What happens to some smokers when they cut out the cannabis.
People who say they are addicted to marijuana tend to exhibit a characteristic withdrawal profile. But is cannabis withdrawal, if it actually exists, significant enough to merit clinical attention? Does it lead to relapse, or continued use despite adverse circumstances? Should it be added to the list of addictive disorders in the rewrite of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) currently in progress?
Marijuana fits in fairly well with the existing criteria for clinical addiction—except for one common diagnostic marker. Among the identifying criteria currently used in the DSM, we find: “The presence of characteristic withdrawal symptoms or use of substance to alleviate withdrawal.” Opponents of marijuana’s inclusion as an addictive drug have long insisted that cannabis has no characteristic withdrawal symptoms, but this position has been severely eroded of late, as new research has consistently identified a withdrawal syndrome for marijuana, which includes drug cravings, despite decades of controversy over this basic medical question.
A group of researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia, along with Dr. Alan J. Budney of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, New Hampshire, writing in PLOS ONE, presented evidence that the characteristic withdrawal symptoms displayed by addiction pot smokers are in fact strong enough to be considered clinically significant.
(For more on the marijuana withdrawal profile, see HERE , and HERE . For a bibliography of relevant journal articles, go HERE ).
But how does one go about determining if withdrawal reactions rise to the level of clinical significance? The researchers wanted to know whether functional impairment reported during abstinence was clinically significant, whether it correlated with severity of addiction, and whether it was predictive of relapse. 46 survey volunteers who were not seeking any formal treatment for marijuana addiction were recruited in Sydney, Australia. Users ranged in age from 18 to 57, with an average age of 30. After a one-week baseline phase, the participants underwent two weeks of monitored abstinence. Using a “Severity of Dependence Scale” (SDS) to measure variability in functional impairment, the researchers compared a high SDS subgroup to a low SDS subgroup in an effort to tease out whether functional impairments in high SDS participants were predictive of relapse. The researchers noted that earlier work had established that the symptoms most likely to cause impairment to normal daily functioning were: Trouble getting to sleep, angry outbursts, cravings, loss of appetite, feeling easily irritated, and nightmares or strange dreams.” The investigators broke these symptoms into two groups: “somatic” and “negative affect” variables.
The researchers then examined self-reports about the impact of cannabis withdrawal on normal daily activities. While the common yardstick for withdrawal is typically taken to be intensity of cravings, the authors argue that this reliance on craving “may mask the extent to which symptoms led to functional impairment, as those who maintained abstinence may still have experienced clinically significant negative consequences from cannabis withdrawal (e.g. relationship or work problems resulting from the withdrawal syndrome.”)
As might have been expected, higher levels of cannabis dependence were associated with greater functional impairment. And while the average level of functional impairment caused by cannabis is “mild for most users, it appears comparable with tobacco withdrawal which is of well established clinical significance.” And certain symptoms were, in fact, correlative: “Increased somatic withdrawal symptoms are predictive of relapse, and…. increased physical tension is a significant predictor of relapse.”
Physical distress, a “somatic” variable, mattered more, in terms of relapse, than the amount of marijuana smoked, or any other symptom on the roster of functional impairments—including mood and other negative affect variables.
“In conclusion,” the investigators write, “cannabis withdrawal is clinically significant because it is associated with elevated functional impairment to normal daily activities, and the more severe the withdrawal is, the more severe the functional impairment is. Elevated functional impairment from a cluster of cannabis withdrawal symptoms is associated with relapse in more severely dependent users.”
Furthermore: “Targeting the withdrawal symptoms that contribute most to functional impairment during a quit attempt might be a useful treatment approach (e.g. stress management techniques to relieve physical tension and possible pharmacological interventions for alleviating the physical aspects of withdrawal such as loss of appetite and sleep dysregulation.)”
As with most studies, there are limitations. As noted, the participants were not in a formal cessation program. And while urine tests were used, there was no external corroboration of the self reports.
Allsop, D., Copeland, J., Norberg, M., Fu, S., Molnar, A., Lewis, J., & Budney, A. (2012). Quantifying the Clinical Significance of Cannabis Withdrawal PLoS ONE, 7 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044864