Pot could help with opioid addiction
June 8, 2017
The use of medical marijuana to help treat addiction is a new and potentially exciting development in a field that is beginning to blossom out of obscurity.
While research is still in its infancy, cannabis is appearing as a useful harm reduction method for those dealing with opioid or other hard drug addictions.
Marijuana is composed of over 100 different cannabinoids, diverse chemical compounds in the plant, and many have different affects on the brain. One cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), may be the key to mitigating the effects of serious addiction.
While studies have been promising, specialists emphasize that the use of marijuana to help with addiction of harder drugs is ultimately a harm reduction strategy, and not a treatment.
Though it's certainly not fool-proof, according to Andy Thomasson, a clinical social worker and certified addictions counselor for Luna Counseling in Granby
"There's an old narcotics anonymous saying: a drug is a drug is a drug," Thomasson said. "… even though your drug of choice may be something harder, continuing to use marijuana in its place is continuing the cycle of addiction in the brain."
The use of cannabis to help addiction is based on the theory of harm reduction, defined as programs and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop, according to Harm Reduction International.
Needle exchange programs designed to reduce the spread of HIV among intravenous drug users or the use of methadone to treat opioid addiction are examples of harm reduction policies.
While not breaking the cycle of addiction, harm reduction can help to mitigate the symptoms of acute withdrawal from opioids and other drugs, and help to reduce cravings of harder substances. Symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, fatigue and sleeping issues.
A study published by Yasmin Hurd of the Icahn School of Medicine a Mount Sinai, amongst others, titled Early Phase in the Development of Cannbidiol as a Treatment for Addiction supports this assertion.
"The evidence appears to at least support a potential beneficial treatment for opioid abuse," the study reads. "The fact that patients with substance use disorders often present with various psychiatric and medical symptoms that are reduced by CBD – symptoms such as anxiety, mood symptoms, insomnia and pain – also suggest that CBD might be beneficial for treating opioid-dependent individuals."
An interesting aspect of the research is the apparent divergent effect on addictive behaviors caused by another cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC. THC is the primary psychoactive agent in marijuana and has been shown to enhance addictive cravings.
While CBD reduces drug seeking behavior, anxiety and sensitivity to other drugs, THC seems to have the opposite affect.
"Tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol have opposing yin/yang effects on addiction-related behaviors," the treatment study said. "In contrast to THC that is rewarding and promotes drug use, CBD has low hedonic property and inhibits drug seeking."
This creates difficulties in patients looking to curb their cravings with recreational marijuana, which has low concentrations of CBD and ever-increasing THC potency. The solution is new strains of high CBD content and lower THC levels, an effort that is already emerging in retail settings with pure CBD edibles and concentrates. These are used for everything from opioid or nicotine addictions to simple pain management.
While CBD may help addicts dealing with more serious addictions, harm reduction is, in itself, not the goal.
"Harm reduction and treatment are two very different things, but they're conjoined to a certain extent because part of harm reduction is meant to get people access to treatment. But it's not an end game," says Thomasson. "Often times our brain doesn't differentiate between substances. It's just a feeling of euphoria, whether it's with heroin or marijuana. Are those two different? Of course they are, but if we think that we're going to kick addiction by using another addictive substance, I think we're kidding ourselves.
"If I'm still addicted to a substance, I'm not the person I want to be," Thomasson said.