Despite not having much recognition as a drug that provokes withdrawal symptoms, more and more evidence now suggests that Cannabis does, albeit mildly, produce psychological withdrawal and emotional instability.
Withdrawal is a condition which occurs when someone who has been using drugs and/or alcohol to an extent sufficient to develop tolerance (effectively, when their system becomes used to the presence of the substance and adjusts to treat that presence as “normal”) stops their substance abuse: their body and mind need to readjust to the absence of the substance, and this often provokes symptoms – sometimes very unpleasant and even dangerous ones – which together combine to form what’s known as withdrawal.
In the case of marijuana, which is not typically recognised as being physically addictive, withdrawal symptoms are usually psychological in nature (however, certain psychosomatic responses mean that symptoms which feel physical can occur). The severity, duration and type of these symptoms will vary from user to user, but will normally depend on how long a person has been using marijuana, how much they have been consuming, and their lifestyle (along with other factors such as body type and age).
Some common marijuana withdrawal symptoms include:
Because marijuana has often been used as a “crutch” to help the user deal with difficult emotions or problematic circumstances (including chronic physical pain), and because significant or long-term marijuana abuse frequently leads to the user becoming somewhat isolated and losing sight of long-term life gains (with a consequent impact on feelings of self-worth and optimism), the sudden absence of the drug can cause or exacerbate a whole host of other psychological problems unique to an individual user, which can both contribute to the above symptoms and cause new ones. Moreover, the unpleasant experience of withdrawal combined with the feeling of loss or uncertainty created by the sudden absence of marijuana can lead the user to replace marijuana with other substances, potentially leading to new and more problematic addictions.
Putting together a timeline for cases of marijuana withdrawal which applies to every user is effectively impossible because of the huge variety of responses to the condition. Everyone experiences withdrawal in their own way, and this includes its duration. Indeed, many users will experience no symptoms whatsoever, while others who may have been abusing marijuana for much less time might experience symptoms lasting several months.
Generally speaking, symptoms will begin to emerge a day or so after the last dose of marijuana; these will usually include cravings for more of the drug, irritability possibly becoming aggression, and an inability to achieve sleep. Over the next couple of days (especially if sleep disorders continue) fatigue is likely to kick in, while psychosomatic responses such as chills and sweating will also most likely emerge at this time. The person going through withdrawal may find it very difficult to concentrate for anything more than short periods at a time, while depression may also start to manifest.
After a few days most symptoms will decline and disappear; however, problems with sleep could last a fortnight or more, while depression may well set in and persist for weeks or longer. Cravings are very likely to occur quite frequently even several weeks or months after the person last consumed marijuana.
Because THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol – the main psychoactive ingredient found in the plant) is stored in the fat cells, marijuana can stay in your system for some weeks. It is not uncommon as a regular user to show positive on a drugs test 3-4 weeks after abstinence.
Because of marijuana’s great popularity as a recreational drug and its long history of use and abuse, a broad range of approaches to treatment have been developed. In general, the most effective treatment is usually considered to be a combination of detoxification and therapy, often delivered in a residential rehabilitation environment.
Rehabilitation (“rehab”) describes the process by which a substance abuser and addict becomes substance-free and able to lead a healthy lifestyle; however, it’s also often used to refer specifically to treatment facilities where addicts can get the help they need to break their addictions. Rehabs are usually residential facilities offering a pleasant, calm environment (and robust patient confidentiality) in which patients can go through medically assisted detoxification and then a variety of therapies to ensure that they are substance-free and equipped to deal with life back in the outside world. They’ll also have access to tailored dietary and fitness plans to get them into a more healthy routine, more conducive to a holistic recovery.
Inpatient residential rehab – where the addict stays onsite for treatment, usually for between one and three months – provides 24/7 care and access to medical attention, and allows patients to focus fully on recovery whilst denying them access to any substances of abuse. Meanwhile, outpatient treatment – where the patient attends the facilities for treatment including therapy – allows a more flexible approach especially suitable for those with significant work and/or family responsibilities. However, this option does not guarantee that the patient will be kept away from the temptations present in their daily routine, and in the most serious cases of addiction inpatient treatment is always recommended.
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While some medication can be prescribed to minimise the worst impact of withdrawal symptoms (for example, benzodiazepines for anxiety and irritability and antidepressants to counter any resultant depression) there aren’t any medicines on the market able to “cure” a marijuana addiction (there are countless remedies available online which claim to be able to do so but these should be considered pseudoscientific at best).
If withdrawal symptoms persist for significantly longer than a couple of weeks, and/or if the former user is seriously struggling with any psychological consequences of going without marijuana (or if they were using it as self-medication to combat chronic pain or other conditions) a medical professional will conduct an assessment of the patient and may well prescribe any of a range of medications (again possibly including antidepressants or benzodiazepines) to alleviate the situation. However, some of these substances can themselves be habit-forming and medication is often a last resort in cases where the patient has already proved susceptible to addiction.
For those accustomed to smoking the drug, who find that aspect of the habit especially hard to shake off, a huge variety of options exist including e-cigarettes or “vapes”, chewing gum, nicotine patches and more; a doctor will be able to advise on which are the most appropriate courses of action for any given situation.
Therapy is a critical part of any addiction treatment, and all the more so in the case of marijuana addiction which is so psychological in nature and which so often emerges in response to problematic emotions which can themselves be addressed very successfully in therapy. The most prominent therapy methods include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and motivational therapy (MT), but every addict responds to therapy in a different way and it may be that an individual will have to try out numerous therapy models before setting on the most appropriate approach.
Many rehabs will offer a wide variety of therapies including some lesser-known options and addicts who already know they respond well to certain approaches should investigate which facilities of interest provide those models specifically.
Group therapy can be especially helpful in the case of marijuana addiction thanks to the large number of fellow addicts who can be found in such groups and who can provide advice, reassurance and support (especially if a recovering addict feels in danger of relapse). Support groups can be valuable many months or even years after a person last uses marijuana, and organisations such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) have regular meetings around the country for anyone who feels like they need that extra bit of support and guidance at any stage of their recovery journey.