Can Cannabis Help Treat Addiction?
By Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD.
Dec 25, 2019
Can cannabis help those suffering from addiction? There is a body of research suggests it holds potential to help those with substance abuse disorders. A few treatment centers are already embracing it.
Studies on animals show that the endocannabinoid system plays a central role in drug addiction, so theoretically, modulating this system with cannabis could aid those in the process of withdrawal.
Additionally, there is also some evidence from research on humans suggesting that cannabis might be able to help those with various addictions find an easier path to recovery.
More research is needed, however, before clear conclusions can be reached about the efficacy and potential ways of using cannabis to treat addiction.
Furthermore, both because roughly 10% of cannabis consumers will develop cannabis use disorder and because cannabis is itself a rewarding psychotropic drug, many addiction professionals might view it as an undesirable treatment of other substance abuse disorders.
How Cannabis Works on Addiction
The endocannabinoid system exists in all vertebrates and helps regulate crucial functions such as sleep, pain, and appetite. The body produces its own cannabinoids, which modulate and activate its various functions, but as its name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can also be modulated and activated by cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant. Because the entire system was only discovered in the past 30 years, scientists still have much to learn about the myriad ways cannabis affects the human body.
The endocannabinoid system is intimately involved, and plays a crucial role in the neurobiological process that underlies drug addiction. Endocannabinoids and their receptors are expressed in the main areas of the brain that participate in initiation and maintenance of drug consumption, as well as in the development of compulsion and loss of control surrounding addiction.
In addition, the endocannabinoid system interacts with opioidergic systems, which are related to addiction and reward. The receptors for both systems are found in many of the same areas of the brain, and are frequently activated at the same time. Research on this interaction has uncovered a bidirectional relationship between receptors in these systems when it comes to the rewarding properties of drugs.
Blocking one of the two main endocannabinoid receptor’s activity in rats significantly reduces the rewarding effects from morphine. Similarly, blocking the opiate receptor, reduces these same effects from THC, thus it is likely that both the endocannabinoid system and the opioidergic systems are involved in creating the pleasurable and rewarding sensations associated with drug use.
Furthermore, a human study found that one of the main endocannabinoid receptors is upregulated among opioid users — which supports the idea that the endocannabinoid system is relevant to the development of opiate addiction.
Medical Studies on Addiction and Cannabis
While it’s clear that the endocannabinoid system is highly involved in the underlying processes behind addiction, that by itself doesn’t tell us whether cannabis can help those suffering from addiction. There is, however, a fair amount of research looking at exactly that question.
One way that cannabis may help is as a substitute for other addictive substances that have a worse safety profile than cannabis. Researchers have observed that when patients use cannabis and opiates together, they tend to decrease their opioid use by 40-60% — and report fewer negative side effects, better cognitive function, better quality of life, and a preference for cannabis over opioids. Other studies have shown that cannabis can reduce the amount of opioids needed to achieve a desirable level of pain relief. One theory believe this is true due to a synergistic effect between cannabis and opiates, which results in more pain relief together than either offers individually.
There is also some evidence that cannabis may help ease opioid withdrawal symptoms, resulting in higher success rates in the withdrawal effort. Other research that suggests it could actually increase the severity of withdrawal symptoms. It is possible that conflicting results in the research could be explained by differences in the type of cannabis used.
One clinical study found that high doses of CBD helped patients withdrawing from heroin reduce by over 75% the cravings and anxiety that occur in response to drug related cues. The effect occurred as soon as one hour after taking the CBD and lasted up to seven days. Since CBD is considered extremely safe and non-addictive, it could be an excellent adjunct to support withdrawal efforts.
While most research on cannabis and addiction focuses on opiates, it’s benefits can extend to other drugs as well. Studies suggest that cannabis and its compounds can be helpful in treating addiction problems with many substances, including tobacco, alcohol and cocaine.
Another clinical study on smokers trying to quit found that using CBD helped significantly reduce the number of cigarettes smoked — by 40%.
A study on using CBD with alcohol found that consuming CBD and alcohol together had significantly lower blood alcohol levels than those who used alcohol alone. This suggests CBD might lessen the impact of alcohol intoxication on the body — offering some protection from a high blood-alcohol level.
A study on cocaine addiction among those with ADHD — who were receiving outpatient treatment for cocaine dependence — found that those who were also using cannabis during the treatment had higher rates of success in the program.
Still, more research is needed to understand the most effective way to work with cannabis in order to gain these possible benefits.
If you’d like to use cannabis for your own withdrawal process, working with a cannabinoid specializing MD can be a great way to get personalized guidance and support on this path.
Despite the positive potential for cannabis to help with drug addiction, cannabis comes with potential side effects that can impact treatment. In general, side effects from cannabis are modest but can include symptoms like mild difficulties in concentration and memory, light-headedness, racing heart, dry mouth, nausea, and fatigue.
When it comes to treating addiction though, cannabis can pose other issues. For one thing, the mood elevating and rewarding properties of cannabis mean that it can also become addictive for some, leading to tolerance, physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms during abstinence such as irritability, aggression, anxiety, decreased appetite, weight loss and sleeping difficulties. Still, these symptoms are substantially less challenging than those associated with opioid addiction and withdrawal.
