Achieve Mastery of Medical Concepts

Study for medical school and boards with Lecturio

Cannabis Use Disorder

Cannabis use disorder (CUD) is characterized by the pathologic consumption of cannabis, which is the most commonly used illicit substance worldwide. While cannabis has some beneficial medical uses, it also has the potential to cause intoxication characterized by psychosis or cognitive impairment, especially in chronic use. Unlike most other substances, withdrawal symptoms are mild. There is currently no strong evidence for long-term benefits of pharmacologic or psychosocial interventions in the management of cannabis use disorder. Other factors such as underlying mood or personality disorders Personality Disorders A major deviation from normal patterns of behavior. Cluster A Personality Disorders or comorbidity with other substance use disorders are associated with a poor prognosis Prognosis A prediction of the probable outcome of a disease based on a individual's condition and the usual course of the disease as seen in similar situations. Non-Hodgkin Lymphomas.

Last updated: 29 Mar, 2021

Editorial responsibility: Stanley Oiseth, Lindsay Jones, Evelin Maza

Definition and Epidemiology


Cannabis use disorder (CUD) is defined as chronic (> 12 months) maladaptive use of cannabis. 

  • Intoxication: 
    • Heightened sensitivity Sensitivity Binary classification measures to assess test results. Sensitivity or recall rate is the proportion of true positives. Blotting Techniques to stimuli 
    • Derealization Derealization Derealization is a persistent subjective sense of detachment or unreality of the surrounding world often described by the patient as unreal, dreamlike, foggy, lifeless, or visually distorted reality. Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder and depersonalization Depersonalization State in which an individual perceives or experiences a sensation of unreality concerning the self or the environment; it is seen in disorders such as schizophrenia, affection disorders, organic mental disorders, and personality disorders. Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder with higher dosage Dosage Dosage Calculation
    • Motor Motor Neurons which send impulses peripherally to activate muscles or secretory cells. Nervous System: Histology skills are impaired for up to 8–12 hours after ingestion.
    • Delirium Delirium Delirium is a medical condition characterized by acute disturbances in attention and awareness. Symptoms may fluctuate during the course of a day and involve memory deficits and disorientation. Delirium and cannabis-induced psychotic disorders may also occur.
  • Withdrawal: 
    • Development of a substance-specific syndrome due to the cessation (or reduction) of substance use
    • Very mild for cannabis and other inhalants/ hallucinogen Hallucinogen Drugs capable of inducing illusions, hallucinations, delusions, paranoid ideations, and other alterations of mood and thinking. Despite the name, the feature that distinguishes these agents from other classes of drugs is their capacity to induce states of altered perception, thought, and feeling that are not experienced otherwise. Hallucinogen Use Disorder-type drugs
  • Tolerance Tolerance Pharmacokinetics and Pharmacodynamics
    • The need to increase the dose of the substance to achieve desired effect (diminished effect if using the same amount of the substance)
    • Evidence for physiological dependence is not strong for cannabis.


  • Cannabis is the most widely used illicit substance.
  • Used by an estimated 192 million people worldwide 
  • About 13 million individuals worldwide suffer from moderate-to-severe cannabis use disorder.
  • Prevalence Prevalence The total number of cases of a given disease in a specified population at a designated time. It is differentiated from incidence, which refers to the number of new cases in the population at a given time. Measures of Disease Frequency of CUD declines with increase in age. 
  • Men are more than twice as likely to have CUD as women.


