The Ultimate Guide to Helping Those in Need of Addiction Recovery from Cannabis and Other Substances

Introduction

What one might call cannabis, others would refer to as ganja, hemp, marijuana, weed, or one of the 1200 other slang names used for the drug. Regardless of how you choose to acknowledge it, there’s only one word that can be used to describe an uncontrollable urge to use it – addiction.

Cannabis doesn’t have the same reputation as most drugs in the United States. Many view it as a gateway to being “young, wild, and free.” This is even bolstered by Hollywood’s love of “stoner comedies.” The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that as recently as June 2019, 11 states have legalized recreational marijuana use with 33 states having policies in place allowing for medical usage. While public opinion continues to grow in favor of legalization, this increase is mirrored in the number of growing cases of cannabis use in the country. 

According to a 2019 CBS News Poll, the support for legal marijuana use currently sits at 65%, an 14% increase from 2014. This ties into the 2018 Key Substance Use in the United States report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that estimates that 15.9% of the population, nearly 44 million people, admitted to using cannabis in 2017. This number has been steadily increasing each year since 2002. 

With the growing number of Americans trying and using marijuana, it is important to address addiction. It is equally necessary to stress that there is nothing shameful about experiencing it. Addiction affects everyone regardless of gender, age, race, or other socioeconomic factors. While many would prefer to focus on the magnitude of the “harder” drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine, the percentage of those trying and using cannabis is far higher. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that the use of other drugs had plateaued or decreased over the past decade while marijuana use has continued to increase since 2007.

The previously mentioned 2018 report by SAMHSA revealed that “past-month substance use” among people aged 12 or older was at 60% which accounts for over 164 million Americans. Depending on the substance, addiction comes with some glaring effects and behaviors. While cannabis addiction might not present as extreme as other drugs, there are ways to identify it whether within yourself or your loved ones.

Recognizing Cannabis Addiction

It is necessary to emphasize that all cannabis use is not cannabis abuse. The majority of Americans who use marijuana can control their use of this drug and truly use it recreationally.

Common Signs of Marijuana Usage
  • Red or “bloodshot” eyes
  • Anxiety and/or paranoia
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased motivation
  • Decreased coordination and impaired motor function

Dependency and addiction are different. While “dependence” anchors around developing a physical tolerance to a substance, “addiction” refers to the “continued use of the drug causing a change in brain chemistry.” This is important to note when recognizing cannabis addiction and differentiating it from cannabis use.

According to a report on cannabis use disorders, a person must exhibit at least two of the 11 symptoms or behaviors outlined in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to be diagnosed with a “cannabis use disorder.”

The symptoms of cannabis addiction can be categorized into a series of patterns that affect social, behavioral, and physiological factors. If you recognize any of these symptoms, it’s time to get help.

Overcoming Drug Addiction

Once you’re aware of drug addiction, it can be immediately overwhelming. Whether you’ve noticed the symptoms in yourself or a loved one, there are a series of steps one can take to ensure a permanent and successful life away from addiction. What are they?

1

Decide to make a change

It’s impossible to fix a problem if someone questions its existence. A large part of the decision that comes with making a change is the identification that there is a problem. This process doesn’t begin and end with swearing off the drug. Rather, it requires making a series of other steps towards drug-free living.

2

Seek treatment

One of the most important steps to overcoming drug addiction is seeking treatment. Programs range from residential options to outpatient treatment. According to NIDA), successful recovery happens when treatment is at least 90 days long. Tools for finding a suitable treatment center can be found in the section “Finding a Treatment Center Near You.”

3

Learn new habits and identify triggers

To prevent a relapse, it is necessary to learn new habits and identify triggers. Relapse is common with addiction, and changing a few social and behavioral traits can lead to a successful recovery. Managing stress and coping with cravings is the key to developing resistance to refrain from using the drug.

4

Find a strong support system

Overcoming addiction is easier with the help of your loved ones. Whether they are family or friends, having their support can be an effective motivator for getting and staying sober.

