There remains some question as to whether marijuana or cannabis is truly addictive. However, there is no doubt that significant numbers of people do develop a problematic relationship with the drug, including dependence. As a consequence, the diagnostic term “marijuana use disorder” has been coined.
As with other drugs, compulsive marijuana use can come to interfere with other aspects of life. In some cases it appears to exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions and may even instigate them in some vulnerable teenagers and adults. It appears that amounts used, the potency of the drug, the age when first used and genetic factors may all have an influential effect.
Dependence on marijuana develops as a result of the brain’s adaptation to the presence of significant quantities of the drug over time. The brain responds by producing less of its own cannabinoid neurotransmitters which occur naturally and by reducing the sensitivity of the remainder. Those people most at risk seem to be the ones who begin using the drug during adolescence, continuing into adulthood.
Because of the neurochemical adaptations made in response to chronic use, people do experience a range of symptoms associated with withdrawal from marijuana once they stop using the drug. In the first days of the process, mood disturbance generally features, with irritability and anxiety common. Difficulty sleeping, reduced appetite, a general sense of restlessness and cravings are to be expected. Physical discomforts of various kinds may also be suffered as the body adjusts to the absence of the drug. Depending on the potency of the marijuana consumed and the sorts and quantities of other drugs that may also have been taken, these symptoms tend to be at their worst about a week after abstinence, generally reducing in intensity thereafter over the following week.
It is advisable to engage with recovery-supporting activities as soon as possible during the withdrawal phase. Otherwise physical and mental discomfort may all too easily provide a compelling reason to give up on recovery before it has had a chance to take hold. Being alert to the possibility of underlying or emerging mental health conditions is vital.
Changes to lifestyle need to be made an important focus of any recovery programme for an addiction to marijuana. Use of the drug may form part of the cultural “norm” of someone’s social network. This presents serious challenges, as the person may have to give up more than the drug in order to develop a life with recovery now as its focus. A person will also need to find healthier ways of coping with feelings and moods. New approaches to relaxation may also need to be learned.
The opportunity to engage with a variety of therapies within a holistic treatment approach is advisable. Making improvements to diet, exercise and particularly sleep is vital, as is simultaneously addressing co-existing mental health conditions.