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.
“When you can’t see your life without weed, it’s an addiction. We have to talk about it.”
Smoking marijuana in Tel Aviv has become the norm. In social gatherings, bars, and in every corner of the streets, you can easily smell the sweet-sour cloud of cannabis. The city seems to have regained its support for legalization. With weed becoming legal in a number of countries in the United States, here too, there has been an awakening, and the government and the police are slowly realizing that no one can prevent people from smoking their evening joint before getting some shuteye. But with the fun of getting stoned, many people who smoke experience the high in a less pleasant way. Paranoia, panic attacks, fatigue, and there are those who dare to say openly – I lost control, I am addicted.
Twenty-five year-old Lenny Cohen, an Tel Aviv-based actress, experienced the aforementioned addiction to weed for four years, and when she got to her boiling point, she decided to help herself while trying to help others. After she could not stop the habit on her own, she opened a support group for people dealing with a similar problem. “In the first two years I smoked from morning to night and I had a lot of fun because it suddenly brought me peace of mind, but then it got to the point where I smoked before exams and during the filming of a TV show and whenever I had a chance. Finally, I went into debt and depression.”
How did you realize you were addicted?
“It became a habit in every situation that was unpleasant or uncomfortable. When I was smoking, long before Telegrass made it so accessible, it was the center of my life, and suddenly I said to myself, ‘I have to stop’ because I just kept smoking, also cigarettes, like a chimney, which I did not do before the weed. As much as I wanted to stop, I could not. Even though it’s considered “harmless,” I was still tired all the time, I had no money and I felt it was wasting my time, but I just could not help it. It got to a point where I was under great stress before I would fly abroad because I had to make sure I could get it somewhere when I landed. That became the number one goal. I found myself in London buying harder drugs just because I didn’t have weed to smoke.”
It’s hard to stop when all the people around you still do it.
“All my friends smoke weed, some of them also want to quit, but no one initiates it. And then, a few months ago, I took a two-week break with a friend. The first time I quit smoking since I started. It was very difficult, but at least I did it with him, and there was something about that commitment to him and the fact that there was someone else who experienced it with me, that made it easier.”
How did you decide to open the group?
“I’ve been feeling addicted for a long time. Weed, lately, is enjoying a positive reputation, It’s not heroin. I’ve never seen myself fit into AA or any other similar framework. After I took the break with my friend, I realized that it has to happen with other people. My aunt is a consultant in the field of medical cannabis and has a broad view of research and understanding about it. I called her and told her, ‘I’m addicted.’ That’s how the idea of opening a group came about. People can say they’re addicted to cigarettes, but it’s hard to admit the same thing about weed. When you can’t see your life without it, it’s an addiction. We have to talk about it.”
“I wrote a post on Facebook, explaining that I am addicted and that I opened a group. There was a crazy response – more than 30 people contacted me in private and said that they identify and 25 people signed up for the group. That’s a lot of people. There are many others who feel this way, but to say it out loud or talk about it embarrasses them . We’ve already had two meetings and it works well.”
What do you do in the meetings?
“The goal is to share what you’re going through and what it does to you, to talk about things that are difficult to talk to people who are not addicted, and to find solutions to convert the addiction into something else. When there are people around you that you confide in that you are stopping, they understand it, and it makes it easier: Many friends who are not addicted say, ‘when I don’t feel like smoking, I do not smoke.'”
How long has it been since you’ve smoked?
“A week. The truth is that a week ago I had an unpleasant event. I smoked, I was weak and had low blood sugar, then I fainted, I fell on my face and my two front teeth broke. My lip busted open, I got it stitched up, and my teeth re-attached. Now I have braces, a broken tooth and I still smoked later that day. It didn’t make me stop.
Israeli actress Lenny Cohen opened a support group in Tel Aviv for people who smoked weed for fun but couldn't stop even when the fun was over. What it did to h