Quitting Marijuana: If at First You Don’t Succeed – You’re Not Alone
The public view of marijuana is changing rapidly. It seems like every day there are news stories about states moving toward legalization, newfound uses for medical marijuana, how health risks of marijuana may be less than for other drugs and debates regarding whether marijuana is actually addictive.
With all this saturation of media coverage and the shifting perspectives on marijuana, there’s an important group we have a tendency to forget: people who use marijuana and are trying to quit.
Current marijuana users give a number of reasons for wanting to quit or cut back their use. They may be concerned about the effects of marijuana on their physical health and social relationships. Some report they are trying to quit because important people in their lives want them to. And many say that they want to quit or cut back because they want to feel more motivated and have more energy.
These personal reasons for wanting to quit are validated by what we know about the negative consequences of marijuana use. Marijuana use has been linked with memory and thinking problems, as well as emotional and psychological problems. People who use marijuana report loss of interest in things they once enjoyed and problems in their social relationships. There are also physical health problems related to marijuana use, like breathing problems and, for pregnant women, risks to the baby. Plus there’s the significant risk of addiction.
So there are a lot of good reasons why someone might choose to cut back or quit using marijuana, but contrary to the prevailing misperception that marijuana is not addictive, it turns out that quitting is hard to do.
Research has found that many people have to make multiple attempts to quit before they’re able to stop using marijuana for good, and often their attempts only last for a few days at a time. In one study, even during the period when participants had stated that they were trying to quit, most of them continued to use marijuana. Researchers often compare the difficulties of quitting marijuana to those of quitting smoking cigarettes and, in one study, participants even said that quitting marijuana was just as hard or harder than quitting cigarettes or alcohol.
There’s good news though: even short-lived periods of reduced marijuana use have benefits. For one thing, people who have cut back or stopped using marijuana previously are more likely to try again to quit, and they’re more motivated and confident about quitting successfully. One study found that the more days of successfully reducing or abstaining from marijuana use — even if only for a few days at a time — the greater the improvement in symptoms of marijuana addiction.
Making Quitting Easier
Many people who are trying to quit using marijuana don’t seek treatment, but there are effective treatments out there. Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Motivational Enhancement Therapy — two types of psychological therapy with proven effectiveness for a range of addictive and other mental health disorders — are more effective than no treatment in helping people reduce their marijuana use and symptoms of addiction.
While many people do not seek treatment, research has identified different strategies that have helped people reduce their marijuana use. Research has found that when participants made a commitment to themselves not to use marijuana on individual days, they were usually successful — and even these single days of abstinence are significant due to the benefits. People identify a number of factors that helped them in their attempts to cut down, including:
- Staying busy
- Being more physically active
- Making other positive lifestyle changes (like eating habits and exercise)
- Getting social support
- Avoiding triggers for marijuana use, such as friends who use or locations of past use
- Developing (or rediscovering) interests in things that are not related to using marijuana
The most common barrier to quitting that participants across all the studies report is spending time with other people who are using marijuana.
With all the changes currently underway in the availability and regulation of marijuana use, beliefs in the relative harmlessness of the drug are likely to overshadow acknowledgement of its known risks, including addiction. Glossing over marijuana’s addictive potential or the difficulties of quitting only serve to make it more complicated and stigmatizing for those who choose to cut back or quit. Arming people with the information and tools they need to avoid or at least moderate their marijuana use should be a key public health goal and a central component of ongoing national discussions around marijuana.
Alexis Nager, MS
Alexis is a Research Associate at Center on Addiction