Many cannabis users, whether they partake in a weekly indulgence with friends, have a nightly ritual, or consume regularly for medicinal purposes, may find themselves at some time or another – for whatever reason – looking to cut back (or completely kick) their cannabis use. This can be a daunting prospect. After coming to terms with the idea of no longer having that release – no matter what kind of release that might be – when partaking in cannabis use, you may also begin to wonder if there will be any side effects. In other cases of drug use, we might call these “withdrawal symptoms”; but does the same reaction apply to cannabis use? In other words, can you get withdrawal from cannabis?
For the occasional cannabis user, it can be easy to insist that cannabis is not addictive – especially when compared to other drugs. This is at least partially true. Alcohol and tobacco are among the most addictive drugs in the world (both consistently falling within the top 5), despite being easily accessible in most countries around the world. In comparison, cannabis tends to place somewhere around tenth on the list of “most addictive drugs”. But that doesn’t mean that giving it up will be a walk in the park.
How addictive is cannabis?
While estimates vary, some studies suggest that around 10% of cannabis users eventually find themselves addicted to the drug while others put the figure significantly higher, at around 1 in 3 people. Forming a dependence on cannabis is often referred to as Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD). Many experts agree that the likelihood of developing CUD is greater in people who begin using cannabis in their adolescence and in more frequent users.
For individuals who do find themselves addicted to cannabis, stopping or even reducing their intake may prove difficult. In fact, some evidence suggests that even people without problematic use of cannabis may experience some undesirable symptoms after quitting. According to a 2020 systematic review, almost half (47%) of participants (over 23,000 individuals across 47 studies) who used cannabis regularly experienced cannabis withdrawal syndrome.
So, what are some of the withdrawal symptoms associated with cannabis cessation?
Cannabis withdrawal symptoms
While a significant proportion of cannabis users may experience withdrawal symptoms on reducing their cannabis use, these symptoms are usually not as serious as those associated with other drug use, such as tobacco, alcohol, and opioids. Nonetheless, cannabis withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant, making it more difficult to quit or cut back and increasing the chance of relapse.
Individuals experiencing cannabis withdrawal syndrome may experience:
- Anxiety and feelings of nervousness;
- Decreased appetite and/or weight;
- Headaches and nausea;
- Vomiting and abdominal pain;
Withdrawal symptoms tend to begin within the first one to two days after stopping cannabis use. Within this period, a cannabis user may begin to experience some or all of the symptoms, the severity of which will begin to peak over the next five to six days. While some of these symptoms can be extremely unpleasant, in most cases they will resolve within three weeks.
What causes withdrawal?
Withdrawal symptoms occur when we take away a substance that our body has become accustomed to. This can mean completely stopping your cannabis intake or significantly reducing how much you use. These symptoms are a sign that you have become physiologically dependent on a substance, so much so that you may feel that you need to take the substance in order to think and function normally. This can cause your body to present various warnings when the substance is no longer administered.
In more severe cases of withdrawal, an individual may choose to continue using the substance to avoid experiencing the symptoms associated with quitting. Thankfully, cannabis withdrawal symptoms are usually far less serious than symptoms associated with the use of other drugs, such as nicotine and opioids.
It should also be noted at this point that it is not only harmful or illegal drugs that can cause withdrawal symptoms. Other substances, such as prescription medicines and caffeine may also be associated with withdrawal after prolonged regular use. I mean, how many of us can’t seem to function properly without our first cup of coffee in the morning? In many cases – including the vast majority of cannabis-related withdrawal – these symptoms are not medically dangerous.
Can you reduce the chance of experiencing withdrawal symptoms?
While cannabis withdrawal symptoms are far from life-threatening, most people will opt to avoid them if they can. So, are there any ways to reduce your chance of experiencing symptoms when you cut back or quit cannabis? Some people say so.
Many regular cannabis users opt to take a tolerance break (or T-break) every now and then to maintain a level of tolerance to THC. Ideally, this means that they won’t need to consistently consume more THC to achieve the same effect. Of course, this can help users to save some money, but some say that it also helps to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms.
The theory is that the more breaks you take from cannabis, the more your body will become accustomed to living without it. While this sounds logical, unfortunately, there isn’t currently any science to support this beyond a doubt. Nonetheless, taking regular breaks from cannabis (unless you are a medicinal user) can be a good thing – and not only for your bank account. T-breaks allow you to assess how cannabis is affecting your body, mind, and other areas of your life.
If you’re looking to cut down on the amount of cannabis you are using – or even quit altogether – the prospect of experiencing withdrawal symptoms can be a little daunting. The good news is that the majority of people – even daily users – only experience mild symptoms that tend to resolve themselves within a few weeks. For more information about T-breaks and cannabis tolerance, check out our recent article, ‘Taking a break from cannabis – how a t-break can help your high’.