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Marijuana Abuse and Dependence

What is marijuana abuse and dependence?

Marijuana is made from a plant called cannabis. It may be smoked or eaten. Hashish is a different form of marijuana, which is made by boiling down the plant until it is like tar. Spice, or K2, is an incense made from herbs that are sprayed with a chemical called THC, which is the same chemical found in marijuana.

Marijuana is sold illegally most of the time, but it is legal when used as a medicine. A healthcare provider can prescribe a pill form to treat:

  • Nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy
  • Weight loss from diseases such as HIV/AIDS

In some states, a healthcare provider can prescribe marijuana in other forms to treat severe pain or other disorders.

Abuse and dependence are patterns of using drugs that lead to serious personal, family and health problems. Abuse is when your child keeps taking the drug even though it causes a problem such as:

  • Showing up late or missing work or school and not caring about things that used to matter to him
  • Breaking rules or breaking the law
  • Not keeping promises, arguing, or even getting violent with other people
  • Doing things that are dangerous, such as driving while under the influence

If your child continues to abuse drugs, he can become dependent. When your child is dependent, he:

  • Needs to use more and more marijuana, or use it more often to get the same effects.
  • Loses control, which means he keeps using drugs even though he knows that it is harmful to him or others, or he can't stop using drugs when he tries
  • Craves drugs so much that he spends a lot of time and energy getting drugs, using drugs, and getting over the effects
  • Has withdrawal symptoms when he stops using marijuana

Dependence is also called addiction. Not everyone who uses prescription or illegal marijuana will become addicted. However, it is the most commonly abused drug in the US.

What is the cause?

Marijuana changes the way your child's body and brain work. When he uses a lot of marijuana, his brain starts to get used to it. As a result, he thinks about marijuana all the time, he doesn’t feel good unless he uses marijuana, and he may act different when he uses it. When he stops using marijuana suddenly, his brain gets over excited, which causes the symptoms of withdrawal.

Your child has a higher risk of becoming dependent on drugs if he:

  • Has a family history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Has abused alcohol or drugs in the past
  • Is easily frustrated, has trouble dealing with stress, or feels like he isn’t good enough
  • Is regularly around people who use alcohol or drugs
  • Has a mental health problem
  • Has constant pain

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of marijuana abuse or dependence depend on how much and how often your child uses the drug. The symptoms can be mild to severe, such as:

  • Having belly pain, nausea, or increased appetite
  • Having trouble thinking, learning or remembering
  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling something that is not there
  • Thinking that others are out to get him when they are not

Your child may also have symptoms of new or worse health problems caused by marijuana use such as heart or lung problems.

The symptoms of marijuana withdrawal can be mild to severe. Your child may have some of these symptoms when he stops using marijuana:

  • Feeling nervous and restless
  • Losing his appetite
  • Feeling depressed
  • Cravings for marijuana
  • Having trouble sleeping

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask how much and how often your child uses marijuana. Your child needs to be honest about his drug use. Your provider needs this information to give your child the right treatment. He or she will also ask about your child’s symptoms, medical history and give your child a physical exam. Your child may have blood or urine tests.

How is it treated?

Dependence does not mean that your child is weak. Dependence is a disease, and it can be treated. For any treatment to be successful, your child must want to stop using marijuana. When your child stops using marijuana, his or her healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help get through withdrawal symptoms. Your child should not use alcohol and other drugs to reduce withdrawal symptoms.

If your child is abusing or dependent on marijuana and wants to quit, get help.

Support groups and therapy may be helpful. Your child’s healthcare providers and counselors will work with you and your child to develop a treatment program.

Recovery from dependence is a long-term process. Follow-up treatment is very important so that your child doesn’t go back to abusing drugs.

If your child has overdosed, or is having severe withdrawal symptoms he will need to be treated in a hospital. He will also be treated for any health problems such as a heart attack or stroke, or other life-threatening problems.

How can I help prevent marijuana abuse and dependence?

You can help prevent marijuana abuse if you:

  • Teach your child how to make good choices about alcohol and drugs. Teach in a way that fits your child's age and ability to understand.
    • If you are watching TV with your 6-year-old and marijuana is mentioned on a program, you can say, "Do you know what marijuana is? It's a bad drug that can hurt your body." If your child has more questions, answer them. If not, let it go. Short, simple comments, that are repeated often, will get the message across.
    • For your 12-year-old, you might explain what marijuana looks like, the different names for marijuana, and how using marijuana will change his or her brain and body. Repeat the message. Talk to your child about drugs whenever you can.
  • Listen to your child's feelings and concerns, so that they feel comfortable talking with you.
  • Make your family position on drugs clear. For example "In our family, we don't use drugs and the children are not allowed to drink alcohol." Set a good example. Your child is much more likely to use drugs if you use drugs, even if you tell them not to.
  • Talk about what makes a good friend. Peer pressure is a big part of why kids get involved with drugs and alcohol. Help your child understand that friends who pressure them to drink or use drugs aren't friends at all. Role-play ways for your child to say no to drugs, for example:
    • Say, “no, thanks” and walk away.
    • Suggest something else to do, such as go play a video game.
    • Use humor, such as "No thanks. If I want to fry my brain, I'll get a skillet."
  • Build self-esteem. Children who feel good about themselves are much less likely to turn to drugs. Offer lots of praise for a job well done. If you need to criticize or discipline your child, talk about the action, not the child. For example, instead of saying "you should know better" try saying, "what you're doing is not safe." Set aside time every day to talk, play a game, or take a walk with each of your children.

People and resources in your community that can help include your healthcare providers, therapists, support groups, mental health centers, and alcohol or substance abuse treatment programs. You may want to contact:

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2012-12-05
Last reviewed: 2012-12-05
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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