The National Institute on Drug Abuse has labeled marijuana, also known as weed or pot, as the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. After years of decline, marijuana has been making a comeback, and abuse of it has been on the rise since 2007. Government agencies have classified marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which means there is a high risk of the drug being abused while offering no legitimate medicinal value. Despite this, two states have legalized marijuana for recreational use as of January, 2014, and twenty allow its sale for medicinal use. If you or a loved one are finding it difficult to stop using marijuana and have decided to seek help, you’ve already made the most important decision in the process.
What Is Marijuana?
The leaves, stems, seeds, and buds of the cannabis sativa plant contain high concentrations of a naturally occurring substance known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). When these components of the plant are dried out and smoked or ingested through other means, the THC from the resulting marijuana enters the user’s bloodstream and produces a euphoric high that many people find very pleasurable. As with any euphoria-inducing substance, the potential exists for marijuana use to become habitual and even addictive.
Marijuana Facts and Statistics
- More than 17 million people use marijuana at least once per month, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
- Out of the group of people who use illicit drugs, more than 60 percent only use marijuana.
- Marijuana was a contributing factor in more than 375,000 emergency room visits in 2009, reports the Drug Abuse Warning Network.
- Researchers have found a potential link between chronic marijuana use and the later development of psychosis.
- Anyone who uses marijuana has a 4.8-fold greater risk of a heart attack in the first hour after use.
- Pregnant women who use marijuana risk having babies that have issues with memory, problem solving, and attention.
- Getting high on marijuana before driving a car doubles the risk of having an accident.
Effects of Marijuana on the Body
As is the case with any drug, marijuana has certain effects on the body. As soon as it’s smoked, carbon monoxide is introduced to the user’s bloodstream. Carbon monoxide has a special affinity for bonding to hemoglobin—some 200 times that of oxygen—which makes it somewhat more difficult for the red blood cells to efficiently transport oxygen around the body. Carcinogenic tars, which are the inevitable side effect of inhaling burning plant matter, are deposited in the lungs and may increase the risk of certain cancers over time. The active ingredient, THC, has certain immediate effects that include:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased respiration rate
- Reddening of the eyes
- Dry mouth
- Diminished reaction time
- Increased appetite
- Euphoria or paranoia
The Addictive Potential of Marijuana
Some of the above symptoms, such as euphoria, are part of marijuana’s appeal to users. The intense pleasure felt by some users can encourage habitual use. Sometimes, that use begins to interfere with the user’s efforts to live a productive life. It’s at this point that marijuana addiction becomes a serious problem for some users. It is estimated that anywhere from 9 to 17 percent of marijuana users have developed the symptoms of addiction.
Signs There Might Be a Problem
Addiction is usually determined by social effects rather than strict medical criteria. There isn’t a convenient blood test that will show that an addiction has been triggered, so a diagnosis of addiction will depend on how the drug is affecting the patient’s life.
Addiction is defined as persistent use of a substance in the face of mounting social consequences. Under this definition, two people might smoke equal quantities of marijuana, but if person A experiences a sudden drop in school performance or loses a job as a result of use, it would be appropriate to suspect addiction for that person without necessarily diagnosing person B as an addict.
Lethargy, depression, and inability to stop using are all marijuana addiction signs. If you suspect that you, or someone you know, might have developed a marijuana addiction, raise the issue with a doctor who can guide you in your options for treatment.
Deciding It’s Time for Help
When the use of marijuana has escalated to the point that it’s interfering with the rest of your life, it’s time to seek help through marijuana addiction treatment. Often, this realization comes from some sort of wake-up call such as an intervention or arrest for possession or driving under the influence. Some people also decide to seek help with their addiction when they notice some marijuana long-term effects, such as emphysema or lung cancer.
Initial Stages of Treatment
The first step in clinical treatment of marijuana addiction is detox. This is often done on an outpatient basis with daily contact between the patient and an addiction medicine specialist. Some of the best drug treatment centers in the US offer outpatient and inpatient services for those who suffer from marijuana addiction. Another option, which is indicated if outpatient detox has failed, is inpatient, or clinical, detox conducted in a residential treatment center under the immediate supervision of a specialist or medical professional.
Marijuana detox symptoms rarely pose an immediate threat to the health of the patient. It can be uncomfortable, though, and often the cravings last for several days. For some patients, especially those who have been heavy users for extended periods, the acute phase of intense cravings for marijuana can last for over a week. This can create problems for users who want to detox at home, as it’s difficult to resist the urge to begin using again. It’s this factor—the frequency of relapse—that makes clinical inpatient marijuana detox attractive as a solution.