Pharmacologic properties

  • Cannabis is consumed from both naturally occuring and agriculture-selected strains (which have increased potency). 
  • Synthetic formulations available (e.g., “spice,” “K2”)  
  • Common ways of consumption: 
    • Smoking Smoking Willful or deliberate act of inhaling and exhaling smoke from burning substances or agents held by hand. Interstitial Lung Diseases (most widespread) 
    • Vaporizers 
    • Baked into cookies or other sweets
    • Tea
  • THC ( tetrahydrocannabinol Tetrahydrocannabinol It is the psychoactive component of cannabis. Cannabinoids):
    • The main active and most potent psychoactive component in cannabis 
    • 50% of THC enters the bloodstream via the alveoli Alveoli Small polyhedral outpouchings along the walls of the alveolar sacs, alveolar ducts and terminal bronchioles through the walls of which gas exchange between alveolar air and pulmonary capillary blood takes place. Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) in the lungs Lungs Lungs are the main organs of the respiratory system. Lungs are paired viscera located in the thoracic cavity and are composed of spongy tissue. The primary function of the lungs is to oxygenate blood and eliminate CO2. Lungs: Anatomy rapidly after inhalation. 
    • THC binds to cannabinoid receptors Cannabinoid receptors A class of g-protein-coupled receptors that are specific for cannabinoids such as those derived from cannabis. They also bind a structurally distinct class of endogenous factors referred to as endocannabinoids. The receptor class may play a role in modulating the release of signaling molecules such as neurotransmitters and cytokines. Cannabinoids in the brain Brain The part of central nervous system that is contained within the skull (cranium). Arising from the neural tube, the embryonic brain is comprised of three major parts including prosencephalon (the forebrain); mesencephalon (the midbrain); and rhombencephalon (the hindbrain). The developed brain consists of cerebrum; cerebellum; and other structures in the brain stem. Nervous System: Anatomy, Structure, and Classification’s reward system → results in feelings of euphoria Euphoria An exaggerated feeling of physical and emotional well-being not consonant with apparent stimuli or events; usually of psychologic origin, but also seen in organic brain disease and toxic states. Hepatic Encephalopathy 
    • Synthetic cannabinoids Synthetic Cannabinoids Cannabinoids have active compounds that are more potent than THC.
  • Cannabinoid receptors Receptors Receptors are proteins located either on the surface of or within a cell that can bind to signaling molecules known as ligands (e.g., hormones) and cause some type of response within the cell. Receptors are inhibitory G proteins Proteins Linear polypeptides that are synthesized on ribosomes and may be further modified, crosslinked, cleaved, or assembled into complex proteins with several subunits. The specific sequence of amino acids determines the shape the polypeptide will take, during protein folding, and the function of the protein. Energy Homeostasis →  inhibit adenylate cyclase → decreases cAMP cAMP An adenine nucleotide containing one phosphate group which is esterified to both the 3′- and 5′-positions of the sugar moiety. It is a second messenger and a key intracellular regulator, functioning as a mediator of activity for a number of hormones, including epinephrine, glucagon, and acth. Phosphodiesterase Inhibitors
  • Cannabinoids are lipophilic → can remain in the body in detectable levels for days to weeks

Medical uses of cannabis


  • Treatment of nausea Nausea An unpleasant sensation in the stomach usually accompanied by the urge to vomit. Common causes are early pregnancy, sea and motion sickness, emotional stress, intense pain, food poisoning, and various enteroviruses. Antiemetics and vomiting Vomiting The forcible expulsion of the contents of the stomach through the mouth. Hypokalemia, appetite stimulation:
    • Chemotherapy Chemotherapy Osteosarcoma
    • Multiple sclerosis Sclerosis A pathological process consisting of hardening or fibrosis of an anatomical structure, often a vessel or a nerve. Wilms Tumor
    • AIDS AIDS Chronic HIV infection and depletion of CD4 cells eventually results in acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which can be diagnosed by the presence of certain opportunistic diseases called AIDS-defining conditions. These conditions include a wide spectrum of bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections as well as several malignancies and generalized conditions. HIV Infection and AIDS
    • Chronic pain Chronic pain Aching sensation that persists for more than a few months. It may or may not be associated with trauma or disease, and may persist after the initial injury has healed. Its localization, character, and timing are more vague than with acute pain. Pain Management patients Patients Individuals participating in the health care system for the purpose of receiving therapeutic, diagnostic, or preventive procedures. Clinician–Patient Relationship
  • Decreasing intraocular pressure Intraocular Pressure The pressure of the fluids in the eye. Ophthalmic Exam in glaucoma Glaucoma Glaucoma is an optic neuropathy characterized by typical visual field defects and optic nerve atrophy seen as optic disc cupping on examination. The acute form of glaucoma is a medical emergency. Glaucoma is often, but not always, caused by increased intraocular pressure (IOP). Glaucoma
  • Childhood epilepsy Epilepsy Epilepsy is a chronic brain disorder marked by recurrent and unprovoked seizures. These seizures can be classified as focal or generalized and idiopathic or secondary to another condition. Clinical presentation correlates to the classification of the epileptic disorder. Epilepsy and refractory seizures Seizures A seizure is abnormal electrical activity of the neurons in the cerebral cortex that can manifest in numerous ways depending on the region of the brain affected. Seizures consist of a sudden imbalance that occurs between the excitatory and inhibitory signals in cortical neurons, creating a net excitation. The 2 major classes of seizures are focal and generalized. Seizures

