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Marijuana Problems

Differences between Cannabis Use, Cannabis Abuse and Cannabis Dependence


Updated September 07, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Note: In 2013, the diagnosis of Cannabis Abuse was combined with the diagnosis of Cannabis Dependence in a new disorder, Cannabis Use Disorder.

Marijuana problems can happen during or after one of the first times you use the drug, or they can build up over time. Marijuana use, marijuana abuse and marijuana addiction appear to overlap perhaps more than use, abuse and addiction in any other drug, not least because of the drug's current status in the minds of users as a relatively harmless drug.

Because these beliefs are very pervasive among the marijuana-using population, it is rare for a user to admit to any problems or to move beyond the pre-contemplation stage of change. If negative effects are experienced, the user will typically blame it on a "bad" batch of marijuana, arguing that it was probably cut with a harmful substance, rather than an effect of the drug itself.

Yet there are major differences between recreational and medical marijuana use, abuse and addiction.

The Differences

The differences depend on several factors, including how much and how frequently marijuana is used, the context in which it is used, how necessary it is in the mind of the user to have access to the drug, the extent to which their life revolves its use, and the way that the drug effects their mental and physical health and results in other problems for them.

Yet marijuana users themselves are unlikely to recognize this. It is not unusual for smokers who use the drug daily and who require marijuana to get through the day to identify as recreational smokers who could quit at any time. So, if you really want to know whether you have a marijuana problem, be honest about the impact the drug is having on your life.

Marijuana Use

Marijuana use involves use of the substance in a non-problematic way, without any negative consequences for the user or for other people. The term "marijuana use" can be applied to recreational or medical use.

Characteristics of recreational marijuana use

Medical marijuana use

Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana abuse is a recognized substance-use disorder. It is common among marijuana users, who typically think of their abuse as simply marijuana use, because they do not perceive marijuana as addictive or harmful. Marijuana abusers often go for long periods without using the drug, and their use may not seem to be compulsive. However, the defining characteristic of marijuana abuse is harmful, non-compulsive use.

Characteristics of marijuana abuse

Marijuana Addiction

Marijuana addiction is also a recognized substance-use disorder. People addicted to marijuana will often use it daily. As mentioned above, marijuana addicts will rarely admit to being addicted and will often be quite defensive of their use or need for the drug. For example, while denying that they are addicted, an addict may claim that they "need" marijuana to cope with anxiety and help them relax, even though anxiety is a common effect of marijuana.

Characteristics of marijuana addiction

If you recognize your own drug-using patterns as marijuana abuse or addiction, or if your marijuana use is negatively affecting the way you think, feel or live your life, get help through your doctor or local drug treatment center.


Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Text Revision, Fourth Edition, (Copyright 2000). American Psychiatric Association.

Fiestas, F., Radovanovic, M., Martins, S., Medina-Mora, M., Posada-Villa, J. and Anthony, J. “Cross-national differences in clinically significant cannabis problems: epidemiologic evidence from 'cannabis-only' smokers in the United States, Mexico, and Colombia.” BMC Public Health 10:152. 2010.

Dragt, S., Nieman, D., Becker, H., et al. Age of onset of cannabis use is associated with age of onset of high-risk symptoms for psychosis. Can J Psychiatry 55:65–171. 2010.

Beck, K., Caldeira, K., Vincent, K. et al. The social context of cannabis use: Relationship to cannabis use disorders and depressive symptoms among college students. Addictive Behaviors 34:764–768. 2009.

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