Marijuana, or cannabis, has been widely used for decades, and the debate continues over whether the drug is addicting or not.
What is Addiction?
Defining addiction is difficult because the use of a substance or the engagement in a behavior is relative to a person’s life. An addiction to food is tricky because all people need food to survive, but when more calories are consumed than physically needed, there is an underlying issue. The same goes for drugs, alcohol, and behaviors like shopping, gambling, and sexual activity.
The working definition of addiction includes the following criteria:
- Loss of control over use or a drug, or of a behavior
- Obsession with use of a drug, or engagement in a behavior
- Continued use despite adverse life consequences
- Denial that there is a problem with substance use, or a behavior
- A powerful tendency to relapse, or a return to a drug or a behavior
With this information we can use each individual’s case of substance use to diagnose addiction. In the case of marijuana, physical dependence may not form the way it does for drugs like heroin, cocaine, or alcohol, but if a person is obsessed with using, experiences negative life consequences, like loss of a job or a relationship, and continues to use, and denies that marijuana use is causing any problems, then cannabis addiction may be clinically diagnosable for this person.
A Cure for Cannabis Addiction?
In initial animal studies, scientists at the University of Maryland have discovered that increases in kynurenic acid in the brain have reduced the desire for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. The acid, already produced by the human brain, has been found to impact dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter (or a message carrier between various parts of the brain) responsible for mood and emotions.
When marijuana is smoked, it tells the brain to release dopamine, and the user feels pleasure. When kynurenic acid levels are increased in the brain, the individual (person or animal) does not want to use marijuana because the receptors that pick up THC are blocked, or already occupied.
The research team at the University of Maryland created a system where rats and monkeys were exposed to marijuana and then given a mechanism that allowed for self-administration of the drug at any time. When levels of kynurenic acid were increased, the animals did not choose to use marijuana as much as the control group (the animals without fluctuating kynurenic acid levels) and after time without marijuana exposure, the animals did not use when marijuana was reintroduced. This means that the brain did not want THC when levels of kynurenic acid were high.
Studies have only been performed on animals so far, so the effectiveness on humans still remains unknown, but early results seem promising. Dr. Robert Schwarcz, who leads the study’s research team, believes the outcome will translate to human use, and marijuana addiction can be combated, and possibly even cured. In Nature Neuroscience, the journal that published the study’s findings, Dr. Schwarcz says, “We found that you can reduce dopamine levels and the animals behave differently — they don’t have relapse, and don’t abuse marijuana. A medication that would safely and effectively assist in the treatment of marijuana dependence would be an important step forward in dealing with cannabis-use disorders.”
Could treatment that increases human kynurenic acid levels cure marijuana addiction? Further studies are necessary to form a true link, but if the procedure could help people who cannot help themselves, and marijuana use is reduced, what is the harm?
For more information on treatment for any addiction, contact the treatment team at Balboa Horizons. Addiction does not have to rule your life, or the life of someone you love.