The best way to start the process of kicking the habit is by understanding what marijuana does to the brain and why walking away from a joint requires effort and persistence.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active chemical compound in cannabis, influences brain functioning by forcing the brain’s natural cannabinoid receptors into action beyond natural parameters. This is what causes the high that someone gets after smoking marijuana or eating an edible product. The sensations are pleasurable; users report experiencing greater sensory perception; colors are brighter, music sounds better, food is tastier, etc. Many use marijuana to relax and overcome social anxiety. The helpless giggles and laughing fits are other perks.
Fun as these effects may be, they can be addictive. A user who smokes every day, or who has been smoking for a long period of time, will have a harder time simply saying “no” to the invitation to smoke or to the thought of smoking. Time spent not smoking could result in unpleasant withdrawal effects, which Psych Central says can come in the form of psychological symptoms, such as agitation, depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms, such as fever, sweating, chills, and fatigue.
A user who has a mental health disorder that compels smoking as a way of escaping problems is also at risk for excessive smoking in much the same way that some people drink alcohol to cope with stress or other issues.
The more someone gets accustomed to being high on marijuana, the more that person comes to believe that being high is required to function properly, even if just to go about the day. The boost that comes from the THC triggering the cannabinoid receptors is unlike any other form of pleasure, to the point where getting high, and being high, take precedence over everything else. Attempts to quit weed are short-lived and futile; an attempt by someone else to intervene is often met with denial and anger. Instead of being an occasional recreational activity, smoking pot becomes an unending act of desperation and even of shame.
For many smokers, the decision to quit is impulsive, usually after something goes wrong – an argument with a family member over the habit, being fired for smoking at work, or some other failing directly related to smoking. Psychology Today warns that this abrupt termination of smoking rarely ends well, usually for the reasons mentioned above. The body and brain become so conditioned to the THC in every puff, that it becomes all but impossible to simply put a joint down. No matter how determined the decision to quit may be, it is made in the heat of the moment, and there is no thought given to how to cope with the process of adjusting to life without marijuana.
To that point, the desire to quit smoking has to be comprehensive, based less on action (as when marijuana use makes something go wrong), and more on attitude (a dissatisfaction with the lifestyle changes that come through excessive marijuana consumption). The right frame of mind to stop smoking is the knowledge that the user doesn’t need or want marijuana anymore. This has to be the prevailing outlook even when the anger and shame of a bad experience pass, even when sober. Quitting any kind of habit, especially one as alluring and addictive as marijuana, requires an all-or-nothing approach. Anything less, and any gains will be only temporary.
It’s recommended to set a quitting date in advance. On the similar topic of cigarettes, the American Cancer Society suggests “a day within the next month” – far away enough to give time to get ready for the transition, but not so far away that a change of heart may take place. It might be a good idea to set the quitting date as a day with some personal relevance, to better anchor the significance of the date and action. When the anniversary of quitting is reached every month (and then every year), it is an occasion to celebrate, thus deepening the personal investment and what it took to get this far.
The next step is to get rid of all weed-related paraphernalia: bongs, smoking bowls, a rolling tray – anything to do with storing or using pot has to go, no matter how expensive, decorative, or sentimental it might be. Eliminating all material reminders related to the fun of smoking is very important in the fight to get sober; it reduces temptation and is a physical act that signifies not going back.
One of the less pleasant aspects of quitting smoking weed is withdrawal – the irritability, insomnia, changes in appetite, and flulike symptoms, among other effects (leaving many users struggling in their personal and professional relationships). This is one of the hardest parts of the process, partly because of how the brain’s functioning changes as a result of the THC; the answer to all these problems, the addicted brain says, is more marijuana. Many well-meaning smokers are drawn back to their pot (or another drug) because of the distress of withdrawal, which can last as long as a few days to a week, or even longer, depending on the length and severity of the marijuana use.By itself, marijuana withdrawal is not dangerous, but the process may compel a user to do something risky, like taking another drug, or a combination of drugs, to alleviate the pain and discomfort. A solution to the potential unpredictability of withdrawal is to undergo the process with appropriate medical supervision. Checking into a treatment facility will allow the person to withdraw from marijuana use with the help of trained doctors and healthcare professionals who can work with them through the process to ensure that the physical and psychological distress of withdrawal do not prove overwhelming. They may do this through providing certain kinds of medications to make the physical symptoms less painful, as well as offering support and observation to lower the chances of relapse.
