical found both in hemp and cannabis. CBD has been shown to help addicts recover from other drugs such as heroin, and the effects are the same with CUD patients.
How CBD Hemp Oil Can Help Young Cannabis Addicts
Since cannabinoids like CBD are derived from the cannabis plant itself, they can help “wean” addicts off of cannabis more softly. Most of the medical benefits of marijuana — such as anti-anxiety, anti-nausea, and pain relief — are derived from these non-psychotropic cannabinoids, specifically CBD and CBN. Neuroscientists have discovered that CBD molecules can fill both receptors that occur naturally in the body as well as the receptors in the brain that control things like memory, cognition, and emotions. CBD replaces the other chemicals in cannabis that cause side effects, and the addict can more easily heal and recover.