It is a common misconception that marijuana abuse is relatively harmless. Despite the popular belief that marijuana is not addictive, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warns that 9 percent of those who use the drug will become dependent on it. When someone begins using marijuana before their brain has fully developed, like in their teenage years, this risk of dependency jumps to 17 percent.
Over 4 million Americans (over age 11) battled a marijuana use disorder in 2014, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Marijuana is the most commonly abused illicit drug in the United States, and twice as many people are dependent on cannabis than any other illegal psychoactive substance (like heroin or cocaine, for instance), the journal Addiction Science & Clinical Practice publishes.
The main active ingredient in marijuana, THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is a psychoactive chemical that enhances moods, alters perceptions, and impairs motor coordination as well as learning and memory functions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) reports. THC binds to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and increases levels of dopamine, thus elevating pleasure. Regions of the brain responsible for short-term memory, mood regulation, executive learning functions, and psychomotor skills are affected.
With regular use of a THC-containing drug like marijuana, brain chemistry and circuitry can be altered. When this happens, withdrawal symptoms can occur when the dosage is lowered or drug use is stopped. There are many methods for easing withdrawal from THC and smoothing out detox. These treatment methods are best employed in a specialized facility staffed by highly trained professionals.
Someone who has been using marijuana regularly, in high doses and for a long time, is likely significantly dependent on THC, making withdrawal symptoms more intense. Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are considered mild when compared to some other illicit drugs like heroin; however, drug cravings, irritability, night sweats, insomnia, vivid dreams or nightmares, hostility and anger, depression, anxiety, tremors, decreased appetite, headache, and stomach upset may be common side effects of THC withdrawal. The more heavily dependent a person is on THC, the more difficult and prolonged these symptoms will be.
Marijuana, and therefore THC, withdrawal duration generally follows this timeline, as outlined by the journal Addiction Science & Clinical Practice:
- Within 24-48 hours of stopping THC use, withdrawal symptoms often start.
- Acute withdrawal symptoms peak within 4-6 days and include the most intense side effects.
- Withdrawal symptoms begin to taper off in about one week.
- Drug cravings and lingering psychological effects may last up to three weeks or longer in severe cases.
The detox timeline is influenced by several factors and may not be the same from person to person. Withdrawal symptoms and their duration are impacted by the level of dependence on THC, which in turn is influenced by the method of abuse, age at first use, amount and length of time using the drug, and biological and environmental factors. Individuals who have a prior history of addiction or who have family members who have battled addiction may be more likely to suffer from drug dependence due to a possible genetic link. High levels of stress, low levels of social support, and experiencing a trauma, especially at a young age, can also increase the odds that a person will become dependent on a drug like THC.
Abusing more than one drug at a time, or polydrug abuse, can also impact withdrawal side effects and their length, as can any co-occurring mental health or medical conditions. The detox timeline is therefore variable and not finite.
Methods for Detox
The safest method for detoxing from any drug is through medical detox where individuals stay on site at a specialized facility for a period of 5-7 days (on average), receiving around-the-clock medical supervision and monitoring, as well as continued support and encouragement. Through medical detox, individuals can become physically stable, with the help of medical and mental health providers offering the highest level of care and treatment.
THC withdrawal symptoms do not generally require hospitalization, as they are not usually considered to be life-threatening. However, almost a half-million individuals needed medical treatment in an emergency department (ED) for a negative reaction to marijuana in 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) publishes.
THC detox may be managed on an outpatient basis if a high level of care and support are available and provided. It is important to understand that acute detox, or the bulk of the withdrawal symptoms, generally last around five days for THC, and during that time, full support and a calm and soothing environment are needed.
Managing Detox and Withdrawal Symptoms
While there are many products that are marketed online to help with do-it-yourself home detox attempts, these products are not FDA-approved and could even be dangerous in some instances. Again, the best approach is to consult with an addiction specialist prior to beginning detox. That being said, there are supportive measures that can be taken during outpatient THC detox.
Hot baths or showers can help to soothe body aches and relax tension during detox. Over-the-counter sleep aids and pain medications may also help to relieve symptoms of THC withdrawal in the short-term; however, all medications should be cleared with treatment providers first.
THC withdrawal can cause appetite fluctuations. A nutritional diet can help to balance out a person’s system. Individuals should avoid fatty foods and instead focus on those high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and other essential vitamins and minerals. Dehydration and low levels of potassium may result from THC detox and excessive sweating. Drinking a lot of clear liquids and eating foods like green leafy vegetables, bananas, melons, and citrus fruits can help to counter this. Caffeine should be avoided during detox as it can further impede sleep patterns.
Odd, vivid nightmares or dreams may continue for as long as 45 days after stopping marijuana, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services’ Substance Abuse Treatment Advisory reports. Instituting a structured sleep schedule with set sleeping and waking times can help, as can making sure all stimulation (e.g., TV, smartphones, etc.) is ceased at least an hour before bedtime.
Exercise can reduce stress levels, elevate moods, and clear the mind during detox. Any activity that helps to occupy the mind and keep a person busy during detox can be a good escape. Taking up a new hobby, such as painting, sculpting, drawing, writing, singing, playing a musical instrument, or dancing, can provide a healthy outlet during detox and beyond.
Holistic and complementary techniques can be beneficial during detox, such as acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic care, yoga, mindfulness meditation, and more. These methods can help to reduce stress, promote healing, and alleviate some of the more uncomfortable side effects of THC withdrawal while helping to improve the mind-body connection. After the majority of the THC withdrawal symptoms have been managed through detox, individuals may enter into a treatment program to maintain long-term abstinence.