There’s been a lot of pen given these days to the fast and significant benefits of abstaining from alcohol. There’s good reason. Sure, alcohol is a carcinogen and depressant that is the third leading cause of preventable death in the nation. But when even the casual user stops drinking alcohol, the benefits pile on at speed. Within a week, you might find yourself sleeping like a baby with glowing skin; by two weeks, you may be more energetic and less anxious or depressed; a month in, your concentration and memory can vastly improve, and you might notice significant weight loss. The steady march of progress offers a real boost to the alcohol-free. No wonder abstinence is growing in popularity.
But when you quit pot? The end result has similar benefits for concentration and sleep especially. If you’re a fairly heavy user, you’ll likely find that work is easier and the life is actually less stressful. But it will take some time to get there. The journey to abstaining from pot is less linear, and so staying away from pot, with no relapses, might be a bit more difficult than alcohol — especially if you’ve developed a dependency. Before you take the journey, the sober-curious should know what to expect — and set a long-term goal. If you just abstain for a week or two, there’s little doubt you’ll be back to hitting the bowl.
Marijuana Dependency Vs. Addiction Vs. Recreational Use
First, it’s important to be honest with yourself about your marijuana dependency. According to Dr. Daniele Piomelli, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis at the University of California, Irvine, dependency is super common and doesn’t necessarily indicate problematic usage. It simply means that stopping usage will cause withdrawal, much like stopping many other drugs would, whether illicit or prescribed by a doctor. As Piomelli explains, dependency develops when the body’s cannabinoid receptors, which are present in every organ of the body, have grown accustomed to being activated by THC.
As such, high tolerance is a likely sign of dependence. “Frequent use of THC can quickly result in tolerance, and the use of cannabis products with a higher concentration of THC will speed up that process,” says Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, M.D., chief medical officer at American Addiction Centers. “[This] can lead to a dependence and subsequent addiction to the substance.”
Yes, full-blown cannabis addiction is a risk too, despite the common misconception that it’s impossible to get hooked on weed. Experts estimate that 1 in 10 marijuana users becomes addicted; the rate jumps to 1 in 6 among those who start smoking as teens. Still, most longtime regular pot users would not be considered addicts. Most have, however, likely developed a marijuana dependency.
What Weed Withdrawal Looks Like
If you’ve smoked pot regularly over months or years, you can probably assume that you’ve developed a dependency. As such, if you stop using, you’ll undergo withdrawal. What will the experience be like?
That depends. The intensity and duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary wildly. Some folks may have a slight headache or feel a bit irritable for a few days. Others might be anxious, angry, or barfing their brains out for several weeks.
The severity of symptoms hinges largely on the quantity of THC normally consumed, the potency of the person’s go-to cannabis products, and how long they’ve been a regular user. But those aren’t the only factors, so unfortunately, it’s not as simple as saying X amount of THC at X frequency for X number of years translates to X effects of withdrawal.
“There are patients who report low levels of cannabis use but experience withdrawal symptoms that greatly impair their day-to-day functioning,” Weinstein says. “Others report heavy use but experience very few, if any, symptoms. Because of these inconsistencies, it would be exceptionally difficult to correlate a minimum and maximum dosage and frequency with experiencing withdrawal.”
That’s because physical, psychiatric, metabolic, and genetic components also play a role in the severity of symptoms, Weinstein adds. For example, body size has an impact. So does body fat percentage.
A person’s sex also influences both the acute effects of using cannabis and the withdrawal experience. “Women are three times more efficient than men at metabolizing THC into 11-hydroxy-THC,” Piomelli says. “This compound is super psychoactive — and not necessarily in a good way. It’s the reason why women tend to be more sensitive to cannabis and more commonly have bad experiences with the drug than men do.”
For that same reason, he says that a woman who stops using will likely have stronger symptoms of withdrawal than a man would.
Finally, a person’s environment can factor in too. “Do you have an active social life? A fulfilling job? Do you have a family that keeps you busy?” Piomelli says. “If so, you may not have the same withdrawal effects as someone who lives alone or is not socially connected, since social isolation can be a catalyst — or multiplier — of symptoms.”
Given the myriad factors that can dictate the withdrawal experience, you can’t know for sure what you’re in for until you try quitting. If you ditch the weed and feel just fine, lucky you. But most frequent tokers will feel something.
None of the common side effects are pleasant; some are straight-up brutal. But you can rest easy knowing that none will kill you. In that sense, Piomelli says, withdrawal from marijuana is much safer than withdrawal from alcohol, benzos, or opiates.
