Characteristics of Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana Abuse AKA Cannabis Abuse

Models pose as marijuana smokers
Many regular marijuana users met the criteria for Cannabis Abuse. Doug Menuez / Getty Images

Until 2013, Marijuana Abuse was a recognized mental disorder -- classified in the DSM-IV as Cannabis Abuse. The criteria that made up the symptoms of the disorder are common among marijuana users. Most marijuana users do not think of themselves as "abusing" the drug, as it does not fit the criteria for addiction, and most were unaware of the marijuana abuse category.

In 2013, the diagnosis of Cannabis Abuse was combined with the diagnosis of Cannabis Dependence in a new disorder, Cannabis Use Disorder, in the next edition, the DSM 5.

Symptoms of Cannabis Abuse

The following symptoms are characteristic of the now outdated diagnosis of cannabis abuse:

  • Marijuana abusers may go for long periods without using marijuana. Marijuana abuse can occur with the first use of marijuana.
  • Marijuana abuse may not appear compulsive, meaning that marijuana abusers may be able to decline use of marijuana when it is freely available.
  • Problems are associated with marijuana abuse. These may be direct consequences of the marijuana use, which can impact health and well-being (such as getting into an accident or a fight while intoxicated), or they may be indirectly related to marijuana use (such as relationship or work problems).
  • Marijuana may be used in binges, cause the abuser may become severely intoxicated, and result in a negative reaction to the drug, such as a panic attack, development of a substance-induced disorder, or triggering of an underlying mental health problem.
  • Driving while intoxicated with marijuana is a form of marijuana abuse that poses a risk to one's self and others.
  • Marijuana abuse also includes occasional use of marijuana to deal with underlying psychological problems, such as social anxiety, sexual problems, or coping with stressful life events or difficult emotions.
  • Marijuana abuse includes the use of marijuana to facilitate harmful behaviors, or behaviors that otherwise would be controlled, such as unsafe sexual behaviors, or carrying out dangerous stunts or dares that could lead to serious injury or death.
  • Smoke inhalation is harmful to health, so smoking marijuana is a form of marijuana abuse. Smoking marijuana also potentially exposes others to second-hand or third-hand smoke.

Harms Related to Cannabis Abuse

Although users may not consider marijuana abuse to be as serious as marijuana addiction, the harms resulting from marijuana abuse may be even more damaging because the use of marijuana is not necessarily a regular occurrence.

For example, those who use marijuana only occasionally tend to have less tolerance for the effects of marijuana, and thus their experience of the drug is less predictable. They may be more likely to make serious errors of judgment, such as driving while under the influence or having unsafe sex. As a result, they are at risk of causing death or being killed in a motor vehicle accident or becoming infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

If you or someone you know has crossed from recreational marijuana use to problematic marijuana use, you should seek help as soon as possible.

This is particularly true if you are a marijuana user who has experienced negative effects of marijuana, such as extreme changes in mood, perception (the way you see and hear things), and ideas about yourself or other people -- especially significant changes in the way you see yourself or thoughts that others are watching you.

Despite what you may have heard, marijuana is not a harmless drug and can be a trigger for mental illness, but getting help quickly will also increase the likelihood that treatment will be effective and long-lasting.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM-IV-TR, (Text Revision, Fourth Edition), American Psychiatric Association. 2000.

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM 5, (Fifth Edition). American Psychiatric Association. 2013.

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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.

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