The withdrawal symptoms aren’t as brutal as those of other drugs, but they still exist.
A big misconception about marijuana is that the drug isn’t addictive since there are no withdrawal symptoms when a user quits. Yes, the withdrawal symptoms of marijuana use are extremely mild compared to those of harder drugs like heroin or Xanax — but chronic pot smokers still experience certain withdrawal symptoms that can keep them from successfully quitting.
According to a new study at the University of Illinois, researchers found that 85 percent of the people who met the criteria for a diagnosis of cannabis withdrawal during treatment ended up relapsing and using marijuana again within about 16 days.
Heavy cannabis users are more likely than their peers to use the drug again sooner because they experience withdrawal symptoms like nervousness and cravings, the researchers say. In the study, the individuals who experience no cannabis withdrawal symptoms were able to stay abstinent for about 24 days before using again.
The study sample included 110 young adults who were near-daily users of marijuana, and those who experienced withdrawal symptoms reported an average of two symptoms, including mood disturbances (48 percent), restlessness (33 percent), and difficulty sleeping (40 percent).
"For people to be included in the study sample, they had to be using at least 45 days out of 90 days prior to entering treatment and had to have made an attempt during the preceding week to quit or cut down," lead author Jordan P. Davis, a doctoral student in the School of Social Work, said in a press statement.
On average, the volunteers in the study had consumed cannabis about 70 of the 90 days before entering treatment.
"So they are what we would consider a pretty severe population. However, we excluded people who used other illicit drugs or who were binge drinkers, to ensure that any withdrawal symptoms reported by our participants could be attributed to cannabis and not to other substances."
For years, people who favor more liberal marijuana laws have debated those who favor more conservative ones over whether cannabis leads to physiological dependence and withdrawal symptoms.
According to study co-author Douglas C. Smith, the American Psychiatric Association included a code for cannabis withdrawal in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders when it published the most recent volume of the manual in May 2013.
Under the DSM-5’s criteria, cannabis withdrawal symptoms typically begin within a day or two after a chronic marijuana smoker abruptly stops using.
Unlike the brutal withdrawal symptoms experienced by severe alcoholics or heroin users, Davis says that "Prior studies have found that it's very rare for marijuana users to have physiological withdrawal symptoms, such as the muscle aches or delirium tremens.” Delirium tremens is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that involves sudden and severe changes to the nervous system or an individual’s mental state, causing confusion, mood changes, and hallucinations.
Instead, the symptoms are mainly psychological and very short-lived, generally lasting from two to seven days.
However, "Marijuana is tricky because it stays in your body so long," Smith said. "Highly addictive substances such as heroin have short half-lives and leave the body quickly, whereas marijuana is stored in the fat cells and can be excreted in a person's urine for up to a month — or even longer if you're a heavy user.”
It’s because of marijuana’s long half-life and the fact that users primarily report psychological withdrawal symptoms that the debate over cannabis withdrawal has lasted so long, but despite the severity of the symptoms, this study suggests that it’s important to treat the symptoms in order for chronic smokers to be able to stay clean.
Davis says that a major implication from the study, which is published in the Journal of Drug Issues, is that reducing the waiting time between a chronic smoker’s initial assessment and the start of treatment could be extremely beneficial for users who are experience withdrawal. Immediate treatment could help users cope with the withdrawal symptoms and thus extend the amount of time that they stay off marijuana.
"This study shows that people who met the new criteria for marijuana withdrawal in the DSM-5 had a harder time initiating abstinence, so we do need to be concerned about people who are telling us they have these withdrawal symptoms when they first try to quit," Smith concluded.