Cannabis addiction is real. Here is one mother's story
'It is common and it's something we're seeing on a regular basis in addiction services'
As a teenager she had problems with drugs, but she never thought that 20 years later she'd be fighting a battle against cannabis addiction.
"I was not your typical, what somebody would think of as a drug user," she said. "I was still able to function, and kind of fool people maybe."
CBC has agreed not to identify the woman, who is in her 30s. She works for government, is a mother, and is very involved in her community.
She had a problem with cannabis abuse as a teen, she said. She'd planned to go to university, but instead spent her early 20s partying with friends.
She had a "highly addictive personality," she said, and trauma — she was sexually assaulted — that she believes may have led her to self-medicate with pot, hashish and alcohol.
'Never touch that again'
She thinks most people would never have guessed she had addiction problems, because she had a job and was active in her community. And she said although she tries not to judge others, she judged herself.
"I always felt there was something wrong, and I was going against my values," she said. "I still had dreams that I wanted to accomplish — have a family and have kids and everything."
She went for help and tried to beat the habit three or four times. She was a few weeks into recovery when she began dating a man who who didn't smoke pot, and quickly got pregnant.
"That changed everything — I did not use," she said. "That was a godsend."
She didn't smoke pot for more than 10 years. She was happy, and thought the addiction was behind her forever.
"I remember thinking, I'll never touch that again."
'A good justification'
A couple of years ago, she was with some people socially having a few drinks, when they passed around a joint. On the spur of the moment, she took a puff — just one.
"I thought, I'm an adult now, it's not that bad," she said. "I hardly felt it."
She continued meeting with the same people as they were working on a project, and they continued to pass around joints. She began taking more puffs. Within three or four months, she said, she was smoking daily again.
Even though this was pre-legalization, she said getting weed was no problem. She got it from friends who smoked casually, and from people who grew it themselves.
Then, she hurt her back, and asked her doctor if he thought cannabis might help. He wrote her a prescription on the spot, she said.
"That's my fault, but he knows I have addiction issues from the past," she said. "And he still gave me this without thinking twice."
The pot didn't help her back, she said. But it helped feed her addiction.
"That made it more OK, that was for me a good justification — 'Well, I have a prescription now,'" she said.
'A lot of guilt'
It took a while to admit to herself she was addicted, she said.
Her work suffered. She became disorganized, and sometimes bills didn't get paid on time. It affected her relationship with her husband, a non-user, and with her children — she would duck out onto her home's deck to smoke pot, she said, then avoid her kids in case they smelled it on her.
"That brings a lot of guilt, as a mother," she said.
Legalization a year ago gave her another excuse to lie to herself, she said.
"It helped justify — OK now it's legal, so I can use and there's no problem," she said. "I had full access to it anytime I wanted it."
She also downplayed her addiction, telling herself pot wasn't as bad as abusing cocaine or heroin.
'It was not good'
This past spring, she said she hit her rock bottom.
She had been experimenting with legal cannabis oil. She took a small dose but didn't think it was working, so took a bit more. Then a friend phoned and asked her to go out shopping — thinking she would be fine, she agreed, and took along her kids. But when they got into the store, the drug took full effect, and she had a panic attack.
"I didn't think I was going to survive. It was not good," she recalls. Her friend took her home, and she stayed in bed the rest of the day.
"So felt so guilty," she said. "I realized I couldn't keep going like that."
She sought help at one of the province's mental-health walk-in clinics, and staff there referred her to an addictions counsellor through the province.
She is now in recovery, and said it's going well. The first week was the hardest, she said — she was irritable, had cravings and had to deal with emotions the pot had helped her avoid. She now has counselling sessions every week or two.
She's had a slip, she said — believing she could have a couple of drinks. But she's learned that when she does, her inhibitions go out the window, and she always ends up smoking pot again. Now, she avoids drinking.
"I can't imagine using again, but I know I have to keep a tight rein on it," she admits. "Trying to take one day at a time — that's the motto, but it's true."
She's joined a gym and is enjoying the natural high from exercise. She has also told a small group of close friends who support her with encouragement.
'Cannabis addiction is real'
This kind of story is "not uncommon" in the P.E.I. health system said Dr. Amanda Hudson, an adjunct professor at UPEI and program lead of mental health and addictions with Health PEI.
The province monitors cannabis-related cases at community addiction services, emergency departments and inpatient mental-health admissions. Hudson said from 2018 to 2019 they have seen a 50 per cent increase in the number of people seeking addictions services for reasons related to cannabis use.
"We do notice slight increases in the last couple of years, so I think it is becoming more common — or people are seeking help more anyway," Hudson said. She applauds the woman for sharing her story.
"Cannabis addiction is real — in addiction services, in psychology, we refer to it as cannabis use disorder," Hudson said. It involves a continued use of marijuana despite experiencing consequences such as interfering with daily life activities, she explained.
"It is common and it's something we're seeing on a regular basis in addiction services, at the community level and emergency and inpatient services," she said. "It's definitely seen as a serious problem by our clinical staff and by our system."
Another symptom of cannabis use disorder is often cannabis dependence. That means users experience withdrawal if they don't use, and develop drug tolerance — needing increasing amounts or higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive element in cannabis, to achieve the same effects, she said.
P.E.I. doctors are also seeing cases of cannabis-induced psychosis, in which the user "essentially loses touch with reality as a result of their cannabis use," Hudson said. Patients can have delusions, paranoia, or hallucinations.
"I think it's good to address that misconception, that it's only a short-term problem," Hudson said. Those who continue to use pot after a psychotic episode have less chance of recovery, she said.
'Long-term use is another risk factor'
The age group most commonly showing up for cannabis-related health issues is Islanders 18 to 24 years old, Hudson said.
And using pot at younger ages can lead to more serious problems, she said — there's a greater likelihood of developing cannabis use disorder, or cannabis-induced psychosis.
"This is thought to be because of the endocannabinoid system in the brain, that's very implicated in development of the brain," Hudson said. THC interacts with that system and may interfere with brain development, she said, and the more THC in a product, the riskier.
"Using cannabis frequently — so daily or almost-daily use — is definitely associated with more likely mental health and addictions experiences, and ongoing or long-term use is another risk factor."
You might be addicted and not even realize it, Hudson said — if friends, family or co-workers are noticing your symptoms, she suggests it may be time for a self-assessment of your cannabis use.
Hudson said anyone who wants help can call P.E.I. Addiction Services at 1-888-299-8399 or talk to their family doctor. Outpatient services and addictions counselling are often sufficient rather than a stay in the province's detox unit, she added.
She also advises people educate themselves by reading Just the Facts, the Chief Public Health Office campaign on harm reduction, as well as websites cannabisandpsychosis.ca and teenmentalhealth.org/cannabis.