But it also takes longer. “With an amphetamine or opiate, the drug comes into the brain and goes out quickly, so everything related to withdrawal occurs on a much tighter timeframe,” Piomelli says. “But because THC lingers in the body, know that the changes will not happen right away.”
So when will they set in? The emergence of certain symptoms does follow a rough timeline. But even that timeline can vary, for many of the same reasons that govern symptom intensity: body size, body weight, genetics, metabolism, environment, etc. That said, generally speaking, here is what most people can expect upon nixing weed.
What Happens When You Quit Pot, Day By Day
Day 1: Nothing Doing
“On the first day, maybe into Day two, very little is going to happen,” Piomelli says. “You’re unlikely to experience any symptoms because there is still THC in the brain, albeit at lower concentrations.”
The biggest thing you’ll probably notice is the interruption of your ritual, in that it might feel strange to not partake when you typically would.
Days 2-3: Difficulty Sleeping, Vivid Dreams, And Irritability
“Symptom onset is usually 24 to 48 hours after cessation, with most symptoms peaking between two and six days,” Weinstein says. In other words, buckle up.
“The first symptoms that start appearing on Day Two or Three, and certainly going into Four, are changes in sleep patterns,” says Piomelli.
There are multiple reasons for this. For one thing, he says, many people who use cannabis do so at night, to help them sleep. But also, THC impacts the REM cycle. “So as the THC starts clearing away, there may be more REM activity in the brain. Then on Day Two, Three, or Four they start experiencing vivid dreams — not necessarily unpleasant dreams or nightmares, just exceedingly vivid.”
On the more severe end of the spectrum, Weinstein says this early phase of withdrawal is when people may start to experience shakiness, chills, irritability, and a decreased appetite.
Days 4-6: Insomnia And Moods
At this point, the THC will most likely have cleared out of the brain completely, Piomelli says. But that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.
“Toward the end of the first week, on Day Four or Five, sleep disturbances can become substantial,” Piomelli says. “When they have difficulty sleeping, that is where most people start using again, because they know THC will help them sleep.”
Beyond the insomnia — and often exacerbated by it — some people begin experiencing anger, aggression, and depression, says Weinstein, all symptoms that sometimes persist well beyond the first week.
7 Days: The Path Back To Normalcy
At roughly the one-week mark, many people will be through the worst of withdrawals. Symptoms go away or lose intensity, and they might start feeling mostly normal again. Others, however, remain in the thick of it, still struggling to eat, sleep, and keep a cool head.
Also at this point, some folks begin to experience dysphoria, Piomelli notes. The direct opposite of euphoria, this vague sense of unhappiness, unease, and mental fogginess is another big reason why people give in and start using again.
Additionally, while most withdrawal symptoms are psychological, prolonged physiological effects such as sweating and shivering are more common among people who are very dependent on THC, says Piomelli. Nausea can occur too. Any of these symptoms can continue for several weeks.
Weeks 2-3: Moods Level Out, But Dysphoria May Remain
Weinstein says anger, aggression, and depression typically peak after approximately two weeks of abstinence, although heavy cannabis users can experience such symptoms for more than three weeks.
For most people, though, sleep disturbances continue into Weeks Two and Three, as can brain fog, malaise, and other dysphoric symptoms. And some folks who hadn’t encountered those effects yet will start experiencing them now.
Aside from the biological changes occurring, former heavy users are also starting to see what life is like sans marijuana. Some feel bored, lonely or adrift without their go-to, and it’ll take some time for them to adjust.
One Month And Beyond: Attention, Memory, And Inhibitions Trend Positive, “Reversal Of The Damage Done”
Around this time, even those who’ve endured a horrendous withdrawal period should be over the hump and feeling much better. And as time progresses, important changes will keep happening within the brain.
“From a neurobiological standpoint, some of the changes in cognitive and reward-related circuitry begin to reverse,” Weinstein says. “Long-term exposure to THC decreases cannabinoid receptor availability in areas of the brain involved in behavioral and emotional responses. Once cannabis use is eliminated, receptor levels return to near baseline levels.”
As a result, psychomotor function, attention, inhibition, and short-term memory, all of which regular pot usage can hinder, may start trending in a positive direction.
“There is some evidence that cognitive impairment can improve after sustained cessation, particularly in the areas of the brain associated with learning and memory impairment,” Weinstein says. “As is the case with other commonly used substances, such as alcohol and opioids, cessation of cannabis often results in the reversal of some of the damage done.”