marijuana leaves smoke

Of all illicit drugs known and abused by mankind, marijuana ranks numero uno. Though banned in many countries, some form of marijuana, depending on its use, is deemed legally in different parts of the world. Being legal makes people believe it is very safe, which it is not. Human body doesn’t differentiate between a legal and illegal drug. It only knows the effect that the drug causes when consumed.
marijuana leaves smoke

Having knowledge about the substance, its dosage, effects and side effects, addiction, symptoms during overdosing and during withdrawal provides clarity regarding the marijuana. Marijuana is known by different names in different countries, but whatever be the name, the real kick comes from the quantity used and route through which it is administered. Nearly 30% of marijuana users develop marijuana use disorder (MUD), a medical terminology which includes abuse, dependence and addiction of marijuana.

Similar to other countries, marijuana (3) (grass, cannabis, hashish, weed) is the most abused illicit drug in the United States and is widespread among young populace, with nearly 11 million youngsters having abused marijuana in 2015. Of these, around 12.8% were eight graders, estimated 29.7% were 10th graders and 44.5% were 12th graders.

Besides youngsters, marijuana is highly popular in age group of 18 and above. In fact, nearly 4 million Americans had met the diagnostic criteria of MUD, of which 138,000 had sought treatment voluntarily. Some of the laws about marijuana use in few US States have become more permissive and this drug surely has the potential of causing more harm than any good.

Though marijuana has certain positive effects, these are easily outweighed by number of side effects. There are many side effects, signs and symptoms that crop up from use of marijuana. Some of these include anxiety, increased heartbeats, difficulties in learning and understanding, sleep issues and addiction among others.

The biggest side effect is felt during its withdrawal. Risk of developing side effects depend mainly on age as well as condition of the user. Marijuana use disorder is suspected to affect nearly 30% of all Americans who have used marijuana. Adults who start using marijuana are not prone to marijuana addiction in comparison to people who start abusing marijuana in adolescence. These adolescents are 4-7 times likely to have addiction.

Once the user quits marijuana, the person frees oneself from its negative side effects. Withdrawal is the key factor in quitting marijuana, in fact it is one of the biggest hurdle in the way of stopping or quitting marijuana use.

Marijuana and its Content

Marijuana comes from Indian hemp plant with flowers, especially the buds containing most of the drug. Marijuana is also found in seeds, stem as well as leaves, albeit in lesser quantities. It is usually sold as a mixture of dry leaves, flowers, seeds and stems. Marijuana is sold in different colors like green, grey or brown. Burning marijuana emits a sharp and typical sweet-and-sour odor.
There are around 400 chemicals that are found in marijuana. Marijuana contains a chemical known as delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol or THC that causes mind-altering effect in its users. It is this effect which makes marijuana a “drug.”

Signs and Symptoms of Marijuana Abuse

Marijuana develops behavioral changes with its use, which includes distorted perception, difficulty in thought processing, rational thinking, problem solving, learning problems, impaired coordination and memory problems. Symptoms like anxiety, blurry and bloodshot eyes, racing heartbeats, mucus-filled cough, fear, paranoia, slow reaction, xerostomia, control issues, memory problems, addiction, and increased hunger are clear giveaways of marijuana abuse.

Effects of Marijuana Abuse

Regular marijuana abuse can result in learning difficulties, memory loss, mood swings, and change in social behavior. This impacts both personal and professional life. Once drug gets into the system, adverse effects impact user’s learning and memory, with normalcy returning only after effect wears off. People who smoke marijuana on a daily basis can have decreased intellectual capabilities all the time.

Addiction to marijuana arises from long-term marijuana abuse. An addicted person would showcase a compulsive drug seeking behavior, in spite of knowing the consequences. Marijuana is also referred as a gateway drug since susceptibility to abuse is higher in comparison to other illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines or hallucinogens.

When abusers of marijuana attempt to stop using the drug, they tend to suffer a number of unpleasant symptoms which makes it difficult to quit. The effort put in by an addict to become sober can be nullified as a result of these symptoms and the person can relapse. Some withdrawal symptoms that marijuana users depict include anxiety, irritability, sleep issues, decreased appetite coupled with eating disorder, and craving.

Marijuana is typically smoked in pipes, hand-rolled cigarettes known as joints or blunts (rolled in cigar wrappers), and water pipes (bongs). Smoking marijuana is linked with lung cancer since smokers inhale unfiltered marijuana which has greater amount of carcinogens than a cigarette has.

Marijuana effects on the brain

THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) is the active chemical which is present in marijuana. When user smokes marijuana, THC passes through lungs into the bloodstream and is carried to brain by the blood. THC acts on specific spots called cannabinoid receptors which produce series of cellular reactions that leads to a high longed by the user.
marijuana effects on the brainCertain parts in the brain can have numerous cannabinoid receptors while other parts may have very few or even none. These parts influence concentration, pleasure, memory, time and sensory perceptions, as well as movement coordination. Abuse and addiction of marijuana are serious medical conditions which requires treatment by chemical dependency specialists.

Many marijuana users cite positive effects of marijuana such as managing pain as well as other chronic disorders for using it. However, studies show that marijuana can not only potentially affect regular users, but also affect those who have abruptly stopped it. Every addict has different withdrawal symptoms, but typically, long-term or heavy addicts who quit generally experience harsher side effects in comparison to non-regular or non-heavy users.

American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) recognizes marijuana use disorder as part of substance related disorders as well as recognizing marijuana withdrawal as an important diagnosis. Marijuana dependence tend to resemble other addictive substances; although, it has lesser immediate consequences compared to drugs like cocaine or heroin.

