By M. Gideon Hoyle
Marijuana and other forms of cannabis have a largely benign reputation in certain segments of the U.S. population, including most teenagers. Despite this reputation, significant numbers of marijuana users go on to develop an officially diagnosable mental health condition called cannabis use disorder. One of the common indicators of this disorder is the onset of cannabis withdrawal. In a study published in the September/October 2014 issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital assessed the likelihood that teenagers receiving outpatient treatment for substance-related issues will go through cannabis withdrawal.
Teen Marijuana Use
In the U.S., marijuana is by far the most popular form of cannabis. A federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration uses a nationwide project called the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) to track the use of this drug in teenagers and adults each year. As of September 2014, the latest publicly released figures from the NSDUH cover the year 2012.
In 2012, 7.2 percent of all children between the ages of 12 and 17 used marijuana at least once in the average month. In this age group, the highest rate of intake (14 percent) occurred among 16- and 17-year olds. Roughly 6.1 percent of 14- and 15-year olds used marijuana, while approximately 1.2 percent of 12-and 13-year olds used the drug. Eighteen- and 19-year olds use marijuana substantially more often than their younger teen counterparts. However, the NSDUH findings group these oldest teens with young adults in their early 20s, not with other teenagers.
Marijuana Use Disorder And Withdrawal
Irrespective of age, the average marijuana user has a roughly nine out of 100 chance of developing an addiction to the drug, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. Whether they use marijuana casually or regularly, teenagers have a nearly doubled addiction rate of approximately 17 percent. Teens may have a higher rate of marijuana addiction, at least in part, because of the drug’s known ability to interfere with the normal trajectory of brain development that marks the gradual transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms
In all forms of substance addiction, withdrawal occurs when the brain fails to receive its accustomed amount of the substance in question and subsequently sends out “distress signals” designed to encourage additional substance intake. In the context of marijuana addiction, prominent withdrawal symptoms typically include:
- a decline in normal appetite
- an unusually anxious or agitated mood
- recurring urge to return to active marijuana intake
In combination, these symptoms can significantly increase the chances that any given individual will fail to stay away from the drug or establish an enduring pattern of abstinence. In addition to withdrawal, 10 other potential symptoms can contribute to an official diagnosis of cannabis use disorder (cannabis addiction and/or cannabis abuse).
How Often Does Marijuana Withdrawal Occur?
In the study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, the Massachusetts General Hospital researchers used an examination of 127 teenagers receiving outpatient treatment for substance problems to estimate how often cannabis withdrawal appears in teens affected by a substance use disorder. Ninety of these study participants identified marijuana as their preferred substance. Out of these 90 individuals, 76 had enough symptoms to merit a diagnosis of cannabis use disorder.
The researchers concluded that 36 of the 90 cannabis-using teens enrolled in the study had cannabis withdrawal symptoms. All of the teenagers going through withdrawal belonged to the subgroup of users who qualified for a cannabis use disorder diagnosis. Compared to the cannabis use disorder-affected participants unaffected by withdrawal, these individuals typically had more severe substance problems, experienced a greater number of negative consequences from their substance use and were more likely to have additional symptoms of some form of depression or bipolar disorder.
The teenagers impacted by withdrawal did not have greater problems maintaining substance abstinence than their counterparts who did not go through withdrawal. However, the ability to maintain abstinence was linked to self-awareness of the damaging influence of substance use. Among other things, this means that teens who don’t view their marijuana use as a problem may not recognize the telltale symptoms of withdrawal, even when those symptoms have fairly obvious effects. The study’s authors believe that relative awareness of the problematic nature of substance use may have a significant impact on the course of treatment for teen marijuana users.
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