No simple answer here I’m afraid. Most of us would agree that very little in life is totally safe especially when taken to excess, and cannabis is something that is all too easily taken to excess.
There is a huge amount of evidence from doctors and research scientists offering proof that cannabis is indeed harmful to our cognative functions negatively affecting a range of abilities including memory, attention span, and concentration.
It’s also pretty obvious that smoking cannabis is not the healthiest way to get stoned. People who should know about these things will tell you that the carcinogenic (that’s cancer causing) properties of cannabis are equal to or outnumber those of tobacco.
Psychologists will queue round the block just to let you know how dangerous cannabis is to your mental health whether from paranoia, anxiety, depression, cannabis psychosis, or full-blown schizophrenia.
So there you have it cannabis is harmful. It’ll mess with your brain cells, screw up your lungs, and play games with your mind, but still every day millions smoke the stuff and you know what? At any given time a significant percentage of dope smokers are wishing that they knew how to stop.
Quite often it’s got less to do with mental health, cancer, or memory loss but the whole package – the way dope will eat up our time, our days, our years, our lives. Our craving to be stoned becomes all consuming, shrinking our world, robbing us of our will and our freedom to live happily in that reality simply called life.
I want to stop but I find it hard
We start smoking dope for different reasons and likewise the reasons for wanting to stop can be quite varied but usually on some level we understand that our intake has got out of control and is doing us more harm than good.
Ironically the time when we feel most willing and able to stop is when we are stoned and out of our heads but so often the next day we are back to reality again craving a smoke just to feel …. normal, to get through the day.
Neither scientists, doctors or drug experts can seem to agree as to whether cannabis is a physically addictive substance although a 2003 United Nations report examining whether cannabis is a harmless drug noted that ‘cannabis meets all the official diagnostic criteria for drug dependence. Criteria include tolerance, withdrawal symptoms and difficulty in controlling use… Once tolerance is established stopping the drug causes a range of withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, tremor, irritability and aggressiveness…’
Some people stopping using cannabis will experience some, or all of the above symptoms but every individual is different.
Many drug experts lean toward the dope is just psychologically addictive theory, but what does that mean? My personal experience was that quite honestly I was scared to stop.
I wasn’t smoking to get high anymore, I was smoking just to keep a straight head to feel normal; Of course I was fearful of stopping! Smoking dope to me was as much a natural part of my life as eating and sleeping. I told myself that if I stopped smoking dope everything else would fall apart.
So whether psychologically addictive, or physically addictive most people’s minds and bodies go through an uncomfortable adjustment period when they stop using dope.
A friend of mine Joan put it well when she said that she used dope to help her as an effective pain reliever for her period pains and to help her get a good nights sleep, on the other hand she increasingly suffered from side effects such as paranoia & anxiety attacks and was really concerned about the effect smoking dope was having on her lungs. When it came down to it smoking dope was the easy solution for Joan’s problems but the side effects increasingly came to dominate the rest of her life. It took guts for her to look elsewhere for safer, drug free alternative solutions to her problems but she found them.
Joan like so many dope smokers was torn between a desire to stop and the reality of actually stopping, every individual in this situation has to think very carefully about what is truly important to them in their lives what their priorities are, when the motivation for stopping finally outweighs the fear of doing so, you are ready to finally stop using dope and move on.
Cannabis and psychosis
Dr. Zerrin Atakan, FRCPsych
National Psychosis Unit, UK
What chemicals are there in an average cannabis plant?
Cannabis is a complex plant containing over 400 chemical elements and 60 compounds. Two of the major compounds are tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is the psychoactive ingredient, which produces the “stoned’ effect. There has been growing evidence that it can also precipitate psychosis in vulnerable individuals, as well as trigger a relapse of symptoms among patients who already have a psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
THC or CBD?
The amount of ingredients vary greatly according to the plant. For instance some hydroponically grown cannabis (i.e. skunk) is known to have very high levels of THC, but very low levels of CBD. CBD is devoid of the typical psychological effects associated with THC, but it has a strong anti-anxiety effect. In other words, CBD can relax people and make them feel calm. It is also thought to have an anti-psychotic effect in psychotic patients. THC, on the other hand, can bring on psychotic symptoms such as paranoia, delusions and hearing or seeing things. It can also worsen existing symptoms. One of the reasons why people or patients with psychosis carry on using cannabis may be to achieve relief of tension via the anti-anxiety effect of CBD. However, THC component of cannabis will increase the risk of exacerbation of psychotic symptoms. When someone is smoking cannabis, they would not know how much of it is THC or CBD, but it is more than likely that they would be smoking high THC, low CBD cannabis. The strength of cannabis is defined according to its THC content and this is thought to have increased threefold since 1960’s.
