Understanding Marijuana Withdrawl and Detox
Even though it is often referred to as a harmless substance, excessive use of marijuana can lead to marijuana use disorder. The information about this drug can be confusing. In some studies, marijuana is often hailed as a miracle drug that has many health benefits — for pain management and the management of other chronic conditions, such as cancer — but it is still a psychoactive drug, and the way in which it is used has a whole host of negative side effects. Those who smoke marijuana are at risk of smoking-related diseases. What’s more, those who use it chronically and suddenly stop can experience many unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. While not life-threatening, like the withdrawal effects of heroin and alcohol, withdrawal symptoms can make it challenging to stop and stay sober. Depending on the amount of marijuana usage, extra help and support, or even a detox program, may be required.
Side Effects of Marijuana Use
Marijuana use changes how a person feels and behaves. Even though it is reported to have beneficial and medicinal benefits, marijuana can have many negative side effects. Usually, those side effects include an altered sense of time, memory loss, anxiety, difficulty speaking coherently, delusions, learning problems, paranoia, feeling lethargic, increased appetite, or bloodshot eyes. Those who smoke marijuana risk falling victim to diseases such as COPD and lung cancer. Smoking can also exacerbate asthma and cause respiratory infections as well as premature aging of the skin.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH) reported that long-term effects of marijuana use on the brain — particularly in the teenage developing brain — are not yet known.
Marijuana Use Disorder
According to NIH, as many as 30 percent of those who use marijuana may have some degree of marijuana use disorder. Those who use it before the age of 18 are seven times more likely to develop the disorder than adults.
Typically, those who smoke or ingest marijuana are more likely to need treatment to overcome severe dependence.
Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms vary depending upon the person’s level of use and dependency. Typically, a person experiences unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms that vary in severity. In minor cases, those can include headaches, feelings of restlessness, anxiety, cravings, loss of appetite, nausea, mood swings, irritability, or trouble sleeping. Those who are dependent upon the drug can experience cannabis withdrawal syndrome when use is suddenly stopped. Symptoms of chronic use include flu-like symptoms: hallucinations, sweating, fever, chills, and insomnia.
Withdrawal differs for everyone. In chronic marijuana use, symptoms start one to three days after stopping and can last as long as two or three weeks. Unfortunately, there isn’t a treatment for these withdrawal symptoms, but it has been noted that tapering off the drug — under medical supervision — can ease withdrawal symptoms and be made to feel more comfortable.
It is worth considering that even though symptoms can be mild, they can still create the temptation to revert to marijuana use to ease the psychological withdrawal symptoms.
Detoxification From Marijuana Abuse
The good news is that there is a range of treatment options available for people who need to withdraw from marijuana. The bad news is that some are still reluctant to accept that their use of cannabis has led to marijuana use disorder. In 2015, of the 4 million people reported to have met the criteria for the disorder, only 138,000 voluntarily sought treatment.
Depending on the severity of the dependence, some people may benefit from detox and medical treatment. This is especially beneficial for those who have another co-occurring substance-use disorder, those who have tried to quit only to return to the drug, and those who need a supportive environment to stop.
Medical detox can help support the person withdrawing by slowly tapering them off the drug until it has been completely removed from their body. Treatment options include:
- Medication to help reduce withdrawal symptoms (metoclopramide/promethazine for vomiting, and pain relief for headaches and muscle aches).
- Therapy (motivational, CBT, or psychotherapy). The goal of behavioral therapy is to change the person’s attitude toward drugs. Therapy can occur one on one or in a group setting. It can help overcome cravings, develop effective coping strategies for stress, and help retrain the brain into creating healthier behaviors. Motivational therapy includes incentives that allow treatment professionals to offer rewards for staying abstinent.
- Social support. By creating an environment that encourages the recovering user, a strong supportive network can lead to continued abstinence. Family and friends can be a constant reminder of how you have progressed as well as providing loving support — which is especially useful in times of stress or when cravings arise.
There are many benefits to having closely monitored medical supervision during marijuana withdrawal: treatment professionals can create a specialized program, and the person may feel more comfortable during the detoxification process.
Treatment Options for Marijuana Use Disorder
The types of treatment available for marijuana withdrawal depends on the severity of the addiction. In mild cases, some people may benefit from an abstinence support group. In more severe cases, both inpatient and outpatient options are available.
Inpatient treatment involves staying in a facility for 30 to 90 days. The benefits of inpatient treatment include distance from the environment in which the person used. Staying in such an environment can be triggering when trying to quit and deal with the withdrawal symptoms. Inpatient treatment can also prove effective in changing behavioral patterns that lead to drug use and developing effective coping strategies.
Outpatient programs are most appropriate for mild to moderate cases of marijuana use disorder. The person stays in their home environment but visits a treatment facility that fits within their work and life commitments. While less structured, outpatient treatment can provide additional support while the recovering person maintains home life and outside responsibilities.
It is important to find the right treatment professional that can carefully assess the person’s needs, the severity of dependence, and the most appropriate treatment. When evaluating treatment options, it is crucial to consult a medical professional and to consider any other co-occurring disorders. Speaking with an addictions/substance use disorder expert increases the likelihood of developing an individualized plan, which will include family support and aftercare, to ensure the person has every chance of success of continued abstinence and can return to a fulfilling life.
- (2017, December 12). Marijuana. Retrieved from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana on 2018, January 30
- Hasin DS, Saha TD, Kerridge BT, et al. Prevalence of Marijuana Use Disorders in the United States Between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(12):1235-1242. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.1858.
- Winters KC, Lee C-YS. Likelihood of developing an alcohol and cannabis use disorder during youth: Association with recent use and age. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2008;92(1-3):239-247. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2007.08.005.