Trying to Give up Smoking Weed? Start Here
Many assume cannabis is pretty much harmless. Maybe you occasionally get some weird side effects, like paranoia or cotton mouth, but for the most part it calms you down and improves your mood.
Nothing wrong with that, right?
While past research does suggest that cannabis may be both less addictive and less harmful than other substances, addiction and dependency can still happen.
Some people also experience unwanted effects, from physical symptoms to hallucinations to strained relationships.
If you’re looking to cut out cannabis — for whatever reason — we’ve got you covered.
Deciding you want to change your patterns of cannabis use is a good first step. Increasing self-awareness around the reasons why you want to stop smoking can help increase your chances of success.
“Our ‘why’ is an important piece because it provides information that anchors us,” says Kim Egel, a therapist in Cardiff, California. “Clarity on why we want to change can validate our decision to break habits and motivate us to seek out new coping methods.”
In short, your reasons for quitting can help strengthen your resolve to stop smoking and outline goals for success.
Maybe you started using it to relax or manage anxiety. Perhaps it helps you deal with chronic pain or sleeplessness. But over time, the downsides may have started to outnumber the benefits.
People often consider cutting back when they notice cannabis affects their quality of life, often by:
- becoming a go-to method for managing emotional distress
- causing relationship problems
- affecting mood, memory, or concentration
- reducing interest in hobbies
- becoming something to do instead of a solution to a specific symptom
- decreasing energy for self-care
There’s no perfect way to quit smoking cannabis. What works for someone else may not help you much, so it’s often necessary to go through some trial and error before you land on the best approach.
Considering pros and cons of different methods can help.
Maybe you want to do it quick, like ripping off a bandage. In that case, you might decide to try packing up your cannabis and going “cold turkey.”
If you’re concerned about withdrawal symptoms or think you’ll need some support to quit, you might decide to talk to a substance use counselor or call an addiction helpline for a few pointers.
If cannabis helps you manage physical or mental health symptoms, you’ll want to try smoking less without quitting entirely or cut back gradually. Professional support can help here, too.
Feel like you’re ready to stop using cannabis immediately? Here are some general steps to consider:
Get rid of your gear
Holding onto a stash of weed and smoking paraphernalia can make it tougher to succeed with quitting. By throwing it out or passing it on, you prevent ready access, which can help you avoid slip ups during the withdrawal period.
Make a plan to deal with triggers
Triggers can have a powerful impact. Even after you decide to stop smoking, specific cues you associate with using it may lead to cravings.
These triggers could include:
- trouble sleeping
- work stress
- seeing friends you used to smoke with
- watching the TV shows you used to watch while high
Try coming up with a list of go-to activities you can turn to when these triggers come up, such as:
- taking melatonin or a warm bath to help you sleep
- restarting your favorite comedy TV series to decrease stress
- calling a trusted friend who supports your decision
Vary your routine
If your cannabis use often happened at routine times, changing your behaviors slightly can help you avoid using it.
If you have a habit of smoking first thing in the morning, try:
If you tend to smoke before bed, try:
- enjoying a relaxing beverage, like tea or hot chocolate
Keep in mind that changing up routines can be hard, and it usually doesn’t happen over night.
Try experimenting with a few options, and don’t beat yourself up if you have trouble sticking to your new routine right away.
Pick up a new hobby
If smoking is something you tend to do when you’re bored, some new hobbies may help.
Consider revisiting old favorites, like building models or crafting. If old hobbies don’t interest you any longer, try something new, like rock climbing, paddleboarding, or learning a new language.
What matters most is finding something you truly enjoy, since that makes it more likely you’ll want to keep doing it.
Enlist support from loved ones
Friends and family who know you don’t want to keep smoking can offer support by:
- helping you think of hobbies and distractions
- practicing coping methods, like physical activity or meditation, with you
- encouraging you when withdrawals and cravings get tough
Even knowing that other people support your decision can help you feel more motivated and capable of success.
Get help for withdrawal symptoms if needed
Not everyone experiences cannabis withdrawal symptoms, but for those who do, they can be pretty uncomfortable.
Common symptoms include:
- trouble sleeping
- irritability and other mood changes
- fever, chills, and sweats
- low appetite
Withdrawal symptoms generally begin a day or so after you quit and clear up within about 2 weeks.
