Many people believe, falsely, that marijuana is not addictive; this belief comes from the fact that the withdrawal symptoms of marijuana are not as dramatic as other drugs.
But research over the last 15 years suggests that marijuana does have a potential for addiction, especially in teenagers. Current estimates indicate that one out of ten regular cannabis users develops a psychological addiction to the drug.
People who smoke marijuana (or “vape” it using a vaporizer) regularly for long periods of time – several months to years – often experience marijuana withdrawal symptoms when they suddenly stop. And that is a sign of physical dependence.
What Causes Marijuana Withdrawal?
Marijuana does have addictive potential, especially for teens and individuals who frequently use the drug. There are few legitimate studies on the physically addictive qualities of the active ingredient in marijuana – tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. But this is largely because there have been so few legitimate studies on cannabis use, period, due to repressive U.S. federal restrictions that prevented researchers from having access to the drug to test it.
What we do know is that unlike most other drugs, including alcohol, THC is stored in fat cells and therefore takes longer to fully clear the body than other common drugs. This means that some parts of the body still retain THC even after a couple of months, rather than just the couple of days or weeks required to eliminate water-soluble drugs.
Also, we know that addiction is a brain disease, which means that marijuana use chemically alters the brain to make it believe that THC is a necessary substance, one that it not only wants, but needs. These chemical changes are why a person might have uncontrollable cravings to use marijuana, and also why their body may have violent reactions when they stop using it. Such reactions are part of withdrawal, the process that occurs during detoxification or detox, the body’s natural process of removing toxic substances from the system.
How prevalent are cannabis withdrawal symptoms?
About one-third of regular marijuana users have reported withdrawal symptoms, while 50% to 95% of those in treatment have experienced withdrawal symptoms. Factors that seem to influence the severity of marijuana withdrawal symptoms include:
- Quantity of use
- Frequency of use
- Presence of co-morbid mental health issues
In response to this growing tolerance to THC, the user needs higher and higher doses to achieve a similar effect. The brain and the body become accustomed to regular marijuana intake, and begin to rely on the drug. This is how physical dependency becomes a reality.
From that point forward, the weed user will experience unpleasant sensations when they go too long without the drug: weed withdrawal symptoms.
What are the symptoms of marijuana withdrawal?
Symptoms of withdrawal from marijuana include:
- Troubled sleep
- Loss of focus
- Cravings for resumed cannabis use
- Excessive sweating
- Stomach pain and/or nausea
- Low appetite or loss of weight
- Depressive states of mind
- Dysphoria, a feeling of general unease or dissatisfaction
- Tiredness during the day
These sensations are similar to the experience of breaking a tobacco addiction. They are not life-threatening, but can be disruptive enough that the user may have a difficult time being fully functional until the symptoms stop.
How long do marijuana withdrawal symptoms last?
The marijuana withdrawal timeline begins one day after the last intake of the drug. The most difficult withdrawal symptoms will occur on the second and third days and may include headaches, cravings, sweating, chills, and gastrointestinal distress. The withdrawal timeline will continue for up to two weeks while the symptoms slowly fade.
Timeline – Day 1
The first symptoms of weed withdrawal appear immediately after the active molecules of THC have been processed. The body and the brain expect another dose, having learned to rely on a regular supply of the drug. Not receiving the expected dose of marijuana, the body’s expected chemical balance is disrupted.
The user will begin to experience:
- Troubled sleep. The most common symptom of marijuana withdrawal is insomnia. Insomnia can manifest itself as a complete inability to sleep, or as waking up regularly during the night. During the early THC detox process, people may experience very vivid dreams or nightmares, which can make relaxation at night very difficult.
- Irritability. The lack of proper sleep and relaxation during weed detox can make people more likely to lose control over their emotions. Irritation is common, as people become tired, but are unable to sleep. They may experience a wide range of previously-suppressed aggressive feelings. Some may experience outbursts, others irritation, and still others episodes of rage. These negative emotions are often accompanied by a lack of humor and a decreased sex drive.
- Loss of focus. Another byproduct of the constant fatigue is the loss of concentration, and difficulty with learning, memorization, and memory.
- Anxiety. It is quite common for individuals at the beginning of their cannabis withdrawal to experience anxiety attacks. The soothing effects of marijuana are no longer active, so some react the opposite way, and feel uneasy and anxious.
Timeline – Days 2-3
Marijuana consumers in that early stage of detox will likely face some unpleasant consequences:
- Headaches are common during the detoxification stage, usually during the first three days. They usually weaken over time and ultimately fade away.
- Strong cravings. After the initial shock of withdrawal, almost every marijuana user will begin to crave the drug.
