Marijuana: Who Becomes Addicted and Who Does Not?

Written by Antoine Kanamugire, MD

When we submit to the temptation of achieving pleasure and instant gratification, it comes at a personal cost.

When we find ourselves compromising our morals, our principles, our careers, our future goals, our families’ well-being, and our health to achieve that ‘’feel good’’ moment—and find ourselves doing so over and over again—here we can start talking about addiction.

Can anyone become addicted to cannabis? Who is more at risk of succumbing to cannabis addiction? Can some people use cannabis without becoming addicted?

As you probably already know, it’s in human beings’ nature and design to seek out what’s most pleasurable, enjoyable, and least difficult; it is only when we are following a greater purpose to achieve our goals that we choose to take a more difficult path. We all long for pleasure and the faster and easier we can obtain it, the more we risk becoming addicted to the source of pleasure. The design of the human mind allows us to experience enjoyment, but also makes us vulnerable to becoming addicted to these pleasurable experiences…

How do we biologically fall into addiction?

The Reward System or Dopamine Reward Pathways

Our brain is intelligently designed; the circuitry of our brain is designed to help us enjoy pleasurable activities such as great meals, good company with friends, or a stimulating encounter with a new romantic interest. The brain circuitry system responsible for allowing us to enjoy such experiences is called the Reward System or the dopamine reward pathways. These pathways in the brain encourage us to seek out these awesome, exciting, and pleasurable experiences and reinforces these types of behaviors when we seek them out, making us more likely to do so over time. Let us underscore that there are survival reasons to this reward system, food is pleasurable to encourage us to eat and stay alive, sex is pleasurable to encourage us to mate and reproduce.

You can skip the following paragraph if you’re not interested in scientific explanations, but if you are, let’s briefly discuss the structures of your brain which are involved in developing addictive behaviors. The reward system is first stimulated when an addictive substance or pleasurable experience is encountered; practically all addictive substances will directly or indirectly increase dopamine levels in your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or chemical in your brain that is involved in pleasure and motivation. Without going into detailed medical or scientific explanations of this circuitry, let us note that the reward system involves many parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens, the limbic system, the anterior cingulate, the ventral tegmental area, and the amygdala…

When exposed to an addictive substance, the reward circuitry stimulates some people to seek more intense experiences to achieve the same pleasure over time. As someone repetitively uses the drug, dopamine is released and over time the brain becomes ‘used to’ the dopamine released by the brain, it then releases less dopamine for the same amount of stimulation-or same amount of substance-over time, and therefore requires ever larger amounts of stimulation to achieve the same pleasure as time progresses. Furthermore, the brain’s response is dependent on numerous other factors such as genetic predisposition, morals, self-control, life stressors, protective factors, etc., and so everyone’s vulnerability to addiction is based on a variety of different variables.

In these cases, the need to achieve pleasure becomes an affliction; feeling good becomes the ultimate goal, and the person can become trapped by compulsive instant gratification seeking behavior.

When we submit to the temptation of achieving pleasure and instant gratification, it comes at a personal cost.

When we find ourselves compromising our morals, our principles, our careers, our future goals, our families’ well-being, and our health to achieve that ‘’feel good’’ moment—and find ourselves doing so over and over again—here we can start seeing the signs of addiction.

Our brains might look similar, but each brain is unique!

All brains are based on a shared basic design, but they are not identical. We see variations in sizes of different brains, in the sizes of different structures of the brain, variations in the connections between different parts of the brain, and functional differences which neuroscientists can’t yet fully explain or understand. Some brains are more vulnerable to addiction or mental health problems than others, for a variety of reasons. Two people from the same background, at the same age, and in comparable health could ingest the same drug, and while one will be fine, the other could experience a psychotic episode! We are all unique, and due to a host of genetic, emotional, and nurturing differences, we might all be affected in unique ways if we choose to use drugs.

Who gets addicted and who does not? Stats corner

– Not all drugs or alcohol users become addicted

– About 10% to 20% of all substance users will lose control and slide into addiction

– 50% of the risk of substance addiction can be attributed to genetic factors

– Additional risk factors are involved in triggering the addiction, if the user is exposed to addictive substances.

– Teenagers and young adults are at higher risk of becoming addicted to cannabis

So the question is: can anyone become addicted to cannabis or other drugs? The tricky answer is both “yes” and “no.” Given the right circumstances, the right substances, the right experiences, and the right timing, I believe anyone can develop an addiction of some kind. Some might become addicted to cannabis, others to cocaine, alcohol, or amphetamines. Others still to pornography, internet usage, cell phones or social media, video games, or to watching sports. Those who are vulnerable, like the high sensation seekers or novelty-seekers, are at increased risk whenever they engage in thrill-seeking or pleasure-seeking behaviors which expose them to the possibility of becoming addicted.

Some studies suggest that about 10% to 20% percent of substance users will become addicted to the substances they consume. Genetics plays a major role in determining who will or won’t become addicted to substances, and researchers suggest up to 50% of this risk is determined by your genetic predisposition to addictive behaviors in the first place. Many other risk factors also play a role, such as life stressors, family history, brain developmental stage and age, and the type of drugs being consumed. Teenagers are far more vulnerable to developing an addiction when they try an addictive substance than adults are.


Antoine Kanamugire, M.D. is a Canadian medical doctor, specializing in psychiatry. He pursued a bachelor’s degree in biology in Pittsburgh, USA, then went to Canada where he completed a medical degree at the University of Sherbrooke and then a specialty in psychiatry at the University of Montreal. He is a consultant psychiatrist in outpatient clinics, in the emergency department and for mental health first line teams in Montreal suburbs.

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