When we smoke cannabis where does it go in our body?
We have a cannabinoid receptor system in our brain, spinal cord, heart, spleen and some other organs. This system has interconnections with other systems, especially in the brain and is thought to have a significant role in our survival. When cannabis is smoked, THC binds to the cannabinoid receptors, instead of our natural body chemical which allows the system to function normally and this leads to some other receptors systems to release their chemicals such as dopamine. Dopamine is known to have a role in the genesis of psychotic symptoms or experiences. So, smoking cannabis temporarily prevents this system to carry out its normal function, as well as effecting other systems.
Can we be dependent on cannabis?
Previously, it was thought that cannabis use did not cause dependence, tolerance or withdrawal symptoms, but more recent scientific evidence disproves these views.
Is there a link between regular cannabis use and developing a mental illness?
The use of cannabis has been increasing steeply in many countries, and the age of initial use has been decreasing. With relaxation of the law and wide availability of the drug in many countries, cannabis use is becoming more common than cigarette smoking, especially with the growing disapproval of tobacco use among young people. The association between cannabis use in young people and subsequent risk of developing a psychotic illness has significant implications. There is growing research evidence that early and regular cannabis smoking can lead to the development of a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder in those who are genetically vulnerable. Furthermore, there is also an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety disorder.
Cannabis and tobacco
Tobacco is acknowledged as the most widely used recreational drug on the planet. It’s also particularly dangerous and addictive. That much we know.
Hard as it may be for alcoholics and hard drug users, to give up smoking cigarettes when they clean up, cannabis users who smoke their dope with tobacco, face a unique problem when it comes to quitting cannabis. The combination of nicotine and cannabis creates a powerful cocktail, potentially more addictive than either one alone, and stopping smoking both together can cause such a confusion of cravings that it can seem impossible to move forward into recovery.
Many dope smokers in the UK smoke both tobacco joints and cigarettes. Some people in this position want to kick both at the same time, others recognise that stopping one or the other first will be all they can manage initially.
Many people who rarely, if ever smoke a cigarette routinely smoke five, ten, fifteen, or even twenty tobacco joints a day.Understandably its hard for non-cigarette smokers to admit that they are addicted to tobacco.
Only you will be able to tell whether you are ready to quit tobacco and cannabis separately or together.
Its not always the case but to keep it simple: if you are able to recognize the craving for tobacco as physical and the craving for cannabis as mental then that is a good start. For me when I stopped smoking cigarettes the craving for nicotine was always with me those first few weeks of stopping. I held it somewhere around the pit of my stomach.
When I quit cannabis, after a short while I was able to pinpoint that the desire to get stoned was at its strongest when I was trying to block an emotional situation or feeling.
At some level, most of us want to become just as healthy as possible. That is what Clearhead is all about and ultimately that means freeing yourself from tobacco and not needing cannabis any more. Whether this takes weeks, months or even years. Keep focused on your intention and you will be able to make this happen, trust yourself and you will do it sooner rather than later. The feeling of freedom gained is one of life’s great natural highs.
If I drank as much alcohol as I smoked cannabis, I’d be Keith Richards.
There is a deep resentment at the heart of cannabis culture of the fact that alcohol is the world’s acceptable drug. Most cannabis smokers believe that alcohol is the more dangerous of the two, both for the individual and for society and unarguably the medical and social statistics bear this out. Interestingly deep within alcohol culture there is a counter-sense of not trusting those that don’t drink. Confirmed boozers of the past from Winston Churchill to WC Fields sincerely believed that abstinence was a sign of shallowness and weakness of character. And ties of friendship and loyalty are still bound tight by the use of alcohol for social bonding.