5

Build new connections with sober individuals

Cannabis-users easily form friendships and relationships with other users. To promote healthy conditions towards recovery, one might find it necessary to step back from previous friends and form sober social bonds.

Expert Advice on Cannabis Recovery

Nicole Arzt, M.S.

Nicole Arzt is a licensed marriage and family therapist with extensive experience in working in all levels of substance use treatment from acute detox to long-term outpatient care.

Nicole Arzt, M.S.
Substance Use Treatment Therapist
What is the first thing people should know about how treatment impacts their lives?

Treatment isn’t just about changing your relationship with drugs or alcohol. In fact, many people often say that getting is the easy part. It’s staying sober that proves to be challenging. That’s because recovery usually requires deep self-exploration. You need to learn why you began using substances in the first place. You also need to learn how to cope with some of those underlying issues in healthier and more adaptive ways. As a result, treatment impacts how you perceive yourself, your relationships, and the world around you.

There are many different kinds of treatment. Sometimes, it can be a trial-and-error process to discover what works best for you. Remember that just because one method “didn’t work” doesn’t mean nothing will work.

Recovery is a lifelong process. How can people in recovery productively approach this new change in their lives?

I recommend that people stay curious and open to change. You will learn new things, and you may not agree with all of them, but it rarely hurts to try something new. People often feel far more fulfilled and happier once they break free from the grips of drugs and alcohol. This transformation doesn’t happen overnight, but the process can be incredibly profound. It’s crucial to be open to connection, and treatment will reinforce the significance of building both professional and peer support. 

Finally, I recommend that people recognize that recovery is fluid. Your recovery needs may change over time. It’s okay to reassess these needs at different points in your life. What you decide works today may not be effective tomorrow. That’s why it’s important to stay in the moment and focus on what you can control.

Are relapses common? What should people know if they have tried treatment but have relapsed?

Yes, relapses are common. Many people consider them a part of the recovery process. Relapses don’t indicate failure; they merely suggest that you’ve discovered something doesn’t work. In that sense, relapses can be used as learning lessons. They help you learn more about yourself, your triggers, and your recovery as a whole. There’s no doubt that these lessons will be valuable as you continue on your journey. Many people with extensive histories of relapse do find success in their recovery. The key comes down to the willingness to keep going, persistence to find what works, and vulnerability in asking for help.

The Nature, Prevalence, and Consequences of Marijuana Dependence

Just how prevalent are cannabis use and addiction? According to SAMHSA’s Brief Counseling for Marijuana Dependence, it is the most used illicit substance in the country. In a report on marijuana dependence and its treatment, researchers found that “9% of those who try marijuana develop dependence.” With the number of people who try marijuana being exponentially higher than other drugs, this correlates to the increased prevalence of dependency. 

Approximately 4 million people, 1.6% of the population 12 and older, had a marijuana disorder in 2017. With marijuana usage being relatively equal across gender lines, men account for 73% of treatment admissions. Ethnic origin and polydrug use are additional trends indicated in the infographic.

Evaluating the habits of cannabis abusers during treatment is crucial to further understanding their addiction and how it affected them socially, behaviorally, and physiologically.

Abuse of cannabis can lead to many problems. Most marijuana users will admit to feeling bad about their use while others disclose that their dependency has led to legal trouble, losing their job, or medical issues.

It would be fair to say that many cannabis addicts attempt to quit before their problems reach this stage, but many fall back into their habit of using the drug when they begin experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal. Once someone is ready to start treatment and overcome the consequences of marijuana addiction, it is important to know the immediate and drawn-out effects they might experience during treatment and recovery.

What is Marijuana Withdrawal?

One popular misconception about marijuana is that you can’t get addicted to it. Little do people know that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is a chemical that is responsible for the psychoactive effects of cannabis. With regular marijuana use and experience with the effects of THC, it is possible to experience several withdrawal symptoms. 

