Behavioral Therapy Has Unexpected Result on Marijuana Addicts

Posted on June 30th, 2014

Behavioral Therapy Has Unexpected Result on Marijuana AddictsWhether they know it or not, substance users typically have specific underlying reasons for their drug use. A form of psychotherapy commonly used in substance treatment called behavioral therapy seeks to identify dysfunctional motivations for substance use and change those motivations over time. In a study published in June 2014 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from two U.S. universities looked at how two specific forms of behavioral therapy—known as cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy—change the drug-using motivations of people receiving treatment for marijuana addiction.

Marijuana Addiction

Marijuana is experiencing something of a heyday in American society, with state-level decriminalization and legalization efforts in full swing across the country. However, despite the changing legal status of the drug, the medical and scientific communities have firmly established one thing: a certain percentage of teenagers and adults who use marijuana will go on to develop the brain and behavioral changes that mark the onset of drug addiction. Overall, the rate of addiction among marijuana users nationwide is roughly 9 percent. In teenagers, who commonly have an increased susceptibility to the harmful brain changes associated with substance use, the addiction rate rises to approximately 17 percent. In addition, marijuana addiction affects about 25 percent to 50 percent of both teens and adults who use the drug every day or close to every day. Since marijuana ranks only behind alcohol and cigarettes in widespread popularity, these figures mean that sizable numbers of the U.S. population likely qualify for a marijuana addiction diagnosis (known officially as cannabis use disorder).

Drug Use Motivations

As a rule, there are three primary conscious or unconscious motivations for involvement in substance use. In some cases, substance users believe that participation in drinking or drug intake will allow them to fit in better with their peer groups or with larger segments of society. In other cases, substance users believe that the consumption of alcohol or drugs will help them cope with or avoid the impact of unpleasant physical states, unpleasant emotions such as sadness or hopelessness, or specific symptoms of mental illness. Still other substance users believe that their participation in drinking or drug intake will simply make them feel good or intensify the impact of an existing good or pleasant mood.

Effects of Behavioral Therapy

In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Virginia Tech University and the University of Washington tested the impact of cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy on the drug-using motives of 74 adults receiving treatment for marijuana addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps recovering addicts identify the damaging thoughts and behaviors that support continuing substance use, and also helps recovering addicts establish new thoughts and behaviors that don’t support substance use. Motivational enhancement therapy helps treatment program participants overcome any spoken or unspoken objections or concerns they may have about shifting from a substance-oriented lifestyle to a substance-free lifestyle.

Some of the study participants received nine sessions of treatment that included both cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy. Other participants also received this basic course of treatment, in addition to follow-up sessions at a later date. Generally speaking, the researchers found that the motivations for marijuana use declined in both groups. However, not all of the motivational changes had the expected results. While a reduction in the use of marijuana as a coping mechanism led to improved treatment results among the participants, a reduction in the use of marijuana as an expander of good feelings led to a decline in the desired treatment results.

The study’s authors note the unexpected nature of the impact that participation in behavioral therapy apparently has in marijuana addicts who use the drug to create good feelings or amplify existing good feelings. However, they emphasize the importance of the finding that behavioral therapy can produce significant treatment benefits for marijuana addicts who use the drug to cope with unwanted feelings or sensations. In addition, they note that this outcome may have significant repercussions on the treatments commonly used to address the effects of marijuana addiction. On a side note, both cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy are also frequently used to help people recover from abuse and addiction to other substances, including alcohol and tobacco/nicotine.

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