- Sweating and chills. During detox from weed, many users suffer from night sweats and chills, which should fade after a few days. The sweating is triggered by your body attempting to rid itself of toxins.
- Gastrointestinal distress. Over 30% of former marijuana addicts report that when detoxing from weed they have had some form of eating problem. Most often, the former marijuana users suffered from a loss of appetite, which caused mild weight loss. Others reported digestive issues such as stomach cramps and nausea.
- Risk of relapse. The discomfort and cravings can be strong relapse triggers.
Timeline – Days 4-14
Symptoms start to fade gradually, but some may persist, such as:
- Depressive states. The brain’s chemistry is undergoing changes trying to adapt and function without THC. Mood swings and emotional issues are not uncommon and are a sign of the brain trying to reestablish a healthy chemical balance.
- Cravings. Cravings to use cannabis again will persist in almost all former marijuana users on a detox program. Cravings are a natural consequence of the body adapting to the absence of THC.
Timeline – After Day 15
However, some symptoms may continue for several months until they fully dissipate. That is especially the case for severe addicts. They can expect:
- Coughing. After two weeks, people may begin coughing up phlegm. This is a result of the body attempting to clear the lungs after extended abuse.
- Insomnia usually stops after two weeks to a month. But it can take up to two months until you are able return to a regular sleep cycle.
- Depression and anxiety can go on for several months. If so, this may be an indication that the user has an underlying mental issue, and should see a therapist. Do not hesitate to get help.
What Factors Affect Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms?
Factors that affect marijuana withdrawal symptoms include:
- Frequency and length of use. The longer you use marijuana, the more it builds up in your body.
- Consumption rate. The amount of cannabis that the person typically consumes in one intake session. People who have developed a greater physical dependency on marijuana will need to expect more intense withdrawals from weed.
- Emotional and physical vulnerability. People who are less able to handle stress will likely experience more severe withdrawal symptoms from cannabis.
- General health and metabolism. The healthier the person and the better their metabolism, the quicker the person will get rid of toxins and end the unpleasant withdrawal sensations.
- Body type. Fat tissues store THC molecules; as a result, the more fat that you have in your body, the more storage space you provide for toxic cannabis molecules. Most women naturally have a higher fat content than men, and thus are likely to retain more THC in their bodies than men. As a result, their marijuana withdrawals can be more severe.
What Can You Do To Reduce The Discomfort?
Fortunately, quitting marijuana is not as difficult as withdrawing from other drugs. Medical supervision is usually unnecessary because the symptoms, while unpleasant, are not dangerous. In many cases, people manage to quit on their own when properly motivated.
What You Can Do At Home
Here is what you can try at home to soothe milder detox symptoms during weed withdrawals:
- Stay hydrated by drinking 2-3 liters of water per day. Avoid sodas and drinks with sugar or other artificial sweeteners.
- Eliminate coffee and caffeine until your sleep cycle returns to normal.
- Do not use other substances while you are detoxing from marijuana. That means: stop drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and consuming other drugs. If you are taking medication, talk with your doctor about your cannabis detox.
- Eat healthy foods like bananas, lemons, green leafy vegetables, melons, and tomatoes. These will replenish potassium and other minerals you lose through sweat. Avoid processed foods as much as possible. If you have digestive problems, cut down on fats and sugars considerably. Cranberry juice has been used effectively by recovery facilities to help purify and cleanse the body.
- Exercise every day, even if only for a short while. By exercising you will 1) boost your mental health and 2) increase the speed at which your body removes toxins through sweat.
- Treat yourself to a nice warm bath to relax you and improve your mood
- Surround yourself with supportive people, whether they are members of your family or friends or online forums and local support groups.
Get Professional Help
If you can’t deal with your withdrawal period alone, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
- Medical assistance. If you experience debilitating pain or gastrointestinal issues, ask your doctor to prescribe you specific medications. These medications can include treatments for digestive problems, sleeping pills to counter insomnia, or anxiolytics to reduce restlessness and anxiety.
- Get therapy. Individual counseling is always helpful during any step of recovery. Look for psychologists specializing in behavioral therapy. There are also various support groups in every major town, such as Narcotics Anonymous or Marijuana Anonymous.
- Go to rehab. For people who find that they are really struggling to deal with withdrawal symptoms or additional substance abuse, the best option may be to go to rehab. Naturally, people who are also dealing with co-occurring mental or physical health issues should also consult medical professionals. Often such individuals will receive a referral to an inpatient rehab center. These facilities are well equipped to help users recover from marijuana dependence and addiction.