As the body gets reacclimated to the lack of THC in the system, one might experience immediate symptoms that include anxiety and restlessness. Depending on the amount of time spent using marijuana, withdrawal symptoms can last months or years after quitting.

While the normal period for withdrawal symptoms typically lasts for up to two weeks, it’s still possible for someone going through recovery to experience them for months or years after starting treatment. Described by the American Addiction Centers as PAWS, this is likely to develop in those who have used a significant amount of the drug over an extended period.

With this wide range from mild to extreme symptoms, treatment must be effective for the high success rates during recovery.

Principles of Effective Treatment

There are many treatment options available for those who are ready to get help after addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse outlines the three available treatments for marijuana use as:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy

    Enhancing self-control and stopping drug use though identifying strategies to correct problematic behaviors.

  • Contingency management

    The monitoring of behavior and the introduction or removal of rewards based on favorable or unfavorable outcomes.

  • Motivational enhancement therapy

    Using a form of intervention to bring about internally motivated change.

These three forms of therapy treatment are often used singularly but have been proven more effective when used collectively. In conjunction with the 13 Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment by NIDA, treatment success increases. These principles help lay the foundation for recovery programs that while “treatment needs to be readily available,” “no single treatment is appropriate for everyone.” They have even established the notion that treatment doesn’t need to be voluntary for it to be effective which creates the question: how effective is cannabis treatment?

How Effective is Treatment for Marijuana Dependence?

Let’s pull up the facts. There have been multiple controlled studies conducted by SAMHSA over months and years to determine the efficacy of treatment for cannabis addiction. Here’s what we can learn from them/

The treatment options of motivational enhancement therapy (MET), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and contingency management have experienced success and failure. Most might assume that one therapy form works best, but research has yet to prove that any treatment method is more successful than another. Instead, studies like the Marijuana Treatment Project show that a combination of all three forms works best for treatment participants.

In another study that supports this theory, it was determined that while 5% of participants were able to avoid a relapse by the end of an MET treatment program, 10% stayed clean when MET and CBT practices were combined. The success rate increased to 35% when participants experienced all three forms of therapy treatments.

Treatment works. While it doesn’t work for everyone, it is important to find a great facility when the time is right.

Finding a Treatment Center Near You

The process of finding nearby treatment centers is made easy with the following interactive map, based on SAMHSA’s facility locator:

There are several factors one should consider when comparing treatment centers:
  • 1

    In-patient vs. Outpatient: the patient stays at the facility or travels to the treatment center during the day

  • 2

    Specialties: whether the treatment center has a good track record of dealing with cannabis addiction

  • 3

    Treatments and therapies: the available models and options for treatments and therapies are vast

  • 4

    Amenities: differentiators between basic and luxury standards of living

  • 5

    Location: the distance one might travel to their in-patient or out-patient facility. While local facilities are ideal for out-patient treatment, someone on the path of recovery might find it helpful to separate themselves from their addiction by traveling far from the location they live

  • 6

    Length of program: how long the treatment program lasts whether it is 30, 60, or 90 days

  • 7

    Cost: the financial commitment of a treatment program. While cost is often the biggest determining factor, there are options for payment assistance through the Affordable Health Care Act, Medicare, private health insurance, and more

While treatment is the important bulk of recovery, knowing what to expect in the aftermath is the key to staying clean.

What to Expect After Treatment?

Treatment might take up a few weeks or months of life, but remaining sober is a lifetime process. The return to normal routines feels awkward and stunted for some, but it takes some time to reacclimate. 

Individuals might find it beneficial to begin seeing a therapist or hold themselves accountable through routine check-ins with a mental health professional. Twelve-Step programs began with Alcoholics Anonymous, but they’ve since been adapted to cover various other addictions including cannabis. 

Building new connections and forming new habits is essential to keeping away from triggers. Forming a community of friends who participate in drug- and alcohol-free activities is key. Although most of the work comes from the individual, the people around can help the process. How?