Pharmaceutical forms:

  • Dronabinol Dronabinol A psychoactive compound extracted from the resin of cannabis sativa (marihuana, hashish). The isomer delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (thc) is considered the most active form, producing characteristic mood and perceptual changes associated with this compound. Cannabinoids
  • Nabilone Nabilone Cannabinoids
  • Rimonabant

Clinical Presentation and Diagnosis

To make the diagnosis of cannabis intoxication or withdrawal, a detailed history of cannabis use should be obtained. Urine Urine Liquid by-product of excretion produced in the kidneys, temporarily stored in the bladder until discharge through the urethra. Bowen Disease and Erythroplasia of Queyrat drug screen aids in confirming the diagnosis. Signs and symptoms are listed below.

Cannabis intoxication

  • No deaths have ever been documented from cannabis intoxication alone. 
  • General: euphoria Euphoria An exaggerated feeling of physical and emotional well-being not consonant with apparent stimuli or events; usually of psychologic origin, but also seen in organic brain disease and toxic states. Hepatic Encephalopathy or feeling relaxed, inappropriate laughter
  • CNS: psychomotor retardation, impairment in motor function
  • Ophthalmologic: conjunctival injection or “reddening” of the conjunctives
  • GI: increased appetite, dry mouth
  • Urine Urine Liquid by-product of excretion produced in the kidneys, temporarily stored in the bladder until discharge through the urethra. Bowen Disease and Erythroplasia of Queyrat drug screen:
    • Detects the major inactive metabolite 11-Nor-9-carboxy THC
    • Single use can cause detectable levels for up to 3 days. 
    • Chronic use can cause detectable levels for up to 30 days.

Cannabis withdrawal

  • General: mood changes, slight increase in irritability
  • CNS: insomnia Insomnia Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty in the initiation, maintenance, and consolidation of sleep, leading to impairment of function. Patients may exhibit symptoms such as difficulty falling asleep, disrupted sleep, trouble going back to sleep, early awakenings, and feeling tired upon waking. Insomnia
  • GI: nausea Nausea An unpleasant sensation in the stomach usually accompanied by the urge to vomit. Common causes are early pregnancy, sea and motion sickness, emotional stress, intense pain, food poisoning, and various enteroviruses. Antiemetics, decreased appetite

Management and Complications

Management of cannabis intoxication and withdrawal

  • Supportive, psychosocial interventions (e.g., contingency management, groups, etc ETC The electron transport chain (ETC) sends electrons through a series of proteins, which generate an electrochemical proton gradient that produces energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Electron Transport Chain (ETC).).
  • Symptomatic treatment 
  • Antipsychotics may be used for severe intoxication.

Management of cannabis use disorder

  • Psychotherapy Psychotherapy Psychotherapy is interpersonal treatment based on the understanding of psychological principles and mechanisms of mental disease. The treatment approach is often individualized, depending on the psychiatric condition(s) or circumstance. Psychotherapy: cognitive behavioral therapy Cognitive behavioral therapy A directive form of psychotherapy based on the interpretation of situations (cognitive structure of experiences) that determine how an individual feels and behaves. It is based on the premise that cognition, the process of acquiring knowledge and forming beliefs, is a primary determinant of mood and behavior. The therapy uses behavioral and verbal techniques to identify and correct negative thinking that is at the root of the aberrant behavior. Psychotherapy (CBT) or motivational enhancement 
  • Medications:

