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Is Marijuana Withdrawal Real?

Can you experience withdrawal symptoms from marijuana? Many people who frequently use marijuana claim that they do not experience withdrawal symptoms after quitting. The concept of cannabis withdrawal is frequently debated, but researchers have discovered that it can lead to symptoms like:

  • Aggression
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Anorexia
  • Depression
  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain

Why is there a disconnect between what researchers have found and the claims from those who frequently use cannabis? A meta-analysis study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reported that 47% of individuals with regular or dependent use of cannabinoids experience cannabis withdrawal syndrome. These types of studies raise awareness of the underestimated symptoms associated with withdrawal from cannabis.

Identifying There Is a Problem

Many health professionals actually promote the use of self-medication with cannabis for certain disorders because they are unaware of these potential withdrawal symptoms. Many people suggest using cannabis to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depressive disorders, and while there may be benefits, there are also disadvantages. Cannabis users can get caught in a cycle of using cannabis to heal initial issues and then become dependent on it to eliminate withdrawal symptoms. Peter Grinspoon, MD., from Harvard Health suggests that “It is possible that almost half of cannabis consumers are actually experiencing severe cannabis withdrawal syndrome – to the point that it is successfully masquerading as medicinal use of marijuana.” The concern is that individuals experiencing cannabis withdrawal are unaware of it.

One thing to consider is that the JAMA study did not distinguish between medical and recreational cannabis use. Harvard researcher, Dr. Staci Gruber, explains that the physiological and cognitive effects of cannabis, whether it’s used for medical or recreational purposes, are different. When an individual is a medical cannabis patient, the substance is regulated and the user is guided in how to use cannabis safely. Typically, the cannabis used for medical purposes has a lower concentration of THC (the psychoactive component). Simply said, these users will have a lower concentration of THC in their system and the withdrawal will be much more subtle.

What Causes Marijuana Withdrawal

While cannabis withdrawal symptoms are not life-threatening, they are real. It makes sense that cannabis leads to withdrawal symptoms because repeated use of any substance can cause dependence. Cannabis connects to the natural receptors in the human brain and slows down the response to consistent external stimulation. When the external stimuli (cannabis) is removed from the body, the user’s system is “forced to rely on natural stores of these chemicals – but it takes time for the natural receptors to grow back to their baseline levels.” While the body is regulating its chemical levels, the individual experiences intense craving for the chemicals, which can surface as withdrawal symptoms.

Marijuana Withdrawal Treatment

Withdrawal symptoms may be one reason individuals have trouble stopping their cannabis use. The good news is that there are methods for treating cannabis withdrawal syndrome. For any addiction, therapy is helpful to process emotions and develop coping skills rather than relying on substances. There is also medication therapy which assists with balancing chemical levels. The common medications used for cannabis withdrawal syndrome include dronabinol (synthetic THC) and nabiximols (standardized THC extract), a cannabis mucosal spray that slowly treats the withdrawal with cannabis. Because many individuals use cannabis to ease anxiety or sleep, these individuals may be prescribed gabapentin (although this also has adverse side effects) for anxiety or zolpidem for sleep troubles. While it sounds counter-intuitive, individuals may rely solely on CBD, the non-intoxicating component of cannabis, while withdrawing from cannabis.

What is Cannabis Use Disorder

A cannabis use disorder is defined as having at least two of the following experiences:

  • Taking more cannabis than was intended
  • Spending a lot of time using it
  • Craving cannabis
  • Having problems because of use
  • Putting oneself in high-risk situations
  • Getting in trouble with the law or in relationships because of it
  • Developing a tolerance
  • Withdrawal from discontinuation

These factors are important to be aware of as cannabis becomes increasingly legalized and used. Some people argue that any medicine or substance can cause tolerance in an individual. They believe that, unlike some antidepressants, opiates, and benzos, cannabis use can cause a physical or psychological withdrawal without causing addiction. Perhaps a better classification for chronic cannabis use and withdrawal would be “persistent use despite negative consequences.”

At Boardwalk Recovery Center, we ensure that our staff is aware of the side effects of all drugs and medications, including cannabis, to best treat our clients and what they are experiencing in their abstinence journey.

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