Friends and family have a role to play in this, giving encouragement and moral assistance, but it is imperative that they do not attempt to interfere with the withdrawal process by providing marijuana, alcohol, or some other drugs (even prescription medication) out of well-intended but misguided concern. Drug withdrawal is a complicated medical process, where the body and mind have to rewire themselves to cope without the chemical substance upon which they had become dependent. Introducing another chemical, without medical supervision, threatens to undo the hard work of trying to get sober, and it can be dangerous.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways of quitting marijuana: cold turkey and tapering. Cold turkey involves a complete stoppage of all marijuana use (whether immediately or on a certain date), while tapering is, as the word implies, a more gradual elimination of use (from a certain number of joints or edibles per day down to zero, over a set period of time).
Both methods have their own advantages and risks, depending on the length of the marijuana habit, how much marijuana was generally smoked, and individual physiology and psychology. Cold turkey tends to work better for users who have not been smoking for a long time; tapering, on the other hand, might be a preferable option for people who are so used to cannabis in their systems, to the point where an abrupt termination of THC would cause the withdrawal effects mentioned above. There are, however, exceptions, and individuals should consult with a doctor or healthcare provider to find out which method will work best for their situation.
Either method requires some form of discipline, which can help to ease the process into a marijuana-free life and also provide long-term benefits for health. Exercise, for example, is one of the best ways to facilitate the transition away from marijuana, and it can itself become a source of lifelong benefits. The simple act of running regularly boosts mood and improves connections within the brain. This aspect is especially relevant, given the long-term effects of marijuana consumption on the brain listed by the Hippocampus journal, which can include loss of short-term memory, difficulty learning new things, and even loss of verbal memory.
Whether going cold turkey or opting to taper, having a supportive and trustworthy network of friends and family, and incorporating good habits to stave off the withdrawal effects of losing the THC supply, will make quitting weed a bit easier.
In addition to exercise, another habit to help with the change is to maintain a good diet. One type of cannabinoid receptor that is found all over the body is activated beyond its natural parameters when THC is ingested, which is useful for cancer patients who have difficulty eating because of chemotherapy. It is also why people who smoke recreationally get “the munchies.” According to Medical Daily, many people who quit a heavy marijuana habit struggle to get their appetite back following withdrawal. In recovering from a damaging weed habit, it is vitally important for the body to receive proper nutrition. The body is significantly weakened by marijuana, the loss of THC, and withdrawal, and needs to be rebuilt in the right way. Healthy foods strengthen the immune system, provide energy, and repair organ tissue. People going through withdrawal might be tempted to indulge in sweets or fats as a form of comfort food, but this is merely replacing one compulsive behavior for another.
An important part of treatment and recovery in the aftermath of a weed problem is learning how to eat right. This means having the right balances of carbohydrates, vitamins, amino and fatty acids, protein, and water. Carbohydrates and fatty acids can literally change the functioning of the brain (itself already affected by an onslaught of THC), so having the right kind of diet serves to not only do damage control, but also put the brain ahead of where it was.
Similarly, recovering addicts who have poor dietary habits (even in their sobriety) have a higher chance of relapsing because of the how physiological effects of their unhealthy food re-primes the brain for addictive behavior.
In the same way that exercise occupies the mind and body in healthy and engaging ways, the art and skill of cooking can itself be a self-sustaining form of therapy for someone looking to put weed behind them. So-called cooking therapy provides an outlet for creativity and boosting self-esteem, even by concocting simple dishes or indulging in nothing more than baking.
Cooking and exercise involve the mind and body in wholesome ways that marijuana cannot, and they are incredibly important in rebuilding the body after a cannabis problem has taken its toll. Good lifestyle implementations, such as having hobbies, getting regular sleep, having a supportive and active social life, and staying accountable to sobriety by avoiding people and places that recall the days of getting high will pave the path away from marijuana.
Having such structures is important because the craving for weed will never be fully eliminated. During times of stress, loneliness, or boredom (which is one of the “didn’t-see-it-coming” relapse triggers identified by Psych Central), the memory of how good it felt to be high will resurface, and the temptation to call up an old friend from the pot-smoking days will be very powerful. Things like exercise, nutrition, and hobbies will help to control the urge to relapse on most days; but on bad days, having reliable friends and family members to talk to is what can make the difference. Finding a peer support group, like a 12-Step program modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous, will put individuals in contact with other people who have quit their marijuana habits and who know the struggle and the challenge of trying to stay sober. A sponsor who can take a call (or text) in the middle of the night, and remind the person of what was learned in treatment, how much has been accomplished since quitting weed, and what will be lost by going back offers insight and understanding that speak right to the heart of what it means to remain abstinent, even when every instinct and impulse wants to get high again.
“Marijuana is a relatively safe drug,” writes Vox, but “with some risks.” For many people, those risks entail long-term damage to their brains, a decline in socioeconomic status, an inability to stop using, and problems with interpersonal relationships. Quitting weed is not easy; but with the right approach, support, and follow-up care, it is possible and eminently rewarding.