Complications of cannabis use disorder

  • Cannabis-induced psychotic disorder: 
    • Psychotic disorder in the setting of cannabis use 
    • More commonly presents with transient paranoid delusions 
    • Chronic cannabis use has been linked with the development of schizophrenia Schizophrenia Schizophrenia is a chronic mental health disorder characterized by the presence of psychotic symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations. The signs and symptoms of schizophrenia are traditionally separated into 2 groups: positive (delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech or behavior) and negative (flat affect, avolition, anhedonia, poor attention, and alogia). Schizophrenia later in life.
  • Amotivational syndrome:  
    • Associated with long-term severe cannabis use
    • Can be confounded with underlying mood disorder 
    • Adolescent use of cannabis is linked with use of other substances (gateway drug).

Differential Diagnosis

  • Schizophrenia: a chronic mental health disorder that is characterized by both positive (delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech or behavior) and negative symptoms (flat affect, avolition, anhedonia, poor attention, and alogia). The disorder is associated with a decline in functioning lasting over 6 months. The use of cannabis may result in psychosis and symptoms similar to schizophrenia in the acute phase. Management of schizophrenia is with antipsychotics. 
  • Cocaine use disorder: cocaine is an indirect sympathomimetic that blocks the reuptake of dopamine, epinephrine, and norepinephrine from the synaptic cleft. This process causes a stimulating effect (euphoria, increased energy, irritability, psychosis, decreased appetite, weight loss, and hypersomnia) similar to but more pronounced than cannabis. Withdrawal symptoms include severe depression and fatigue. Management is very similar to cannabis in that there is no direct medication that can be used for cocaine use disorder. 
  • Inhalant intoxication: the abuse of inhalant substances such as glue, paint, or lighter fluid. In order to reach euphoric effects, patients administer inhalers through the mouth (commonly known as “huffing”) or sniff substances through the nose Nose The nose is the human body’s primary organ of smell and functions as part of the upper respiratory system. The nose may be best known for inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, but it also contributes to other important functions, such as tasting. The anatomy of the nose can be divided into the external nose and the nasal cavity. Nose and Nasal Cavity: Anatomy. The effect lasts only for several minutes. Signs of acute intoxication range from transient euphoria Euphoria An exaggerated feeling of physical and emotional well-being not consonant with apparent stimuli or events; usually of psychologic origin, but also seen in organic brain disease and toxic states. Hepatic Encephalopathy up to a loss of consciousness. Inhalants result in central nervous inhibition and cardiac Cardiac Total Anomalous Pulmonary Venous Return (TAPVR) arrhythmia. Treatment is supportive, and sedative drugs should be avoided as they tend to worsen intoxication.


  1. Ganti, Latha. (2005). First aid for the psychiatry clerkship: a student-to-student guide. New York :McGraw-Hill, Medical Pub. Div. Chapter 7, Substance related and addictive disorders, pages 80, 92.
  2. Gorelick, D. (2021). Cannabis use and disorder: Epidemiology, comorbidity, health consequences, and medico-legal status. UpToDate. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from
  3. Wang, George. (2021). Cannabis (marijuana): Acute intoxication. UpToDate. Retrieved February 16, 2021, from
  4. Sadock, B. J., Sadock, V. A., & Ruiz, P. (2014). Kaplan and sadock’s synopsis of psychiatry: Behavioral sciences/clinical psychiatry (11th ed.). Chapter 20, Substance use and addictive disorders, pages 644-647. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  5. Thompson, A. (2021). Clinical management of drug use disorders. DeckerMed Medicine. doi:10.2310/im.13042

USMLE™ is a joint program of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB®) and National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME®). MCAT is a registered trademark of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). NCLEX®, NCLEX-RN®, and NCLEX-PN® are registered trademarks of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc (NCSBN®). None of the trademark holders are endorsed by nor affiliated with Lecturio.

Study on the Go

Lecturio Medical complements your studies with evidence-based learning strategies, video lectures, quiz questions, and more – all combined in one easy-to-use resource.

Learn even more with Lecturio:

Complement your med school studies with Lecturio’s all-in-one study companion, delivered with evidence-based learning strategies.