A healthcare provider can help you manage severe symptoms, but most people can handle symptoms on their own by:
- drinking less caffeine to improve sleep
- using deep breathing and other relaxation methods to address anxiety
- drinking plenty of water
If you use a lot of cannabis and smoke regularly, quitting abruptly might be difficult. Slowly reducing use over time may help you have more success and can also help decrease the severity of withdrawal symptoms.
Here are some pointers to get you started:
Choose a quit date
Giving yourself a deadline of a few weeks or a month can help you design a realistic plan for quitting.
Just keep in mind that picking a date too far in the future can make it seem far enough away that you lose motivation early on.
Plan how you’ll taper off
Do you want to decrease weed use by a specific amount each week? Use less each day? Use as little as possible until you go through your current supply?
Some dispensaries now offer lower-potency strains or products that contain lower THC content. Switching to a weaker product that produces fewer psychoactive effects may also be helpful to cutting back.
Keep yourself busy
By getting involved with new activities as you cut back, you’ll have an easier time continuing with these established patterns once you’re no longer using cannabis at all.
Staying busy can also help distract you from withdrawal symptoms.
“Therapy can be a great option when you want to develop new habits and ways of coping,” Egel says.
She explains it’s common to turn to substance use to cope with or avoid difficult feelings.
A therapist can help you explore any underlying issues contributing to your cannabis use and offer support as you take the first steps toward confronting dark emotions. They can also help you address any issues in your life or relationships that might be a result of your cannabis use.
Any kind of therapy can have benefit, but the following three approaches might be particularly helpful.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
Most therapists have training in CBT. This treatment approach helps you learn to identify unwanted or distressing thoughts and emotions and develop productive skills to address and manage them.
For example, if you use cannabis when stressed, you’ve probably learned (both consciously and subconsciously) that it helps reduce stress and calm you down.
CBT can teach you to recognize signs of stress, challenge your desire to smoke cannabis, and replace the habit with a more helpful one — like seeking support from a friend or working through the problem that’s upsetting you.
This approach reinforces quitting behaviors. In other words, it rewards you for not smoking.
Someone participating in a contingency management treatment plan might, for example, receive vouchers for restaurant gift cards, movie tickets, or an entry for a prize drawing with each negative test result.
Motivational enhancement therapy (MET)
MET involves examining your reasons for giving up cannabis. Instead of trying to address any underlying issues that factor into your use of weed, your therapist will help you explore and prioritize goals associated with your use, usually by asking open-ended questions.
This treatment can serve as a first step to any therapy approach for substance use. It can be especially helpful if you know you want to quit smoking but aren’t quite sure why.
If you're ready to stop smoking weed, we've got tips and tricks to help you navigate the process, regardless of your reasons.
This Is Why Giving Up on Weed After Years of Smoking Can Feel So Miserable
A renowned neuroscientist explains the unique challenges of quitting marijuana for good.
I was an avid marijuana smoker for nearly ten years of my youth, and today I am a neuroscientist who studies addiction. I loved the taste, the smell, and the fabulous buffering effects of weed separating me from the messy business of interacting with other people and fulfilling my daily obligations—as well as the promise of something new and glittering in the midst of the relatively unappealing present. As an antidote to boredom, the drug made everything more interesting, and time and space delightful instead of threatening.
Not to belabor the point, but from the first time I got high until long after I’d smoked my last bowl, I loved the drug like a best friend. Some people it makes sleepy, others paranoid (due, no doubt, to an unfortunate confluence of neurobiology and genetics), but for me it was nearly perfect. One of my favorite moments was shortly after coming to consciousness in a new day and seeing for an instant the vast bleakness of life before me and then suddenly realizing—just as newlyweds might reach in excitement and hope for a spouse beside them in the bed—that I could get high. The first few hits of the day were reliably comforting as the gray dust of reality was blown away to reveal beauty and meaning in everyday encounters.
If alcohol is a pharmacological sledgehammer and cocaine a laser (and they are), marijuana is a bucket of red paint. This is so for at least two reasons. First is its well-known ability to accentuate environmental stimuli: Music is amazing, food delicious, jokes hilarious, colors rich, and so on. Second, its effects are widespread. It’s a five-gallon bucket and a four-inch brush, painting up the grain on all kinds of neural processing. Unlike cocaine, for instance, which acts in relatively few discrete spots in the brain, THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, acts throughout the brain, and in some regions in every single connection (of which there are trillions).
The broad reach of this drug was a big surprise to researchers when it was realized in the early 1990s. I was in graduate school at the time, and the news was so momentous that—in the way that some people remember where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot or the Twin Towers came down—I remember exactly where I was when the THC receptor was identified all over the brain.
