How to Quit Weed Cold Turkey

Weed—also known as marijuana or cannabis—is the most commonly used recreational drug in the United States.

Approximately 18 percent of all Americans used it “at least once” in 2019, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found. Out of those that smoke weed, the CDC estimates that 10 percent are likely to become dependent on it.

The drug has been legalized for recreational use in 21 states, and debates continue into whether this should be more widespread. Eighty-eight percent of U.S. adults believe weed should be legalized nationwide, a 2022 study from the Pew Research Center shows.

When it comes to views on weed legalization, there are significant differences among the various age groups. Overall, younger people are more likely to be in favor of legalization, while older adults are more likely to be against it.

Of those aged 18 to 29, 72 percent believed weed should be made legal for medical and recreational use. Only 30 percent of those aged over 75 agreed.

cannabis marijuana quit weed
File photos showing a cannabis plant, someone smoking cannabis and dried cannabis. Quitting weed cold turkey can lead to withdrawal symptoms
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But many scientists disagree due to the severe, long lasting effects weed can have on the body. A 2013 study, Marijuana Legalization: Impact on Physicians and Public Health, pointed to “substantial evidence” that weed can have severe effects on the respiratory system, causing symptoms such as an ongoing cough, and other lung issues. It also argues there isn’t enough concrete evidence to support its therapeutic benefits.

Ian Hamilton, an honorary fellow in addiction at the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, in the U.K., told Newsweek: “While it doesn’t have the same dependency potential as drugs like cocaine, an estimated one in 10 users will develop a psychological / physical dependence on the drug. Like many psychoactive drugs it is not just the drug that creates dependency but the context in which it is used. For example some people will use it to self-medicate rather than for purely recreational reasons.

“Cannabis, like alcohol, works quickly to help in the short term with unwanted feelings and thoughts.”

Quitting the addiction cold turkey can be an effective, if difficult, way to curb the habit.

Clinician Charles White, an addiction expert at the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy, told Newsweek: “Like with weight loss, there doesn’t seem to be one best way to kick the cannabis habit. Some people prefer to go cold turkey and get the symptoms out of the way sooner while others want to cut down over time before stopping.”

How to Quit Smoking Weed

“Unfortunately, unlike drugs like heroin there is no medical substitute for cannabis that can be prescribed to help with withdrawal symptoms,” Hamilton said. “However there is sufficient research to suggest that talking therapies are helpful in aiding people to reduce or abstain from cannabis.”

These therapies can include cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT) that aim to change the thought patterns that lead to addictive habits.

Other types of therapies include motivational enhancement therapy (MET). This talking therapy works by evoking motivational statements linked to addiction. It aims to enhance a person’s motivation in giving up the drug.

These talking therapies “show promise” in effectively giving up the habit, a 2007 study, Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment, showed. Those who took both therapies at the same time were more likely to stay away from the drug for a longer period of time, the study said.

What Happens When You Quit Smoking Weed?

Quitting weed cold turkey will result in withdrawal symptoms that can be hard to overcome.

Barry Setlow, a professor and co-chief of the Research Department of Psychiatry at the University of Florida, told Newsweek: “If they quit cold turkey, their bodies and brains will be left with a lower-than-normal number of CB1 receptors.”

CB1 receptors, or the “cannabinoid” receptors, control the activity of other neurotransmitters in the brain. They work to regulate mood, appetite and pain.

“Since CB1 receptors are important for regulating mood, sleep, memory, and all kinds of other functions, having a lower-than-normal number of those receptors wreaks havoc on those functions—basically, causing many of the withdrawal symptoms associated with cessation of chronic marijuana use.”

Withdrawal symptoms can include vomiting and stomach pain within the first three days of quitting. Those quitting cold turkey might also experience excessive sweating and restlessness.

Symptoms will begin to peak at around 10 days after quitting. Psychological side effects such as depression may begin to worsen. They should begin to subside within 10 to 20 days of going cold turkey.

Tips to Quit Weed

Thinking about the effects weed is having on your day to day life can motivate you to stick to your goal. “Try to visualize how your life would be better free of the habit and the compulsion to use cannabis, the financial savings, the ability to better focus on your life,” White said.

Cannabis can cause a multitude of adverse effects. For example, studies have shown that overusing weed can lead to permanent IQ loss. This is because the drug targets areas of the brain involved in executive function and recall.

“Cannabis dependence can create significant problems for young people particularly. It is often the first illicit drug that young people will encounter and when they are in their formative years,” Hamilton said. “This can result in underperformance in education at a time which is critical for young people, the good news is that any negative cognitive effects are reversed when the user quits using cannabis. Unfortunately this can still mean that some young people will not fulfill their full potential or at least it sets them back in comparison to their peers.”

Weed and Anxiety

Many regular weed users use the drug to cope with feelings of anxiety or other mental health issues.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient extracted from the marijuana plant, has been found to decrease anxiety in small doses, research from the University of Washington found. But it also tends to increase anxiety if taken at higher doses.

The relief THC may create however, is only short lived. This can cause addictions to develop, as users may start depending on the drug for relief.

“Many times, people use cannabis as a treatment for anxiety and that underlying disorder still exists when they try to stop,” White said. “This makes it especially hard to quit because you have the withdrawal and the underlying issue to deal with. Getting counseling to treat the underlying anxiety and if needed, using an anti anxiety drug like buspirone can help.”

For people trying to quit weed, it can also be important to tell others about your intentions, so that you can commit in a more purposeful way.

“Have loved ones there to help get you through the worst cravings. If you need some drug therapy to get through the worst of the symptoms, it is ok to ask your clinician,” White said.

Asking for help can be one of the “most difficult but critical things to do” when attempting to quit, Hamilton said.

“We know that people who seek help from specialist treatment are more likely to be successful. But the problem is that many people won’t contact specialist treatment as they don’t think these services are for people with cannabis dependence thinking they are for people addicted to hard drugs such as heroin,” Hamilton said.

Don’t Give Up

Experts said those quitting should not see relapse as a failure. “It can be very hard to quit and many people will need to try a few times before they get it right. So, if you failed before, keep trying,” White said.

Quitting cold turkey can be a particularly difficult way to curb the habit, meaning relapses are common.

“I think it is important to know that it can take several attempts at quitting before you achieve abstinence,” Hamilton said. “This is an important thing to know as some people when they relapse can think they are unable to stop or that it is impossible. Rather than viewing relapse as a failure it should be viewed as a way of gathering intelligence which can help you improve your next attempt to quit or reduce your cannabis use.”