In the United States, marijuana use is highly prevalent. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that it is the most regularly used illicit drug. Legality of the drug is shifting throughout the country as many states have legalized even recreational use of the drug.
A popular perception is that the drug is not addictive; however, NIDA warns that close to a third of people who use it will struggle with a marijuana use disorder. Use of marijuana before age 18 correlates to a four-to-10 times higher risk for addiction. Marijuana is classified as an addictive substance, and you can become physically and psychologically dependent on it with regular use.
Marijuana dependence occurs when the brain expects the drug to be active and interacting with the chemical balance and the workings of the neurotransmitters along the central nervous system; therefore, it does not function the same way it did before marijuana’s presence.
When a person who is dependent on marijuana stops using it, they will struggle with withdrawal symptoms as the brain works to catch up and rebalance its chemical makeup without the drug. This detox process is not considered to be life-threatening, as it can be with other drugs. That being said, marijuana detox can still be uncomfortable. It includes both physical and emotional side effects, especially when marijuana use is stopped cold turkey, or suddenly.
It is not generally recommended to stop using marijuana suddenly if you have been using it for a long time on a regular basis. There are things you can do to ease marijuana withdrawal.
Marijuana acts on cannabinoid receptors in the brain, causing both relaxing and hallucinogenic effects. Under the influence of marijuana, a person will usually feel mellow, happy, drowsy, uncoordinated, and sluggish. They may often experience distortions of the senses, of time, and of what’s happening in the environment around them. Heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and blood pressure are all lowered, and normal thought and memory functions are impaired.
Marijuana use is not always pleasant. It can also cause anxiety, paranoia, fear, and panic.
The effects of the drug typically last between one hour and three hours when the drug is smoked and longer if it is ingested in the form of edibles (food or drink infused with marijuana). Using the drug regularly can cause tolerance to form, which then means that a person will need to take more of it for it to work the same way.
Taking more and more marijuana at a time and using the drug on a regular basis can cause drug dependence to form. Then, the brain can’t keep its own natural chemistry balanced without marijuana. When the drug isn’t active in the bloodstream, withdrawal symptoms can occur.
The Iranian Journal of Psychiatry publishes that 61 percent to 96 percent of cannabis users experienced some form of withdrawal symptoms when they stopped using the drug. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), acts on the same reward system that opioids like heroin, cocaine, and alcohol do.
When marijuana processes out of the body, withdrawal can be both emotionally and physically uncomfortable. The most common side effects are irritability, sleep disturbances, insomnia, and cravings. Irregular heart rate and blood pressure as well as sweating, chills, and heightened body temperature can also occur. Anxiety, restlessness, headache, depression, anger, aggression, mood swings, tremors, stomach pain, and loss of appetite can all be side effects of marijuana withdrawal. A person struggling with marijuana withdrawal can also have memory lapses, concentration issues, dizziness, and trouble thinking clearly.
Marijuana withdrawal will not be exactly the same for everyone. The severity, number, and type of withdrawal symptoms, and even the duration can vary from person to person. As a general rule, the more marijuana a person uses on a regular basis and the longer they have been using it for, the more significant the drug withdrawal will be. Stopping use of the drug abruptly can also intensify withdrawal.
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Typically, marijuana withdrawal starts within a day or two after stopping use of the drug, the BC Medical Journal explains. It usually peaks within the first four-to-six days and lasts, on average, for about a month.
Acute withdrawal, which includes the most significant physical and emotional symptoms, typically lasts about a week, and side effects start to taper off after that. The disrupted sleep, anxiety, depression, mood swings, cravings, and irritability can last for a few weeks to months.
The more heavily dependent a person is on marijuana — which is directly related to how much of the drug has been used, how regularly, and for how long — the more intense withdrawal will be and the harder it will be to stop the drug cold turkey. Marijuana withdrawal is most dangerous if you’ve been using high quantities of the drug every day, multiple times a day, for a long time.
Other factors that can influence the duration of marijuana withdrawal, timeline, and significance of the side effects include:
If you have been smoking or using marijuana only for a short time and not using that much on a daily basis, you are more likely to have milder withdrawal symptoms that will not last as long. It will then be easier to stop using the drug suddenly and undergo cold-turkey detox. If you have been doing a lot of marijuana every day for a long time, then cold-turkey detox will be more difficult, and withdrawal symptoms will be more intense. This can lead to relapse, or a return to marijuana use, to get the withdrawal symptoms to go away.
Cold-turkey detox can be tough to manage on your own. Cravings, headache, insomnia, and depressed moods can be intense and make it seem that it’s easier to go back to using marijuana to alleviate them.
It is important to have a safe space with supportive people to minimize the risk for relapse. Be sure to have no drugs in the home, and be prepared for ups and downs. You may experience difficulties in controlling impulses, emotions, and thoughts. It is important that your support system understands what to expect and can help you stay safe.
Some additional things you can do to ease marijuana withdrawal during a cold-turkey detox include:
Cold-turkey detox can be uncomfortable and is not always the optimal option. Instead of just stopping using marijuana suddenly, a safer option can be to taper off the drug slowly. Tapering involves lowering the amount of marijuana used by a small amount every day.
In this way, you can wean your brain and body off the drug slowly and allow it to balance itself in a more controlled fashion instead of just shocking it suddenly. Your brain can heal a little bit at a time over time, and then you can more easily stop using marijuana with fewer and less intense withdrawal symptoms.
While tapering may help to reduce drug dependence and provide a kind of reset in the brain, it is difficult to do without professional assistance. People will often simply return to the original doses since they have continual access to the drug. The journal Addiction Science and Clinical Practice publishes that moderation of marijuana use may be a choice, but in the long run, abstinence is best for reducing problematic use of the drug and the issues associated with it.
Another viable option, and often considered the safest method, is medical detox. A detox program is often contained in a specialized facility where you can be monitored and supervised around the clock. Medications can be given to manage specific withdrawal symptoms, and vital signs will be monitored in case medical care is needed. Mental health support and therapeutic techniques are helpful to offer coping mechanisms and tools for reducing episodes of relapse.
Cold-turkey detox from marijuana is possible, but a specialized detox program will provide the highest level of support, care, and management of withdrawal. This type of program will help to minimize the risk of relapse and promote a long recovery.
(June 2018). What is the Scope of Marijuana Use in the United States? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-scope-marijuana-use-in-united-states
(June 2018). Is Marijuana Addictive? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive
(June 2018). What are Marijuana Effects? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/what-are-marijuana-effects
(Fall 2012). Chemistry, Metabolism, and Toxicology of Cannabis: Clinical Implications. Iranian Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3570572/
(July/August 2016). Diagnosis and Treatment of Marijuana Dependence. BC Medical Journal. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.bcmj.org/articles/diagnosis-and-treatment-marijuana-dependence
(December 2007). Marijuana Dependence and its Treatment. Addiction Science & Clinical Practice. Retrieved November 2018 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2797098/