These days, for more and more people, the two drug cultures overlap and are interlocked to such an extent that individually and collectively they are capable of causing both extreme pleasure, but unfortunately also genuine suffering. At Marijuana Anonymous meetings, I met quite a few hard drinkers who when they first discovered weed thought they had found the perfect solution to avoid the dangerous situations that they would get themselves in to when drunk. However because they couldn’t drink with moderation they also found they couldn’t smoke with self-control. Over-use led to experiencing all the negative aspects of smoking too much cannabis. Instead of the social drinker they used to be, they had become isolated; they exchanged recklessness with paranoia. Potential liver disease with respiratory problems. I think it’s helpful at this point to examine what devotees of both stimulants might see as the advantages of their particular drug of choice.
From an early age, adolescent drinkers quickly discover that alcohol makes socializing a lot easier. Many young adults lack self-confidence and drinking has always been experienced as an easy way to let go of social and sexual inhibitions. Traditionally, alcohol has also always been used as a relaxant to relieve us from life’s stresses and strains, and as an anesthetic when our emotional lives become too intense.
Cannabis is generally used as a stress reliever first and a social drug secondarily. The emotional numb-out we get from smoking dope has a more long-term subtle consequence than drinking to forget. The hard-core smoker just tends to forget to forget. Cannabis is also enjoyed because it heightens sensory perception, and a few smokers are in the lucky position where they have the time and resources to use the drug creatively or as a spiritual sacrament. More and more cannabis is used as a natural remedy for any number of medical symptoms some with great legitimacy, others less so. Cannabis users as a whole tend to be just as happy smoking alone or in a quiet group rather than in any raucous party atmosphere. It’s no accident that the larger cannabis café’s in Amsterdam are kept securely separate from the loud bars and pubs that share the same premises.
So far so good, but it all comes down to dependence which is the process where your need for a substance (whatever that might be) or even behaviour, begins to take control over more and more of your life, to the point where you come to depend on it to get through the days and the nights. It’s fair to say that both problems and dependence can vary between mild moderate and severe and there are some important variables as to how we can compare alcohol dependence with cannabis dependence.
For example binge drinking has become an increasingly common phenomenon. This might mean drinking to excess on occasion, but not every day. In the UK, there are Government Recommended Guidelines as to how many units of alcohol per week it is safe to consume. Some definitions of binge drinking classify a binge when half the week’s units are consumed in one session. A hard-core pot smoker on the other hand might smoke all day every day, from morning till night as I did, others may smoke during all their free time which could mean every evening and all day on weekends. I think all these behaviours from a healthy living point of view could be called excessive but its also possible that this sort of habitual overuse of either alchohol or cannabis can be kept up for years and the negative health effects only slowly begin to manifest.
Some people really love the effect of using alcohol and cannabis together which frankly is a pretty dangerous combination, I think usually it’s the drinker who is always looking for that extra hit rather than the other way round. In the same way as some drinkers like to use cocaine, so they carry on drinking longer.
I used to think that alcohol was a more extreme drug than cannabis both in terms of its physical and behavioural effects, but today’s skunk has made me re-think that conclusion and there are no government guidelines recommended or otherwise as to how many weekly THC skunk units are safe for consumption.
To sum up there are millions of people for whom either alcohol or cannabis, or both are an important part of life. Neither are particularly safe drugs both in fact are generally pretty unhealthy but I don’t see how prohibition or finger pointing changes anything. The issue will always be one of education. The sad truth is that school-age children are getting stoned and drunk younger and younger, and more and more often. For young adults up to the age of 21 or 22 the brain is still in the process of developing. It is a proven fact that overuse of alcohol or cannabis during this period can both severely restrict brain development and increase the risk of both mental health and addiction problems later in life. These are social problems that can only be dealt with if society finds healthier ways to teach really young children to be confident, to relax naturally and to be at ease in their emotional lives these skills need to be taught as a priority and not just an after thought.
Just as smoking a joint will affect individuals in different ways, so does the act of quitting and cleaning up.
There are some people who as soon as they decide to kick, get right to it and the only physical or psychological reactions they experience is an increase of excess energy. The technical name for this group of people is lucky sods, but for the rest of us, here are brief descriptions of the the most common symptoms.
By far the most common physical withdrawal symptom is insomia. Although it doesn’t affect everybody by any means, the fear of sleep disruption can be a stumbling block for those otherwise willing and ready to quit Cannabis.
Allied to insomia another withdrawal symptom is dreaming. If you’ve been a heavy cannabis user, it’s likely that you won’t have been remembering your dreams. As you stop anethetising yourself for sleep so your dream-life comes back.
