Don’t be fooled. Marijuana is addictive, psychology scholar says

Photo courtesy of VCU News.

Amelia Arria, a researcher at the University of Maryland and director of the university’s Center on Young Adult Health and Development, spoke about marijuana’s addictive qualities to a crowd at VCU March 30.

Arria’s research indicates 24 percent of university students who used cannabis once had signs of abuse or dependence. The drug is now mainstream among young adults, especially on college campuses, Arria said.

“This drug in particular, is the one where people will not realize they have any problems,” Arria said. “It’s getting worse because people aren’t calling them out. It’s becoming more accepted and maybe even beneficial.”

Marijuana use disorder, also referred to as cannabis use disorder, affects approximately 30 percent of regular marijuana users, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Six million people in the U.S. suffered from the disorder in 2015, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

For young adults aged 19-22, the NIDA found the daily marijuana use level is the highest it has been since the 1980s, at 7.8 percent.

Arria spoke briefly about her research on multiple substance abuse disorders, including alcohol use disorder (AUD), caffeine addictions, opioid use, sleep problems and marijuana use, often experienced by college students.

Her studies showed a prevalence of abuse and dependence increasing as cannabis use increased.

Arria’s research focuses specifically on people aged 18 to 29 — a stage called ‘emerging adulthood’ — who suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues. She studies the risk factors and impacts when these illnesses go untreated.

“What this age group is trying to do is figure out their place and their connection to the rest of the world,” Arria said. “[They’re figuring out] their relationships to their own community and to themselves, figuring out what it is that they can do to push the world forward.”

Specifically, among university students, the prevalence of marijuana use, marijuana use disorder and THC concentration have all increased dramatically over the past decade, according to Arria’s research. Arria said these increases are concerning.

“A lot of times when I go to colleges, people don’t understand that cannabis has a disorder associated with it,” Arria said. “The myth that it’s not addictive is still alive and well.”

Arria’s talk was part of the VCU Department of Psychology’s Distinguished Speaker Series, where renowned scholars of psychology visit the university to speak on relevant topics. This semester’s series is focused on substance abuse and addiction.

Arria stressed approaching college students about substance abuse issues differently. She said the focus should be on having meaningful conversations rather than aggressive interventions.  

“Young adults think they are invincible,” Arria said. “Our studies have shown repeatedly that they think they can handle it on their own and they don’t need to seek help.”

She said there must be multi-level conversations that tackle each element of substance abuse separately.

“We need to arm our existing [school] staffs with better skills and tools, rather than saying you need to buy ‘program x’ and administer it,” Arria said. “Prevention and intervention shouldn’t come in a box that you buy, it should be based on real, meaningful conversations.”

Watch Arria’s talk at

Saffeya Ahmed, Staff Writer


  1. I would hesitate to give too much credit to her “research”. I didn’t see any real numbers about what is use, abuse, addiction, habituation, really nothing that gives a sense of measure. It does not surprise me that these young people coming to grips with their adult lives are reaching for something to relieve anxiety.

    Look at the numbers they are facing for employment. Many of them realize that once this is over, there is no guarantee of anything except a high rate of unemployment in their graduating class. That’s a hell of an introduction to a kid that has grown up being told what a great and powerful economic power he is born to yet can’t get a good job. I think I would reach for a joint myself.

    One of things they still try to avoid is telling the truth about people that do choose to smoke cannabis daily. Is it because they have to or is it because it is better than their natural state? Anecdotal evidence is loud and clear it is the latter. That changes it from abuse to self defense and that’s a whole different ball game. People that are inherently anxious seem to be drawn to these things and yet we don’t even address that. Where’s your research on that doc? What gets them to take that first toke?

  2. Young people self medicating with cannabis often have underlying conditions which respond well to the drug, as did previous generations of ulcerative colitis sufferers self medicating with tobacco.

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