Average period of recovery/detox/rehabilitation of people who abused marijuana daily and seek addiction treatment is nearly 10 years whereas average number of times that is reported for attempting to quit completely is around six years, with withdrawal symptoms playing a major role in increasing difficulties for people who plan on quitting. Three factors which sort of influences severity of the withdrawal symptoms include frequency, quantity used as well as presence of any other co-occurring mental health problems.

Sides Effects of Marijuana

Through marijuana has medicinal benefits, its’ a Schedule I Drug in the US at federal level, since it has high abuse potential. A popular misconception amongst people is that marijuana is safe and is not addictive. But it has numerous harmful effects which can also include anxiety, loss of memory, problem-solving and concentration difficulties, distorted perceptions, and learning problems, among others.

Sustained marijuana use over a period of time can result in dependency. Suddenly stopping marijuana after prolonged intake shows up marijuana withdrawal syndrome. The symptoms appear within one week of marijuana cessation and can include numerous unpleasant side effects.

Marijuana Withdrawal Symptoms

The common symptoms include chills, profuse sweating, decreased appetite, and flu-like symptoms. Though counselling and medications can help to a certain extent in overcoming these, there is no specified help or medication which can completely alleviate these symptoms. Criteria for marijuana withdrawal includes symptom signs in a person who would have smoked marijuana on a regular basis for at least several months before quitting.

The person who tries to quit would exhibit at least three of the following symptoms – anger, nervousness, aggression, insomnia, irritation, nightmares, restlessness, appetite loss, weight loss, depression, profuse sweating, shakiness, headaches, or stomach pain, as well as various discomfort caused by above-mentioned problems. Additional withdrawal symptoms may include fatigue, concentration problems, frequent yawning, and hypersomnia after a period of insomnia.

Marijuana withdrawal symptoms are more subtle than that of other drugs, but these can be really unpleasant. Depending on amount and duration of abuse, the type and intensity of withdrawal symptoms change. On an average, marijuana withdrawal effects last for around 5 days, but are quite different for everyone. There are some withdrawal symptoms that lasts for weeks and months instead of hours.

In order to develop a specific treatment for the future, scientists are working on various theories. One study involves use of THC, marijuana’s primary ingredient. This study has shown that despite being the primary ingredient, THC can have a possible role as a medication that can aid in reducing withdrawal symptoms. This should however be administered under medical supervision to person who wish to taper off of marijuana.

Though no specific treatment is available, a person wishing to wean off of marijuana should undergo the detox program as well as supportive interventions under medical or clinical supervision.

Marijuana withdrawal

An unusual feature with marijuana withdrawal is that it doesn’t usually cause severe physical symptoms like other psychoactive drugs and alcohol, but results in psychological issues. Though withdrawal symptoms are not dangerous, they still pose risk to the abusers who attempt to withdraw on their own with no help at all.

Stopping the drug by marijuana users who have abused it heavily or for a long time, can often times lead to feelings of depression and anxiety. Studies have shown that people with depression are more likely to use marijuana and become dependent than those who are not. In these people, marijuana withdrawal might aggravate depression, resulting in their relapsing on marijuana to relieve their feelings and discomfort.

Marijuana Withdrawal Treatment

Symptoms of marijuana withdrawal begins within one to three days after stopping marijuana, which lasts for one to two weeks. Sleep problems could last for a month or more. Best treatment for marijuana withdrawal includes combination of strategies and services including medication, psychotherapy (motivational enhancement and cognitive-behavioral therapies), contingency management, as well as social support. These are explained in brief in following paragraphs.


Though FDA has not approved any medications for treating symptoms of marijuana withdrawal, medications like antidepressants are prescribed for treating serious mental health cases, caused or aggravated by marijuana withdrawal. Additionally, medications that can help an addict get proper sleep have been researched and prescribed for treating withdrawal-associated insomnia.


Various types of psychotherapy has been found helpful in treating marijuana addiction. The two major psychotherapies include:

Motivational enhancement therapy – People generally lack motivation for quitting marijuana use and using motivational enhancement therapy for treatment purposes can be very useful. It reduces ambivalence typically associated with symptom recovery and provides confidence to an individual who is willing to change and become sober without any marijuana addiction.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy – A form of psychotherapy, it examines connections between behaviors, feelings, and thoughts and their role in marijuana abuse. In this therapy, therapist aids the patient to better one’s coping skills through strategies like self-talk.

Contingency management

Contingency management focuses on recovery by using rewards as an incentive for abstaining from marijuana.

Social support

Creating a supportive environment that encourages abstinence goes a long way in treating marijuana addiction. This supportive environment includes a strong network of friends and family, who enhances positivity in the life of the addict and reminds of the progress made by him/her in the fight against marijuana.


Professional help is important if one is planning to wean off of marijuana since detox as well as withdrawal segment of recovery process can be very uncomfortable, but can be completed with help of trained medical professionals. Outpatient treatment, traditional inpatient treatment, executive treatment, luxury treatment and partial hospitalization are some of the treatment strategies that one can use to get withdrawal symptoms treated.

Tips to handle marijuana craving may help as it would help in having a manageable and less painful outcome. If one experiences a craving, he or she must walk away from the trigger, and find a place where he/she feels comfortable and safe. Using breathing and relaxing techniques to overcome anxiety and frustration is also helpful.

Staying active by participating in sports or starting an exercise regimen for one’s well-being as well as staying busy with physical activities can help in keeping the mind under control and focusing on different activities would go a long way in coping with the withdrawal symptoms.

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Dr. Freeman completed her Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in 2008 from UT Health San Antonio. She was a fellow at the University of Michigan and performed a surgery residency at Lahey Hospital in Burlington Massachussets. Dr. Freeman is currently a surgeon at TRACC in the Dallas Fort Worth area.