Cannabis is not widely regarded as an addictive drug, but withdrawal can still occur for frequent consumers. In particular, regular consumption of strains high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, can increase the likelihood of withdrawal symptoms.
Here you'll learn how to identify the symptoms of THC withdrawal, how to treat those symptoms, and how to avoid going through withdrawal in the future.
Is cannabis addictive?
Dr. Melanie Bone, a board-certified OB-GYN and cannabis specialist, says the answer is complicated. “Marijuana consumers and practitioners usually proclaim it is safer than other substances because it is virtually impossible to die of an overdose of THC. That is true,” she said.
However, the improbability of dying of a THC overdose is only one side to the story. “Another often-heard comment is that marijuana is safer than other substances because it is not truly addictive, and sudden stopping may be uncomfortable but won't result in dangerous withdrawal the way alcohol and opiates do. While there is truth to this, there is definitely a risk of dependence, as well as difficulty with managing withdrawal,” said Bone.
To understand this better, it is important to distinguish between common addiction terms and how they relate to marijuana.
Use: refers to consumption that is occasional and often addresses an immediate need, such as post-operative pain.
Abuse: consumption for an off-label reason, but still only intermittent. For example, both narcotic pain medicine and marijuana can be abused, but given the sporadic nature of abuse, cannabis is unlikely to be associated with addiction.
Habituation: the use of any addictive medication whose removal might result in withdrawal. Many patients who use narcotic pain medication long-term and those who use marijuana chronically may be habituated.
Addiction: when a substance is required for its user to function or feel normal. The urge to use could result in the user committing a crime to obtain the substance. Without it, physical, emotional, and psychological withdrawal occurs.
Bone explained that narcotics are generally considered addictive because they quickly induce dependence in some people who have a tendency toward addiction. But with cannabis, “Consumers can become dependent on it, and physical withdrawal does occur, but it is not life-threatening, like opiate withdrawal. In addition, there are many who can stop their use and restart without a problem,” she said.
Yet the United States has classified cannabis as a Schedule I narcotic drug alongside heroin and LSD since 1970. However, there has been a recent push in Congress for this designation to be removed. Further, many medical professionals do not consider marijuana to be a narcotic drug. While cannabis may have some addictive potential, it's not as addictive as a drug like cocaine.
“Marijuana, like narcotics, has potential for addiction when used medically. Marijuana, like alcohol, has potential for addiction when used recreationally,” Bone said.
It seems that cannabis, and particularly THC, do have the potential for addiction but probably not to the degree of other Schedule I drugs.
What are the symptoms of THC withdrawal?
If you are experiencing THC withdrawal, you may notice one or more of the following symptoms:
- Mood changes and irritability
- Chills or cold sweats
- Craving marijuana
- Difficulty sleeping, including insomnia or vivid dreams and nightmares
- Loss of appetite and/or digestive issues
- Trouble focusing
In her medical practice, Bone has observed patients with these symptoms. “On rare occasions, I have encountered patients with serious difficulty when they try to stop,” she said. “They suffer stomach cramps, chills, sweats, and rebound anxiety. They may demonstrate drug-seeking behaviors, resorting to getting products on the black market. Mostly they feel lousy and irritable for a few days.”
How long does THC withdrawal last?
The symptoms of THC withdrawal may begin within 24 hours of last consumption and peak by the second or third day of abstention, according to information from American Addiction Centers.
THC withdrawal symptoms should naturally resolve within one to three weeks, depending on the length and frequency of cannabis consumption. If you have persistent or severe withdrawal symptoms at any time, consult with your healthcare provider.
How do you treat cannabis withdrawal?
There are several home remedies to treat cannabis withdrawal. One unusual but effective antidote is to ingest black peppercorn. The chemical composition of pepper may be especially helpful for anxiety. In addition, common-sense practices like staying hydrated, eating nutritious foods, and getting adequate rest may ease withdrawal symptoms.
“To relieve some of the symptoms while they are happening, a higher dose of CBD can help. Theoretically, calming herbs with relaxing terpenes such as myrcene and linalool, found in mango and lavender, respectively, can help mitigate the withdrawal as well. Distraction and mind-body work can also ameliorate side effects of THC withdrawal,” according to Bone.
Besides shifting to a higher dose of CBD, you can opt to use pure CBD products without any THC. Hemp-derived CBD oils, tinctures, and creams are among the products that contain trace amounts of THC or none at all.
How can you avoid becoming addicted to THC?
There is no tried and true way to prevent the initial occurrence of THC addiction or its recurrence after a break from use, according to Dr. Bone. However, there are strategies to avoid becoming dependent on THC.
Bone recommends a tolerance break for patients who seem to need escalating amounts of THC. They can stop using for two to five days to allow the brain to recalibrate. When they begin consuming again, they should be able to achieve their desired results at lower doses. “For some patients, particularly those with exaggerated anxiety complaints, starting back with a product higher in CBD than THC may work better,” Bone said.
After the initial tolerance break, scaling back on daily consumption may be another way to avoid becoming addicted to THC. Those consuming cannabis multiple times a day can cut back to once a day. Daily consumers can move to a few times a week.
The bottom line on THC withdrawal
If cannabis is not interfering with your daily life and obligations, there may not be cause for concern. But it is beneficial to take occasional tolerance breaks and be aware of how much cannabis you are consuming daily or weekly.
“As a doctor, I would suggest that you check your own use on a regular basis to be sure that it has not become problematic. If you find that you are spending time every day to figure out how to get marijuana, and if you are using money designated for basics such as housing and food to buy it, then you might want to speak with a professional about how to better manage your use,” Bone concluded.
Major contributions from Dr. Adie Rae.