One of the least popular topics in my industry is that of cannabis addiction. As a historically demonized industry attempts to redefine itself along the lines of health and wellness, the topic can be a real buzzkill and is often ignored, denied, or given minimal significance. While everyone knows that I grow professionally and advocate for safe, barrier-free medicinal cannabis access for all people worldwide, I like approximately ten percent of habitual users, develop a physical addiction to cannabis with excessive use.
In the context of mind-altering substances, addiction or “substance use disorder (SUD) is a complex condition in which there is uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences. People with SUD have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s) such as alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs, to the point where the person’s ability to function in day-to-day life becomes impaired. People keep using the substance even when they know it is causing or will cause problems.” Repeated substance use causes changes to the brain and impacts judgment, decision making, learning, memory, and behavioral control.
My history with pot is a storied one. When I began smoking at age 15, I was fascinated with it. An older buddy on the golf team sold trim joints for a buck apiece and I started smoking on the weekends with my two best friends. We would laugh hysterically and I remember food tasting so delicious when high! The first time we got baked we ate Stouffer’s pepperoni pizza and I thought I’d gone to heaven.
We soon graduated to smoking bud, the bubonic chronic out of Garberville, and some indoor trainwreck. Cannabis flowers were among the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. The color, the crystals, and the aroma really drew me in and a largely covetous long-term relationship was born.
My folks, children of the sixties and seventies found out we were smoking early on and offered me two pieces of advice – don’t get high at school and don’t drive stoned. In one ear and out the other. I was soon smoking every day and, because we had found a source for really killer stuff, I was tragically lit most of the time. I was generally so blazed that I couldn’t focus on schoolwork anymore. I had a hard time even reading a page out of a book without getting lost and my energy level fell apart.
I remember waking up trashed after a hard day of smoking. We called it being run down. Walking a round of golf took everything I had and teachers started asking me why I had become so inward. Known as a social extrovert, others were noticing a change in my behavior and were concerned. My solution to the developing problem was simple, power through and start smoking more so as to build a tolerance and better mask my altered state of mind. The process took about two years. My grades tanked after being a straight-A student, and I limped through senior year, adding copious amounts of alcohol and LSD to my cannabis regime. Not highly recommended for the developing brain or emotional stability!
I took two years off school to work and entered college at age 20, just after my marriage. By then my tolerance had improved and I excelled academically and socially once again. I was high all the time but participated in class, got all A’s, gave regular oral presentations, and was a leader on group projects. All was well until I stopped smoking for the first time in years.
We were taking a trip to my sister’s wedding and my wife pleaded with me not to take any weed as she didn’t want me stinking at the ceremony. I was nervous when we left town and smoked heavily before leaving. When we arrived in Davis about five hours later, I was starting to feel off. Anxiety was building and I was beginning to feel nauseous. I couldn’t sleep that night and felt really caged up. The next day got really gnarly. My nausea and anxiety continued to build and I looked like hell. I survived the wedding, but couldn’t eat at the reception or tolerate the crowd.
I didn’t sleep for a second night and demanded we head home a day early. Social stimulation was overwhelming and I vomited several times on the way home. I limped into town and ran out to the shed and smoked heavily. I was shaky and had hot and cold flashes. I showered, smoked again, and was able to start sipping water after another hour. I had shed nearly ten pounds in three days, was awake for nearly the whole time, and had circles under my eyes. Back on the smoke, I “normalized” quickly and went about life as before – high all the time and excelling outwardly.
Fast forward another five years and I experienced a similar episode. I had just received my MBA and was entering my profession as a financial advisor. I decided to stop smoking for fear of stigma, so I set down my pipe and saddled up for the next chapter of my life. I experienced the same outcome. I didn’t sleep for the first 48 hours, was overwhelmed by nausea and anxiety, and dropped ten pounds in several days. It took me about a week to feel normal and I struggled with nightmares for several months after quitting.
I was cannabis-free for three years and began smoking again at age 30. Given my prior experiences, I treaded lightly. Rather than smoking all the time, I began using casually – once a day versus 8-10 heavy sessions like in years past. Interestingly, with more moderate intake my body didn’t develop the same physical response. I could decide not to use on weekends when around the family and things were well. I could eat and sleep and not experience any other side effects.
After mom’s death five years later and a serious hip injury, I started smoking constantly – perhaps trying to hide from the sadness and pain, or perhaps so I could work through those emotions. After a few years of heavy use, I decided to quit again. I experienced another very challenging withdrawal with the same symptoms. Perhaps due to age, it took approximately two weeks to leave the anxiety behind and feel normal again.
As a result of these experiences, I make a conscious effort to consume minimally nowadays. I’ll occasionally take one puff of my favorite live resin cartridges or one ten milligram ice hash gummy and enjoy the experience. Rather than using out of necessity or as an escape or survival mechanism, I now use cannabis for enhanced sensory experiences, to center myself spiritually and emotionally, or to alter my perspective around a challenging situation or decision. An occasional mind and body-altering experience is rewarding and something I quite enjoy.
The literature on cannabis addiction is growing. It’s estimated that approximately 10% of habitual users become dependent on cannabis. For those who start consuming in adolescence or youth, the number increases to 17%. Cannabis addiction is associated with heavy use, some citing daily intake of four to five joints. Addiction, or cannabis use disorder is exemplified by using more cannabis than intended, failed attempts to quit using, using even though it causes problems at home, school or work, or using despite social or relationship problems. Other signs of addiction include cravings, increasing dosage to achieve the same high, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping use.
If you are struggling with perceived cannabis addiction, stopping cold turkey is one method, but can be challenging and highly disruptive. I recommend backing down your use for a period of two weeks before quitting altogether. For example, if you are orally ingesting 300 mg of THC per day as I used to, dropping that to 200, then 100, then 50 will be easier on your system. If you find yourself unable to successfully ween yourself off, then biting the bullet, quitting at once, and experiencing several days of discomfort is the path.
If you are a heavy smoker, transitioning to edibles for a week or two can help break your habitual/ritualistic smoking habit and improve the chances of your success. I find taking Golden Slumber tea from Humboldt Herbals coupled with melatonin gummies for a few days can soften the anxiety and help you get some needed rest as your body transitions to a new normal.
While most cannabis users can smoke as much as they want as often as they want and never experience any ill effects, others simply don’t have that luxury. And while cannabis addiction is obviously much less serious than being addicted to alcohol, opiates, or hard drugs, it is real nonetheless. As we seek to professionalize our industry and normalize use, conversations around cannabis addiction must be part of the process. By openly acknowledging this reality and helping consumers address the issue without fear or judgment, we show compassion and strengthen our hand as a loving industry dedicated to saving and improving lives.
Despite having a somewhat challenging relationship with cannabis at times, I’m proud of what I do for a living and I love smoking weed…I honestly wish I could do it all the time, yet now understand this isn’t the best option for me. I believe cannabis is a path to personal enlightenment and improved interpersonal relationships. I believe it enhances our love for people and for the natural world. I find that cannabis makes people nicer and allows us to live with less stress and more appreciation and thankfulness. I wouldn’t change my path for anything and instead, believe that my personal experience allows me to be an even greater advocate for the plant we love.
Jesse Duncan is a lifelong Humboldt County resident, a father of six, a retired financial advisor, and a full-time commercial cannabis grower. He is also the creator of NorCal Financial and Cannabis Consulting, a no-cost platform that helps small farmers improve their cultivation, business, and financial skills. Please check out his blog at, his Instagram at jesse_duncann, and connect with him on Linkedin.