There are a few ways to help a recovering cannabis addict. Here’s what you need to know:

  • 1

    Remain compassionate and understanding. Life after recovery often comes with financial and relationship problems. It’s important to be aware and sympathetic when things come up.

  • 2

    Support their sobriety by adapting your living situation. Having sober peers is crucial to the success of recovery after treatment. To help, you might find it necessary to change a few routines in your life ranging from avoiding locations where substance abuse is common to finding sober activities to experience together.

  • 3

    Be reasonable with your expectations. Addiction is hard, but recovery is harder. Every step, no matter how small, should be celebrated. Relapses happen and in case they do, you’ll need to be supportive enough to help push them past it.

  • 4

    Prioritize self-care. Many who help those in the recovery stages often pick up the slack for their loved one whether it be financial or emotional. It is important to prioritize one’s health and seek support in the form of therapy, counseling, or relaxing activities.

  • 5

    Learn more. This is a great place to start, but there are hundreds of other avenues to gaining more knowledge on the triggers, health issues, and more that come up during recovery.

During the recovery process, there are nine warning signs of an impending relapse:

Warning Signs of Impending Relapse
  1. Romanticizing past drug use
  2. Believing they can use again without falling back into addiction
  3. Starting to reconnect with an old friend from their addiction days
  4. Becoming defensive and beginning the pattern of denial they had while using
  5. Changes in attitude or behavior
  6. Breaking down of social relationships
  7. Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  8. The sudden appearance of withdrawal symptoms
  9. Loss of believing in their addiction recovery program

These red flags can be handled in several ways. This includes something as small as planning a sober outing to more substantial steps, such as seeking help from a doctor or therapist. 

A relapse isn’t always an immediate cause for re-entry into treatment. It is important to treat the time after relapse similar to the days and weeks following the end of treatment. If your loved one has suffered a relapse, here are a few actions to consider taking

Take Action
  1. Seeking help.
  2. Joining a self-help group.
  3. Avoiding triggers.
  4. Setting boundaries.
  5. Engaging in self-care.
  6. Reflecting on relapse.
  7. Developing a relapse prevention plan.

These are a great starting place for someone who has experienced a relapse. However, if they have deteriorated into regular drug use, it’s time to support them through a return back to treatment.

Recovery is a heavy and complex topic. You might find it necessary and beneficial to seek out extra help, advice, and information from an expert.

Resources for Information on Addiction Recovery

Sources

NCSL. “State Medical Marijuana Laws.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

CBS News. “What Americans thought about Trump, the economy, the 2020 race and more.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

SAMHSA. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

NIDA. “Nationwide Trends.” Accessed on April 27, 2020.

Addiction Center. “Addiction.” Accessed on April 13, 2020.

NCBI. “Cannabis Use Disorder.” Accessed on April 14, 2020.

NIDA. “In Recovery – Steps to Overcoming Addiction.” Accessed on April 14, 2020.

SAMHSA. “Brief Counseling for Marijuana Dependence.” Accessed on April 14, 2020

NCBI. “Marijuana Dependence and Its Treatment.” Accessed on April 14, 2020.

American Addiction Centers. “Post-Acute-Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).” Accessed on April 14, 2020.

NIDA. “Available Treatments for Marijuana Use Disorders.” Accessed on April 20, 2020.

NIDA. “Principles of Effective Treatment.” Accessed on April 20, 2020.

NCBI. “The Marijuana Treatment Project: rationale, design and participant characteristics.” Accessed on April 20, 2020.

Addiction Center. “How Do I Choose the Right Rehab?” Accessed on April 20, 2020

Addiction Center. “How Do I Help a Recovering Addict or Alcoholic?” Accessed on April 21, 2020.

American Addiction Centers. “Warning Signs of Relapse: Depression, Stress, and Other Triggers.” Accessed on April 21, 2020.

Recovery. “Recognizing Drug and Alcohol Relapse Warning Signs.” Accessed on April 21, 2020.

American Addiction Centers. “What’s the Best Way to Deal with a Relapse.” Accessed on April 21, 2020.