Marijuana (also known as cannabis, weed, green, and pot) is the most widely used illicit drug in the UK. It is generally bought as a mixture of dried flowers from the cannabis plant; however, it can also come in oil form or as a soft block called hash.
Many see marijuana as relatively harmless, partly due to the fact that it has been decriminalised in much of America, and the use of the drug is so widespread. However, marijuana use is not without risk, especially when consumed during formative years as the brain is still developing. Smoking marijuana can result in a range of negative consequences, including a decline in mental health, the development of serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and cancer, and marijuana use disorder.
While marijuana may be less habit-forming than other commonly abused substances such as cocaine, approximately 30% of people that use marijuana develop some kind of dependency. People who smoke marijuana are at risk of developing a marijuana use disorder and requiring substance use treatment. If you want to quit smoking weed, it helps to understand how it affects the brain and the body.
What Are the Effects of Marijuana Use?
The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana is THC, which stimulates the part of the brain that responds to pleasure. This causes a release of dopamine, the chemical responsible for feelings of joy, satisfaction and relaxation. However, not everyone experiences these positive sensations, and marijuana can make some individuals feel anxious or even paranoid.
Marijuana use also directly affects brain function — specifically, the parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning, attention, decision-making, coordination, and reaction time, meaning these can all be affected, although normally just during the duration of consumption.
Longer-term effects of cannabis are of particular concern in those under 18 who abuse the drug. Smoking marijuana before age 18 may affect how the brain builds connections for functions such as attention, memory, and learning. This could last a long time or even be permanent. Drug use, including marijuana abuse as a teenager, increases the chance of developing a cannabis use disorder.
- Heightened senses
- Distortion of your sense of time
- Impaired motor skills
- Lowering inhibitions
- Increased appetite
- Anxiety or paranoia
- Relaxation and joy
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the ingredient in cannabis that causes these effects and is what makes marijuana addictive. Individuals that regularly consume marijuana will build a tolerance to THC, and with chronic use, the body will adapt to the presence of the drug. This will mean that a higher dose is needed to feel the effects and when a person tries to stop using marijuana, they will experience physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms as the body has to re-adjust to no longer having a regular supply of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the system – a sign of marijuana addiction.
Signs and Symptoms of Cannabis Withdrawal
Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening and most people would probably say the biggest danger is the cravings and discomfort causing a person who really wants or needs to quit marijuana to relapse.
One person’s experience of cannabis withdrawal could be very different from another’s, with a variety of factors affecting the intensity of the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
As THC begins to leave the body, chronic users will experience psychological and physical symptoms of marijuana withdrawal.
Physical Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms
The physical symptoms of marijuana withdrawal can range in intensity depending mostly on how long a person has been taking the drug and the quantity they would generally consume per day. People who use marijuana daily are most likely to experience these common symptoms.
Almost 50% of people that quit smoking cannabis report sleep disturbances, including insomnia, while they detox. These sleep difficulties often include vivid or disturbing dreams in addition to night sweats. Those with a heavy cannabis dependence often say that when they smoke cannabis, they do not dream, so the return of dreams when they quit is a surprise and causes trouble sleeping.
Others who have quit smoking report having “using dreams” in which they dream about smoking marijuana. Frequent, vivid dreams typically begin about a week after quitting and sleep disturbance can last for about a month before tapering off.
As with other symptoms of withdrawal, headaches may not affect all cannabis users trying to quit. However, headaches can be very intense, especially during the first few days after quitting.
Some people experience stomach pain or a change in appetite when they quit cannabis use. Food may taste different during cannabis withdrawal, and your appetite may change with some people experiencing nausea in addition to abdominal pain. Going outside for some exercise and fresh air can help to build your appetite and serve as a distraction.
Other Physical Symptoms
Physical symptoms of marijuana withdrawal are generally not as intense as the psychological symptoms. They also often peak sooner and subside more quickly. Other physical symptoms include:
- Weight loss or gain
- Flu-like symptoms
- Shakiness and tremors
- Fever and chills
- Muscle pains
Psychological Withdrawal Symptoms
Psychological cannabis withdrawal symptoms are often seen as more intense and difficult to deal with than the physical withdrawal symptoms.
More than half of regular marijuana users will experience cravings, which is an intense desire to abuse the drug. Like most symptoms, this can vary depending on a number of factors. People that are quitting tobacco as well as cannabis will experience withdrawal symptoms from tobacco in addiction to cannabis withdrawal which can increase the intensity of the craving.
Mood swings and irritability are common side-effects of weed withdrawal and can range from mild and manageable annoyance to excessive anger or aggression. If these symptoms last for more than a week, it may be a sign of an underlying mental health problem, so it is advisable to consult your doctor.
Anxiety and paranoia are common at some stage during the withdrawal phase. It may be that you are quitting cannabis as a result of intensified paranoia, which can be a sign of consuming too much weed, which negatively affects the brain. In this case, experiencing anxiety and paranoia during withdrawal may be disturbing, but try to focus on the reason you are quitting and remember that these feelings will pass. However, if they do not pass after a week or two, you should consider the possibility of an underlying mental condition and talk to your doctor.
How Long Does Weed Withdrawal Last?
For heavy users, withdrawal effects often start within a few hours from the last dose. Withdrawal symptoms generally peak within 48 to 72 hours, with symptoms dissipating over the next two weeks. Most symptoms should be gone by week three, although they can linger in some people. If symptoms persist beyond the third week, it may be a sign of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).
Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS)
PAWS can be a major factor in relapse, regardless of how committed a person is to their addiction treatment and getting sober. The symptoms can be extremely uncomfortable and cause psychological distress, impacting recovery and mental health. It is important to be patient and practice self-care strategies, and talk to a mental health professional or drug counsellor for help if needed.
If you are struggling to complete detox alone, treatment centres offer a medical detox, where a medical professional will monitor your physical and psychological symptoms and provide support. Treatment options often then feature addiction support that significantly decreases the chance of relapse, helps address a persistent desire to smoke cannabis and helps you build a healthy lifestyle without marijuana.
For those that experience symptoms and cravings for an extended time or who are experiencing a decline in their mental health, there are a variety of outpatient treatments available. Drug abuse can cause long-term mental disorders, so for those that experience substance abuse issues as well as mental health issues, it is important to seek long-term professional help.
If you are experiencing mood changes, struggling with normal functioning or are becoming overwhelmed by the challenges of quitting weed, consider talking to a drug counsellor and looking for a local support group. Support groups can be a safe and helpful space to discuss issues that you’re struggling with and hear from people that are working through something similar, overcoming alcohol dependence as well as cannabis or other substances.
If you find yourself looking to other drugs in order to feel better, seeking treatment is probably the best option for you.