May 1, 2024

4 Things You Didn’t Know about Cannabis

written by Erin Bonar, Ph.D.

Cannabis was legalized in Michigan in 2018, and momentum is growing for possible national legalization, too. It’s important to stress that, just like with any other addictive substance, most people who try cannabis are unlikely to go on to have serious problems. At the same time, there are many people who find that cannabis gets in the way of their goals and valued relationships with coworkers, family, and friends.

This Mental Health Awareness month, here are four things you may be surprised to learn about cannabis.


1. Cannabis is actually addictive.

Cannabis products contain an active ingredient (known as delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) that makes a person feel “high” and alters some of their functions. Cannabis isn’t responsible for the mounting overdose deaths in the U.S. the way opioids are, but it is still an addictive substance. This means that with regular use a person can develop a dependence that can also impair their day-to-day life called a “cannabis use disorder.” About 1 in 5 people who use cannabis go on to develop a cannabis use disorder, and it’s the most common addictive disorder in the U.S. after alcohol and nicotine-related disorders. The primary signals of dependence on a drug like cannabis include needing a larger amount to achieve the same level of effects (called tolerance) and experiencing withdrawal when going without cannabis. When people think of withdrawal, they often think of the “shakes” or hallucinations that can happen during serious alcohol withdrawal. Cannabis withdrawal is not deadly, but it does include ongoing, unpleasant symptoms like mood disruption, agitation, and irritability. The good news is that cannabis use disorder is treatable and can get better with certain psychotherapies called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Motivational Enhancement.


2. Cannabis doesn’t make you a better driver.

We’ve all learned about the dangers of drunk driving and we know that some medications (like opioids) come with labels that warn people not to operate heavy machinery while taking the drug. Yet, we don’t often talk about how cannabis use can impact driving. Cannabis slows you down. Some people think that being a slower driver means they are paying more attention to what’s going on around them. However, the scientific truth is that the effects of cannabis on those functions that slow you down also means you are going to react more slowly to what’s happening on the road around you. Think of all those times you have to react quickly while driving, like when a deer jumps across the highway, a child rushes into the street chasing a wayward basketball, or a bicyclist pulls up from behind your blind spot. These are the times you have to react quickly to avoid a collision or worse, and these are the exact functions that cannabis slows down. Also, there’s no currently established “safe” limit for THC with regard to driving, and there can be serious legal consequences if a person has cannabis in their system during an automobile crash or other traffic incidents even if they haven’t used cannabis that day, because cannabis stays in your body long after the high is gone.


3. Legalization doesn’t mean cannabis is good for everyone.

Important efforts to legalize and decriminalize cannabis can help rectify past racism-fueled injustices such as the higher incarceration rates for Black or African-American individuals related to cannabis. Although we absolutely should continue to focus on dismantling these racist policies in the U.S., legalization is happening at a time when there’s still very little science to tell us what is safest. For many decades there have been limits to studying cannabis the way we do with the other substances that people can get through legal means and/or through their doctors. This means we don’t yet know if there are truly safer ways to use cannabis that would lower the risk for addiction or other health consequences. Legalization can open the door to better understanding of cannabis and its potential, but right now we don’t have great information to guide decisions about cannabis use. In particular, when cannabis becomes legalized in a region, there are often increases in poisoning events, like more calls to Poison Control or more visits to the ER for accidental ingestion, that can happen more often in children. For people who have cannabis in their homes, storing it in a locked container away from children and pets can help avoid unnecessary trips to the ER.


4. Cannabis is stronger than ever before—that makes it riskier than ever, too.

Today’s cannabis products are a whole different beast than what we think of with generations past in the 60s, 70s, or even more recently. The strength of cannabis has grown dramatically since the 1990s, and the products available today are very strong. Research shows that as cannabis products get stronger, cannabis use disorder happens faster, too.

Strong products may signal greater appeal, in the same way that a higher percentage of cacao in dark chocolate might sound more delicious. However, when these newer, stronger products are used repeatedly, they can really boost the possibility of developing cannabis use disorder, which also worsens mental health conditions. Some folks seek cannabis as a way to cope with mental health difficulties, but scientific data shows that cannabis can actually make these things worse. In a society with a current mental health crisis, where many people are looking for ways to feel better, cannabis can seem like a tantalizing option for short-term relief. But in reality, it can create a negative loop that actually makes anxiety and depression symptoms even worse. 


CDC: What We Know About Marijuana

National Institute on Drug Abuse: Cannabis (Marijuana) Drug Facts