How to Tell if Cannabis Use in Young Adults Has Moved Beyond “Recreational”

Cannabis is one of the most widely used substances by teens, with an estimated 1 in 7 teens reportedly using Marijuana every month. While many parents might believe that cannabis is harmless, especially since it is now widely legal in many states, it can be quite harmful to brain development. Cannabis use has been linked to several mental health problems in young adults, including psychosis and anxiety.

As a parent, how can you tell if your child’s cannabis use has gone from recreational to problematic? Below are some signs to look for to ensure your teen’s mental health is not negatively affected or that their Marijuana use does not lead to more severe drug abuse issues down the road.

Defining Addiction to Marijuana

It’s crucial to define addiction, first and foremost, to understand the difference between addiction and frequent cannabis use that is recreational or medical. Recreational use of cannabis is often described as using the drug to experience the psychoactive effects of its THC content. These effects include:

  • Euphoria

  • Relaxation

  • Head high

  • Body high

Others might use marijuana for medical purposes, such as to ease pain or, in patients with lung cancer or other cancers, to help with nausea and increasing appetite. Some pregnant women might even use cannabis to help with nausea. Unfortunately, the use of Marijuana while pregnant puts a baby at increased risk of low birth weight and other long-term consequences.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is defined as “A chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.”

Some of these adverse consequences can include:

  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using the drug, such as irritability and dysphoria

  • Increased tolerance (needing more of the drug to get the same effect)

  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit or cut back

  • Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from the effects of the drug

  • Giving up important activities to use the drug

  • Trouble maintaining relationships in school, work, or at home due to their drug use

  • Lack of academic achievement or negatively impacted career or school

  • Focus on using the drug throughout the day

If you notice your teen is starting to experience any of these symptoms, you must reach out for help. While your teen might use Medical Marijuana for pain or other issues, these above signs are strong indicators that your teen’s recreational cannabis use has moved into the realm of addiction.

Sign One: When Marijuana Affects the Brain

In addition to being chronic, substance use disorder is considered a brain disorder since it negatively affects brain functioning and chemistry.

One of the first signs that cannabis use is starting to become problematic is when it begins to affect the brain. Studies show that when THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) enters the brain, it produces many changes. The most notable changes are an increase in dopamine (the “feel good” hormone) and a decrease in the brain’s ability to create new memories. According to the CDC, scientific evidence shows that cannabis has immediate effects on the brain, including:

  • Memory

  • Learning

  • Attention

  • Decision-Making

  • Coordination

  • Reaction time

While these changes may not seem harmful, they can lead to many long-term problems for teens, especially if they begin smoking Marijuana at an early age. For example, the decrease in new memory formation can lead to difficulty retaining information, affecting school performance. The increase in dopamine, while providing a temporary “high,” can also lead to increased anxiety and paranoia, especially with strains like Cannabis Sativa. Unfortunately, in adolescents, this continued release of dopamine might also make it difficult for the brain to learn how to regulate dopamine levels which can lead to addiction.

Sign Two: When Cannabis Use Affects Mental Health

As we mentioned, cannabis use has been linked to some mental health problems in young adults and teenagers, including psychosis and anxiety. Teens with preexisting mental health conditions are especially at risk for these problems.

If your teen displays signs of mental illness, such as psychosis or anxiety, it’s essential to seek help. These problems can be exacerbated by cannabis use and lead to more serious problems with chronic and severe mental illness.

Some signs that cannabis use is causing or worsening mental illness include:

  • Changes in mood

  • Changes in behavior

  • Changes in thinking

  • Changes in appearance

  • Hallucinations (auditory or visual)

  • Paranoia

  • Panic Attacks

  • Irritability

  • Depression

If you notice any of these changes in your teen, immediately get them help before the problem worsens. Unfortunately, various mental illnesses can be worsened or spurred by cannabis use. These mental health issues include the following.


Some studies have shown there is a link between THC and schizophrenia. More THC in Marijuana is thought to cause or worsen the symptoms of this serious mental illness, especially in someone with a family history of schizophrenia. The most notable symptoms of schizophrenia include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there). Other symptoms include:

  • Disorganized thinking

  • Problems with focus and attention

  • Problems with motivation

  • Social withdrawal

  • Monotone speaking

  • Catatonia, which is a state of immobility

Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that can be debilitating. As a parent, it’s crucial to stay vigilant if your teen is experiencing these problems, especially if changes in appearance or behavior accompany them. Signs of schizophrenia will show in the late teens to early 20s, so if you notice any changes, don’t wait to get help.

