Is cannabis a possible treatment for heroin addiction?

by DGO Staff

If you haven’t heard about all of the medical possibilities from cannabis, you’ve either been living under a rock or in a prohibition state. Over the past decade, the therapeutic benefits of cannabis have begun to be recognized throughout the world. While we’re still in its infancy, the change in public perception, and the ongoing push for legalization federally and on a state-bystate basis, has finally snowballed into the start of serious medical research into the plant. As a result, the majority of the United States now allows for medical patients access to medical marijuana for many conditions.

While much of the evidence is anecdotal due to the restrictive nature of federal research into the plant, which is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug—and is therefore considered to have no medical uses in the eyes of the government, has, over the years, proven to be an effective treatment for a variety of illnesses and ailments, both physical and mental.

Recent research shows that marijuana has powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which make it useful for relieving and reducing pain associated with inflammation. Cannabis also is wellknown as a natural tool to ease nausea and stimulate appetite, and for many people, it provides a safer alternative than prescription remedies. But is that all cannabis can be useful for in terms of medical treatments? It’s not—and what science is proving about cannabis could be life-changing at a time when the nation is in crisis due to the opioid epidemic.

The pharmaceutical industry and addiction

The medical community has traditionally treated severe pain with powerful prescription painkillers, often opioid-based and highly addictive. The popularity of prescription medicines for the treatment of pain has caused the pharmaceutical industry to continuously develop treatments that are increasingly more powerful and also more addictive, contributing to the nation’s opioid epidemic.

The fallout from this has been devastating for the nation as a whole. Serious issues have stemmed from the opioid epidemic, A whopping 48,006 people overdosed on opioids in 2020 alone— and the risk of OD’ing has gotten so bad thanks to the widespread availability of extremely potent opioid drugs like fentanyl, which is inexpensive to manufacture and smuggle into the U.S. Fentanyl is regularly used to cut other types of drugs, like heroin or cocaine, and can easily result in accidental overdose or death by unsuspecting users.

Perhaps even more harrowing is the fact that 3.8% of American adults abuse opioids each year—which means a significant portion of the population is at risk for not just addiction issues, but death. At least 71.8% and as many as 80% of overdose deaths involve opioids. And, overdose (OD) deaths involving opioids increased 519.38% from 1999 to 2019.

In other words, it’s extremely important to find a sustainable, effective treatment for opioid abuse—as current treatment options are typically reserved for those who can afford to pony up for expensive inpatient treatment. Those who can’t tend to struggle with addiction issues long term, eventually leading to serious health issues and death for many people.

While the pharmaceutical industry is not solely responsible for the opioid epidemic, several opioid manufacturers have been forced to pay out large settlements for their roles in the crisis over the last few years. For example, in September of 2019, Purdue Pharma L.P. reached an agreement with 24 state attorney generals, officials from five U.S territories, and thousands of local governments estimated to provide over $10 billion to address and fight the opioid crisis. In part, this settlement called for Purdue to contribute the company’s assets to a trust established to benefit the claimants and the American public.
The agreement further calls for Purdue to potentially provide tens of millions of doses of opioid overdose reversal and addiction treatment medications at little or no cost, and be bound by marketing restrictions for the sale and promotion of opioid drugs.

Four other pharmaceutical companies, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp., and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., reached a settlement totaling $260 million with two Ohio counties. The settlement funds from this agreement are designated for use in support of initiatives to combat the opioid epidemic, including treatment, rehabilitation, mental health, and other efforts.

Can cannabis be used to control heroin cravings and withdrawls?

Overcoming heroin or opioid addiction is, at the very least, a challenging issue. Not only are the people who are physically or mentally addicted to opioids forced to conquer their physical cravings for the drug—but they also have to curb their intimate physical rituals associated with it. That can be nearly as
tough as the physical repercussions of withdrawl, and it’s equally important that they learn to cope with the reminders and triggers related to their addiction.
It’s common for those struggling with addiction issues to be triggered by interacting with the same people, places, and things that were part of their addiction.
These factors alone can create anxiety for the recovering addict and trigger a craving for the drug that causes them to relapse.

What’s promising, though, is that the pain-reducing qualities that cannabis can offer—in addition to the fact that it is non-addictive and has no potential for overdose—have made it a popular alternative to opioid medications. That’s an excellent starting place for trying to combat the nation’s reliance on addictive opioid medications for issues with chronic pain or pain related to severe medical issues. After all, a legal opioid script prescribed by a docter is often the stepping point for addiction issues. Over time, many opioid dependents have difficulty securing or affording the medications that their bodies need to function—and are forced to turn to cheaper, more widely available street drugs like heroin or fentanyl instead.

But if cannabis can be used as an alternative treatment for relief, the number of opioid scripts written by medical professionals will almost certainly decline. In turn, addiction rates could also plummet organically.

And, not only has cannabis been shown to be as effective as opioids for the control of pain, but recent studies have also shown that the plant holds promise as a way to treat the cravings associated with heroin and opioid addictions.

Recent research published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that the cannabis compound cannabidiol, more commonly known as CBD, may be an effective treatment for reducing the cravings associated with overcoming addiction. The animal study found that CBD reduced the motivation to return to opioid or heroin use, effectively reducing the rate of relapse.

Where do we go from here?

While the study into cannabis as a treatment for opioid addiction almost certainly has a long road ahead of it, the new research and studies that show that cannabis is an effective treatment for a variety of ailments and the relief of their associated symptoms are promising. By cutting down on the way the nation treats pain, it could help to curb some of the unncessary deaths from opioid addiction that occur each year.

And, what’s more is that if cannabis can prove to be a tool for treating addiction, there may be renewed hope for people who are suffering from opioid dependence—and heroin in particular. Overcoming heroin addiction is complicated due to the physiological and behavioral elements that are a part of addiction. While more research is needed to discover how cannabis helps to eliminate cravings caused by addiction, current research and anecdotal evidence suggest that cannabis can lower the rate of relapse.

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