Common Withdrawal Symptoms
The most common effects of withdrawal from marijuana include insomnia and agitation. Mood alterations or disturbances are also common as the stabilizing effect of the THC is withdrawn. Depression and unpredictable bouts of anger are among the most commonly reported emotional symptoms. During marijuana detox, you might also experience vivid dreams or nightmares that can also negatively affect your sleep. Frequently, chronic users will report a significant loss of appetite, which can result in a significant weight loss during the detox period.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unlike medication for alcoholism has yet to approve any medications for use in treating the symptoms of marijuana withdrawal. Lacking a standard procedure they can fall back on, some experts have looked at using existing medications to manage some of the worst detox symptoms. Among the more promising options are synthetic THC, which is used to stimulate cancer patients’ appetites, and a hypertension drug, lofexidine, which is in common use across Europe for the treatment of heroin addiction and withdrawal. Other options include low-dose natural THC in concentrations that won’t produce a noticeable high and various antidepressants and sleep aids, though none of these can strictly be considered marijuana detox pills.
Alternatives to Drug Therapy
Medical detox treatment is less advanced than other forms of clinical detox, and some patients might be reluctant to start a course of antidepressant or hypertension medications if they can be at all avoided. For this reason, many detox centers are open to the possibility of alternative approaches to detox. Non-drug approaches to drug and alcohol rehab usually focus on pushing through a high volume of fluids—particularly cranberry juice—and cutting fat from the patient’s diet. Usually, you’ll be told to abstain from caffeine during the detox period, as coffee and tea can increase the risk of tremors and shaking that some detoxing patients experience. Exercise can help, as can time spent in a sauna, though you should be aware of the potential loss of potassium that the excess sweating from exercise will cause. You might consider eating high-potassium foods such as bananas, tomatoes, and citrus fruits to replenish what you’ve lost through sweating.
Hazards to Be Aware Of
The detox market is saturated with products that promise to work what amount to miracles. Marijuana detox drinks, pills, and herbal remedies are largely untested by science and thus have no track record of double-blind studies to speak of when it comes to eliminating marijuana from your system. Products that promise you can “detox weed naturally” are also generally unregulated by the FDA and so cannot be guaranteed even to contain whatever active ingredient the packaging claims will do the trick. Generally, it’s a good idea to be wary of products that promise quick and easy solutions to your problems.
After the initial detox period, former users will often continue treatment for their addiction, as most addictions have both physical and psychological roots. This usually consists of group therapy sessions with a heavy emphasis on peer support. Many of these programs follow the twelve-step model pioneered with Alcoholics Anonymous. In this model, recovery is best approached by pairing up with a sponsor who is further along the course of treatment than yourself and can help you through the inevitable rough patches.
At the discretion of your doctor, the use of antidepressants, sleep aids, and other medications you’ve been using to get through the detox may be withdrawn or continued depending on your need. Some patients manage better outcomes with a more clinical approach such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Regardless of the method chosen for long-term maintenance, the emphasis during this post-acute period is always on developing effective strategies for staying sober without the need for further clinical interventions.
Other Behavioral Considerations
Marijuana addiction rarely travels alone. Studies have found that coexisting disorders, as they’re called, are very common among marijuana addicts. A study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse found that of those patients who entered treatment, 74 percent had been diagnosed with some kind of conduct disorder, 77 percent were diagnosed with ADHD, and over 37 percent were clinically depressed. Treating these coexisting disorders has to be incorporated into any kind of long-term recovery plan.
Unfortunately, the long-term recovery rates among marijuana users are not very promising. Even the most effective treatments are only able to help approximately 50 percent of adults achieve even two weeks of abstinence. Of the half who accomplish this milestone, half will relapse at least once in the subsequent year. Regardless of the therapeutic approach pursued, one-year sobriety rates continue to hover between 10 and 30 percent for typical adult users of marijuana.
The high rates of relapse suggest to many professionals in the field that marijuana addiction should be treated as a chronic management-style illness, much like HIV or diabetes, with clinical interventions stepped up or reduced over time as the patient’s circumstances change. The presence of supportive friends and family are known to be among the most important influences for long-term sobriety, so the decision to increase or reduce medical or psychological treatments will be primarily in response to the various observed social factors in the recovering patient’s life.
Despite the intimate familiarity many people have with the substance, marijuana facts can sometimes be difficult to separate from marijuana fictions. Contrary to popular myth, marijuana is addictive for certain people, and that addiction can be destructive in many ways. Treatment for marijuana addiction is available through medical, residential, and outpatient channels, though none of them seems able to deliver better than a 30 percent long-term recovery rate. Most users find that the roughest period is usually during the first two weeks of abstinence, which is when approximately 50 percent of the relapses happen. Unfortunately, there aren’t any sure-fire marijuana detox tips, but with a combination of medical attention, recovery assistance, and—most importantly—support from friends and family, many former users learn to manage their addiction over the long term.