Bipolar Disorder

Cannabis use has also been linked to bipolar disorder. This psychotic disorder is characterized by extreme mood swings, from highs (mania) to lows (depression). These mood swings can be accompanied by changes in sleep, energy, thinking, and behavior. Some teens struggling with bipolar disorder might turn to Marijuana to cope with periods of depression or mania. Unfortunately, cannabis use is linked to:

  • Worsened bipolar episodes

  • Severe psychotic symptoms

  • Rapid cycling (meaning switching between depression and mania)

  • Suicide attempts

  • Decreased long-term remission

  • Disability

Since teens are likely to experiment with Marijuana, it’s essential to know the signs of bipolar disorder. That way, you can get your teen’s help if they notice their bipolar symptoms worsening.

Anxiety Disorders

Research shows that cannabis can lead to anxiety disorders and panic attacks, especially with THC in higher doses. Cannabis use can cause people to feel:

  • Anxious

  • Paranoid

  • Nervous

  • On edge

  • Unable to focus

While many teens, and adults, might think that cannabis can help with anxiety, this is only observed in low doses of THC or CBD and might not be the case for all people. If you notice your teen using cannabis to cope with anxiety or if their stress seems to be worsening, it’s essential to reach out to a mental health professional or addiction treatment specialist. A mental health professional can help your teen use coping skills for their anxiety and get to the root of their anxiety disorder.

Sign Three: When Cannabis Use Affects School or Work

Cannabis use can also lead to problems at school or work if it becomes addictive. As we mentioned before, cannabis use can cause difficulty retaining information and decreased ability to focus, which can lead to poor grades or difficulty keeping a job. In addition, cannabis use has been linked to an increased risk of dropping out of school. If you notice your teen is struggling in school or at work, and they are using cannabis, this could be the cause. While recreational marijuana use might not lead to academic issues, young people who continue to let cannabis affect their school or work lives might be addicted.

Cannabis use can also lead to absences from work or school. This is especially true if your teen is skipping class or work to get high or if they are too impaired to function properly. If you notice your teen is missing school or work, or if their attendance or performance has been slipping, this could be a sign of cannabis addiction.

Sign Four: When Cannabis Use Causes Relationship Problems

Cannabis use can also lead to relationship problems. This is because cannabis use can cause:

  • Paranoia

  • Anxiety

  • Aggression

  • Irritability

  • Mood swings

Cannabis use can also lead to problems with communication and make it difficult to relate to others. If you notice your teen is having difficulty in their relationships or if they seem to be withdrawing from friends and family, this could be a sign of cannabis addiction. While they might smoke cannabis to help them with social anxiety, be on the lookout for signs of worsening relationships and anxiety around others.

Sign Five: When Cannabis Use Results in Substance Use of Other Illicit Drugs

Unfortunately, while smoking cannabis is considered legal in many states, it is still an illicit drug, meaning it is illegal to buy, sell, or possess cannabis in certain states. As a result, people who use cannabis are at risk of being introduced to other illicit drugs. Research shows that people who use cannabis are more likely to use other illicit drugs than those who don’t. Some theories suggest that cannabis’ effect on the dopamine system makes people more likely to try other drugs that also affect this system. With extended cannabis use, it is likely that one will begin to form a tolerance to the drug. As it takes more and more of the drug to produce the same effect, people often turn to something stronger.

For teens using cannabis, this can signify their increased risk of using other drugs. If you notice your teen using other drugs or if they seem interested in trying different substances, this is a sign that cannabis use has become a problem.

Getting Young Adults Help at New Life House Recovery Community

It isn’t impossible to overcome a cannabis addiction, but it will take effort. If you think your teen might be addicted to cannabis, the first step is to reach out to a mental health professional or addiction specialist. These professionals can help your teen detox from cannabis products and get them into treatment. Treatment for cannabis addiction usually includes therapy, treatment of underlying mental health disorders, 12-step programs, or other support groups. With treatment, your teen can overcome addiction and start living healthier, drug-free lives.

At New Life House Recovery Homes, our sober living home is here to help your teen when they’re ready to get clean and sober. Our program includes therapy, support groups, and educational programs that enable your teen to overcome addiction. We also provide our residents with the skills they need to live sober lives. Coupled with all of this, New Life also provides a peer-based community to not only relate to and support your child but also to hold them accountable for their recovery. Contact us today to learn more about how your teen might benefit from our program.

Last Updated on February 22, 2024


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