One of the most common questions surrounding marijuana is whether using it can lead to addiction and withdrawal.
Many regular users argue that cannabis is not addictive. Others think it’s possible to be addicted to almost anything psychologically — and in the case of marijuana, they’re right.
“Psychological or behavioral addiction is defined as loss of control over use,” says Dr. David Gorelick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who has conducted a number of studies on cannabis withdrawal.
But frequent users of marijuana aren’t only at risk of psychological addiction.
That’s because the active ingredients in marijuana act on specific sites — known as cannabinoid receptors — which control the body both physically and psychologically. The action of cannabinoids on these receptors changes their state.
“Simply put, it’s a biological system that responds to cannabis use,” explains Dr. David Allsop, an associate professor at the University of Sydney who has also studied cannabis withdrawal in great depth.
When cannabis use is stopped, the receptors have to adjust to normal levels. This has psychological and physical effects, Dr. Allsop says, which can lead to both addiction and withdrawal.
Symptoms of Withdrawal
According to a 2011 study co-authored by Dr. Allsop, symptoms of cannabis withdrawal include nightmares/strange dreams, angry outbursts and trouble sleeping.
Along with psychological symptoms, users trying to quit may also experience physical symptoms.
“A minority of individuals who experience cannabis withdrawal — about 10% — experience physical symptoms, such as muscle aches, muscle twitches, and GI upset, such as nausea or vomiting,” Dr. Gorelick says.
Cannabis withdrawal seems to occur only in chronic frequent users, meaning those who use at least once weekly, adds Dr. Gorelick.
People who use cannabis more frequently are more likely to develop a severe dependency, which can lead to a more intense withdrawal.
The withdrawal period typically lasts around one week, but varies per user.
Studies on Cannabis Withdrawal
A 2010 study co-authored by Dr. Gorelick found that 42% of users who had tried to quit cannabis experienced symptoms of withdrawal. What’s more, 70% of these individuals relapsed in an attempt to relieve their withdrawal symptoms.
One reason why marijuana withdrawal is so highly debated is because it wasn’t identified as a medical term until fairly recently.
But after many studies proved the syndrome’s clinical significance, cannabis withdrawal was finally recognized in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in 2013.
- Sleep difficulty
- Decreased appetite
- Depressed mood
- Physical symptoms (e.g. stomach pain, shakiness, increased sweating, fever or headaches)
Marijuana vs. Other Drugs
Studies have proven that cannabis addiction and withdrawal are real issues, but how do they compare to other drugs?
“Cannabis is a psychoactive drug which activates the same brain reward regions as do other abused drugs, such as alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, etc.,” Dr. Gorelick says.
However, he adds that cannabis withdrawal is more psychological rather than physical and never directly life-threatening — unlike withdrawal from alcohol, sedatives, or opiates.
Dr. Allsop compares cannabis withdrawal to nicotine withdrawal, saying it’s similar in magnitude and severity.
Luckily, patients who are prescribed medical marijuana can take certain precautions to avoid addiction.
“If using THC-based medicine, use sparingly, only as needed, minimize the dose, and have significant breaks during treatment if possible,” Dr. Allsop says.