Other common physical symptoms are sweating particularly at night and headaches. Both of these are signs of the body beginning to release toxic by-products associated with a heavy cannabis intake.
Some people find that their normal eating behaviour goes out of the window. Loss of appitite is common but so is ravenous hunger. If you really do feel sick and can’t eat, do what you can, take a multi-vitamin to ensure that at least your body is getting the basics nutrients it needs.
Feelings and emotions
As discussed in the Emotional Rescue section, dealing with new feelings and emotions as they come up can take some getting used to, but that is exactly what you are doing, getting used to having feelings again and dealing with them appropriately without resorting to numbing out by smoking a joint. With self awareness and practice you will soon begin to recognise uncomfortable feelings as a natural part of your new dope-free life. The trick is to remember to acknowledge them. The act of acknowledgement has an immediate calming effect.
Life’s frustrations, sadnesses, fears and joys will continue to come at you from all sides just as they ever did, but by not hiding behind a cloud of smoke you are finally giving yourself a chance to deal with them releasing your true potential.
Replacement activities – Clearhead’s A-Z
How much time do most dope smokers devote to their hobby? What do you do you spend your time doing when you’re stoned? Some dope smokers are amongst the the most productive people I have ever met in my life. And for them, when they quit they learn that they can be just as dynamic when they’re not stoned.
Others tend to take things easy when they’re smoking. They like to slow down and kick back a bit, enjoying the passive, contemplatitive aspect of cannabis. Like I say in other areas of the website, this is ok but what about when this is all you do in your free time? I ended up smoking like this because at some point I had told myself that life was boring without dope.
When I stopped smoking I gained physical, and emotional energy that was difficult to come to terms with. Every time I attempted to quit I found being at home and not being stoned extremely challenging. Sitting around doing very little except thinking how easy it would be to call my dealer was never going to be an effective stop smoking cannabis strategy for me.
So before the last, and final time, I quit I did something that was uncharacteristic for me. I started to plan how I was going to manage my time.
I chose four different things that I knew would support me in not smoking. I started preparing more meals, I brought a bycicle and started using it, I stepped up my yoga and medtitation and I started attending a twelve step programme.
There are so many different things you can do with your time and energy when you stop smoking dope, activities that you don’t have to do forever but which are effective ways of engaging your mind and body as you adjust to not being dependent on cannabis. So for a bit of fun we have devised an A-Z of replacement activities.
Join a drama group and start Acting or get some Acupuncture, help Amnesty. Study Beauty therapy, brush up your Baking, buy a Bike, join a Book club. Express yourself through Creative writing, learn how to Co- Counsel. Start Decorating your home, join a Dance class, learn to Drive, accept Doubt. Clean up you local Environment, become Emotionally literate. Expect more from life. Prepare your Food with love, get down to the city Farm, study Film, stop Fantasizing. If it’s summer take up Gardening, if it’s winter join a Gym, adopt a Greyhound. Study Herbalism, accept you’re Human, get out the House, learn Humility. Play a musical Instrument, study Interior design, do the Ironing, stay In touch. Join a Jazz club, start a Jewellery course, do a Juice detox, look for a new Job. Take up Knitting if you’re a man or Kick boxing if you’re a woman. Join aLaughter club, study Life Drawing, become a weekend Line dancer. Study Massage therapy, take up a Martial art, get back in to Meditation. Get to know your Neighbour, study Natural History, stop being Numb. Start painting with Oils, help out in the local Oxfam shop, become Optimistic. Teach yourself Photography, get Political, become a Potter (not pothead). Stop Questioning life, start living it – Start Questioning life become curious. Take Riding lessons, start a Religion, help others learn to Read, learn to Relax. Get down to the Swimming pool, or start Singing classes, learn to Sail. Stay Sober. Learn about your addictive behaviour join a Twelve step programme, Touch Type. Join an Underwater diving club, discover that the Ultimate high can’t be injested. Help others by Volunteering, understand the power of your Voice. Learn how to work with Wood, build Websites or paint with Watercolours. Scare yourself silly take up an Xtreme sport. Join a Yoga classs, learn the secret of of being forever Young. Study Zen by watching the animals at the Zoo.
Whatever you do, or don’t do, resist the temptation to smoke. After a while you will think about it less and less, until one day you wont think about it once. That is a promise.
Clearhead was founded in 2005 as a support website for people seeking to address their relationship with cannabis and regain control over their lives