Understanding what marijuana does to the brain helps to explain why quitting can be so difficult.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) a chemical compound in cannabis, influences neural functioning by interacting with the brain’s endocannabinoid system. This interaction is what causes the high that someone gets after smoking marijuana or eating an edible product. In some instances, 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. However, THC-mediated alterations in endocannabinoid signaling also play a role in some of the less desirable, or outright adverse effects of marijuana use, such as cognitive impairments, diminished coordination and reaction time, and acute psychotic features such as hallucinations and delusions.
Regardless of the common perception that marijuana’s effects are mild and relatively harmless, marijuana use is known to have reinforcing properties; occasional use can turn to compulsive and problematic use—in other words marijuana can be addictive. A user who smokes every day, or who has been smoking for a long period of time, may have a harder time simply saying “no” to the invitation to smoke or to the thought of smoking. Marijuana is also associated with a distinct dependence phenomenon, in which a person comes to rely on continued use to feel and function “normally.” Time spent not smoking could result in unpleasant withdrawal effects, such as agitation, depression, anxiety, and physical symptoms, such as fever, sweating, chills, and fatigue.
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. In some cases, the boost that comes from the THC triggering the cannabinoid receptors supersedes more natural sources of pleasure, to the point where getting high, and being high, take precedence over everything else.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) identify marijuana as an addictive drug. Marijuana users can develop problematic use, or what’s known as a marijuana use disorder (or marijuana addiction) in severe cases.
Dependence of marijuana occurs when the brain adapts to the drug and become desensitized to endocannabinoid neurotransmitters. This effect can cause withdrawal symptoms when marijuana is no longer in the person’s system.
American Addiction Centers offers therapy to help those abusing marijuana gain the skills to cope with craving and avoid triggers. Therapy also helps improve on other skills, such as problem-solving and lifestyle management.
One solution to the unpleasantness and potential unpredictability of withdrawal is to undergo the process with appropriate medical supervision. The support and care offered through professional rehabilitation may help people better manage the withdrawal period. Though presently there are no pharmacologic interventions specifically approved for treating cannabis dependence, observation, medications for certain symptom relief, and other supportive care measures can help make the withdrawal less of an ordeal and decrease the likelihood of relapse.