Is It Possible to Be Physically Addicted to Marijuana?

Much of the discussion of cannabis addiction falls under the purview of psychology, where self-reported feelings and more-or-less arbitrary clinical definitions tend to dominate. Obviously, there are psychological drivers for marijuana use, which are well known to include feelings of existential dread in the face of a long, sober evening and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with basic-cable reruns of Hart to Hart. But what about the un-spinnable physical truth of the body? Are there biochemical aspects to those addicted to marijuana?

This is not at all well studied in human beings, but there are some intriguing observations from animal testing.

One way for scientists to simulate kicking cannabis cold turkey is to administer cannabinoid receptor antagonists. These are a substances that shut down the CB1 and CB2 receptors that are stimulated by the active ingredients in marijuana. If they are knocked out, it doesn’t matter how much cannabis you take in, you will not feel it.

When, in clinical settings, rats that have been turned into major pot-heads are administered cannabinoid receptor antagonists, they exhibit a variety of symptoms unseen in ordinary cannabis withdrawal. These include wet-dog shakes (a real clinical term); compulsive grooming, itching and face scratching; spasms; and moon-walking (not a real clinical term). Some of these symptoms are also characteristic of opioid withdrawal. Dogs in similar trials exhibit similar, though less colorful, symptoms.

A possible explanation for the startling effects of “precipitated cannabis withdrawal” is found in the unusual chemical structure of THC, which, unlike other intoxicants, is readily stored in the body’s fat cells. Unlike lab rats, people in the real world who quit marijuana still have functioning cannabinoid receptors. Thus for weeks, or even longer, after stopping cannabis, a former user will still be metabolizing tiny amounts of THC as it is burned up along with body fat. It’s not enough for a high, but it might be just enough to ease the worst biochemical aspects of withdrawal.

In other words, the body might have its own inbuilt cannabis rehab program. If it weren’t for this, quitting marijuana might feel a lot more like kicking heroin.

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