Marijuana comes from a plant called Cannabis sativa, and it contains a substance called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The drug has mind-altering effects on the brain, and people commonly use marijuana to obtain relaxing and euphoric sensations. Sometimes, marijuana use is associated with negative effects such as increased anxiety or fear, especially when large amounts are used. Marijuana can also cause memory problems and learning difficulties in some cases. Marijuana may not be as addictive as many other psychoactive substances, but it can be for some people.

A gambling disorder (sometimes called gambling addiction, compulsive gambling or problem gambling) is a condition in which a person has uncontrollable urges to gamble to the extent that it causes negative effects on one’s life. Gambling can trigger the brain’s reward system, which is what accounts for its addictive effects, similar to how addiction develops with substance use.

According to 2011 research on the prevalence of problem gambling was estimated to be between 1% and 3% in adults in the United States, and anywhere from 2% to 10% in North American teenagers. 

Criteria for diagnosis of gambling disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, include exhibiting four or more of the following over 12 months:

  • Gambling with more and more money to obtain a particular level of excitement
  • Attempting to stop or limit gambling, but being unable to do so
  • Experiencing restlessness or irritability when attempting to control or stop gambling
  • Risking or losing a relationship, a work opportunity or an educational opportunity due to gambling
  • Being preoccupied with thoughts of past gambling or plans to gamble
  • Gambling in an attempt to improve mood
  • Chasing gambling losses by trying to win back money that was lost 
  • Lying about gambling
  • Depending on other people for money when gambling causes a bad financial situation

The Relationship Between Marijuana and Gambling

It is somewhat common for a person to have other addiction problems while facing active substance use disorders, including marijuana use disorder. Addictive behaviors, like exercise, sex, gambling and shopping disorders can co-occur with substance use disorders. In one study, it was estimated that gambling disorder co-occurs with drug use disorders in about 20% of people and that about 20% of people with drug use disorders also display signs of gambling disorder. However, these figures are for drug use in general, not specifically marijuana use.

In a 2014 study in young adult gamblers, almost 30% had used cannabis within the past three months, and those who used cannabis displayed more frequent gambling behavior. Also, the gamblers who used marijuana had higher levels of impulsivity, although it was not established that cannabis use directly causes increased gambling and impulsivity behaviors.

In a small study, 14 adolescent marijuana users showed increased responses to monetary rewards and losses in a gambling simulation when compared to those who didn’t use marijuana. 

Dangers of Marijuana and Gambling

Marijuana use can be associated with several negative health effects, and marijuana use disorder (marijuana addiction) can be hard to control even when it is the only challenge a person experiences. If a person also has another ongoing addictive process, like gambling disorder, the situation becomes complex and the risks increase. 

People with gambling disorder will likely experience financial problems and these may become harder to manage if another addictive process is occurring, like marijuana use. Also, if a person is consumed with gambling and marijuana use, other aspects of their life may suffer, including relationships, employment and overall health.

Similarities Between Marijuana and Gambling Disorder

Any addiction, whether to a substance like marijuana or a certain behavior like gambling, is characterized by involvement of the brain’s reward system. The person continues seeking the reward despite the negative consequences of doing so. Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that’s present in the brain, is involved in this process of continual reward and reinforcement of the behavior. People with addiction disorders often do not realize they have an addiction or that their addiction affects others around them.

Many individual factors influence whether a person develops problematic gambling or marijuana use including genetics, personality, environment and education level. Addiction can cause a person to feel shame or guilt, since they may feel that recovery is impossible or that their behavior embarrasses family or friends. Professional help and appropriate treatment programs can assist in recovery from any type of addiction.

Marijuana and Gambling Disorder Treatment

Appropriate treatment for marijuana use disorder is important, especially if other psychological conditions exist, such as gambling addiction. Some people may recover from marijuana use disorder only to replace it with gambling or other problematic behaviors. Professional treatment can help provide healthy coping mechanisms during recovery and lessen the chance of replacing one disorder with another.

If someone struggles with coexisting marijuana use disorder and gambling disorder, a treatment program that includes counseling, behavioral therapy, medical management and group therapy can be beneficial and decrease the likelihood of experiencing a setback. Each person has their individual needs so a personalized program provides a better chance of success in recovery.

Treating Gambling Disorder with Medical Marijuana

Formal studies regarding the treatment of gambling disorders with medical marijuana have not been performed. A 2016 study in rats showed that activating certain cannabinoid receptors (the same receptors activated by marijuana) improved problematic gambling behavior. This study has not been replicated in humans, but it is a starting point for further research.

Treating gambling disorder with marijuana in someone who already has a marijuana use disorder may be problematic, as there is always a chance that the marijuana use will replace the gambling behavior, and perhaps lead to detrimental marijuana addiction. 

Key Points: Marijuana and Gambling Disorder

Keep the following key points in mind regarding marijuana and gambling disorder: 

  • Marijuana use disorder can often co-occur with behavioral disorders such as gambling disorder
  • Marijuana use can cause anxiety, fear, paranoia and memory problems
  • Exact statistics are unknown, but it is estimated there is about a 20% overlap in coexisting marijuana use disorder and gambling disorder
  • Well-rounded treatment programs can address substance use disorders and behavioral health issues at the same time
  • It is important to discuss marijuana use and gambling disorder with a professional if either becomes problematic
  • Recovery from marijuana use disorder and gambling disorder is possible

If you or a loved one struggle with a substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative. Addiction can co-occur with mental health disorders, like gambling disorder, so receiving treatment for both simultaneously is the best way to experience lasting good health. A healthier future is on the horizon, take the first step toward it by calling today.