Of course, we didn’t evolve the machinery to produce these complicated receptor proteins or spend the energy to put them all over the brain just in case someone offers us a hit. The wide and dense distribution of cannabinoid receptors has profound implications. In a nutshell, the chemicals—endocannabinoids—that trigger these receptors act as a sort of exclamation point on neural communication, indicating that whatever the message just transmitted across the synapse, it was important.
The purpose of the cannabinoid system is to help to sort our experiences, indicating which are the most meaningful or salient. The system activates naturally to distinguish input that might contribute to our flourishing—for instance, a good source of food, a potential mate, or other meaningful connections, information, or stimuli. Natural cannabinoids and their receptors are all over the brain because such input might be carried in any number of pathways, depending on the exact nature of the stimulus.
For example, let’s say one day you are exploring your surroundings somewhat aimlessly, when you serendipitously begin following a route that eventually leads to something good. The millions of neurons involved in this discovery—including those involved in processing input from your senses, stimulating movement, coding memories, or thoughts connecting this good thing to your plans or communicating it to others—are likely all releasing cannabinoids to turn up the volume on this information, helping to distinguish it from the other parts of your day in which interactions with the environment weren’t all that special.
This should make it easy to understand why the stimuli we encounter when stoned are so intensely rich. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all this neural spotlighting. If everything is highlighted as meaningful, then nothing can really stand out. What use is a watering can, after all, if the fields are flooded? After one comes down, the lack of sorting makes it hard to recall what was so wonderfully urgent about those experiences.
Also unfortunate is that chronic exposure leads to substantial consequences. The brain adapts by downregulating the cannabinoid system so that without copious amounts of pot onboard, everything becomes dull and uninspiring. There’s been a long-standing debate, akin to one about the relationship between cancer and smoking, about whether regular marijuana smoking leads to an amotivational syndrome (“amotivational” means lacking motivation). Does regular use lead to spending long hours on the couch watching cartoons, or does it just so happen that people who like to sit around watching mindless television also enjoy marijuana?
Cigarette companies argued for decades that a predisposition for cancer and the tendency to inhale cigarette smoke just coincidentally occur in the same people. In both cases, common sense and mounting evidence point to the same thing. Downregulation of cannabinoid receptors makes the user more suitable for jobs that don’t require creativity or innovation, exactly the effects that initial exposure seemed to stimulate.
After I got sober, it took me a little over a year to go a single day without wishing for a drink, but it was more than nine years before my craving to get high abated. For the longest time, I couldn’t go to indoor concerts, especially if I was in proximity to pot. Good sinsemilla would induce a sort of mini panic attack. During this nearly decade-long purgatory, I broke up with a pretty good guy (great cook, decent skier) only because he occasionally wanted to get high. Though it was not even around me, I was unable to bear the idea that he’d be somewhere laughing his ass off, while I’d be totally straight, missing the joke.
My first few months without pot were especially miserable. Though I was in a new environment, with new friends and countless novel experiences, I experienced everything as bland beyond belief. However, about three months into my new drug-free life, I was walking along a street in Minneapolis and nearly fell to my knees, struck by the brilliance of the fall foliage. All around me were a million bright oranges, reds, yellows, and greens; I must have felt the way the first viewers of movies in Technicolor did. Where had all this come from? In fact, downregulation had reversed with my abstinence. As my receptors returned, so did my appreciation for everyday beauty.
The takeaway is this: downregulation has consequences. I have a friend and colleague, a smart professor at a good university, and a family man, who used to like to drink a lot but was finding some of the effects embarrassing if not disabling. He switched to smoking pot. He started to notice that if he smoked a little before doing his “daddy duties” he was, as he described it, a more engaged parent. With just a couple of hits, he was able to play more with his children and didn’t find the carpool, meal preparation, or team coaching quite so irritating and tedious.
“Great,” I said. “How’s it with your kids when you’re not high?”
“Increasingly irritating and tedious,” he admitted.
So, if you smoke weed, remember that infrequent and intermittent use is the only way to prevent downregulation and its unfortunate effects: tolerance, dependence, and a loss of interest in the unenhanced world.
From the book NEVER ENOUGH: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction by Judith Grisel. Copyright © 2019 by Judith Grisel. To be published by Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.
A renowned neuroscientist who is in recovery for addiction explains what happens when you suddenly give up on marijuana after years of smoking.