Others have reported that cannabis actually increased the severity of their symptoms when withdrawing from opiates. These conflicting reports might be due to the variation in different forms of cannabis, or to variations in the patient’s response. Still it is a risk factor to consider when using cannabis for addiction.
The Cannigma content is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with an experienced medical professional with a background in cannabis before beginning treatment.
About Addiction/Substance Abuse Disorder
Addiction is a serious and complex condition that affects every area of your life and overall health. Sometimes it’s referred to as substance use disorder or substance abuse disorder. Addiction means that you can’t control how much or how often you take, use or do something.
When people talk about addiction, they usually think of being addicted to alcohol, legal or illegal drugs or smoking nicotine. These are the most common types of addiction, but you can become addicted to many things, including work, shopping, binge eating, internet use, pornography and virtually anything else.
It’s difficult to be sure how many people are addicted to something. It’s thought that a staggering 164 million people worldwide had some kind of alcohol or substance addiction in 2016, and that 19.7 million Americans had some kind of substance abuse disorder in 2017. Studies show that substance and alcohol addiction is higher in some areas of the world, with 5-6% of people in the US and Eastern Europe experiencing addiction, 2-5% of people in Western and Central Europe and the rest of the Americas, while 1-2% of people in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
Although every type of addiction is different, they share similar features, especially the most common addictions including alcohol, nicotine, and legal and illegal substances. Addiction affects every aspect of your life, including your health, your behavior and your thought processes. It is also often associated with other mental health conditions that are also commonly found in those suffering from addiction.
You’re likely to spend a lot of time thinking about the addictive substance or activity, feel agitated when you’re not able to get to it easily, and make sure that you always have some close at hand. You might end up stealing, spending money that you can’t afford or carrying out risky behavior in order to get hold of it.
People who are addicted to a substance or behavior end up spending more and more of their time feeding their addiction. That can include putting in a lot of effort to get the addictive substance or to be able to carry out the addictive activity, skipping other activities in order to take/do it and needing time to recover afterwards. Not getting a hold of what your addicted to can lead to a host of challenging withdrawal symptoms ranging from irritability to being completely incapacitated.
If you’re addicted to something, you’ll often find yourself:
- Feeling like you need the substance on a regular basis
- Not able to stop yourself from taking it, even if you know that it’s harming your health
- Needing to take more of the substance each time or take it more often to get the same effect
- Feeling withdrawal symptoms, like uncontrollable shaking or twitching, when you try to stop taking it
It’s not always easy to spot the symptoms of addiction. Not everyone shows the same symptoms, and people who are addicted to something can be very good at hiding it.
If you think that you may have an addiction, you should consult your doctor. He or she will evaluate your state of health, and probably refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed alcohol and drug counselor for further workup and management.
Addiction can lead to many complications, depending on what you’re addicted to. Addiction, in general, can break up relationships, cause people to lose their jobs, money, and homes, and lead to many secondary health issues.
Substance and alcohol addiction can also cause or worsen mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, and cause physical health issues like liver failure and heart disease, or diseases like HIV from sharing infected needles.
To sum it up, addiction can destroy your life.
When you have an addiction, your brain wiring changes to make you crave the substance. While most of the time this doesn’t happen overnight, the transformation into being an addict can happen startlingly quickly. At first, you’re in control, like choosing how much alcohol to drink or when to take a drug. You enjoy the effects, but you can stop whenever you like.
As you continue to drink, take drugs, or smoke, your body gradually builds up a tolerance to the effects, so you need to take more and more to get the same response. If you try to stop, you experience serious withdrawal symptoms. Some substances are much more addictive than others, like opioid drugs, which provoke an addictive response extremely quickly.
Research shows that there is both a genetic and environmental component to addiction. Having a first degree relative with addiction means you have a much higher likelihood of developing one. Growing up in an environment where addiction is prevalent is another risk factor.
There are many reasons why you might start taking an addictive substance or carrying out an addictive behavior. For example, someone with an alcohol addiction might begin drinking to relieve depression or anxiety. Someone with an opioid drug addiction might begin taking the drugs by prescription after surgery, and someone addicted to smoking might have started because all their friends smoke.
Addiction is a treatable condition, no matter what you’re addicted to. The right treatment is different for each person, depending on your brain chemistry, your mental and physical health, and what it is that you’re addicted to. Some of the principles of successful treatment include:
- Treating the individual, not just their drug or alcohol abuse.
- Continuing treatment for a long period of time. Too many people stop treatment early, thinking they are cured, and then return to their addictive behaviors.
- Monitoring the treatment program and changing it to suit the changing needs of the individual.
Effective treatment is often a combination of medication and therapies. Evidence suggests that an integrative approach, combining several therapies, tends to lead to higher rates of long term success. People with alcohol and substance abuse often need to begin with medically-assisted detoxification. This is a controlled process that clears the toxins out of the body and helps you to overcome the withdrawal symptoms that usually hits when someone stops taking addictive substances. Without medication, the withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that people return to taking the addictive substance, and could commit suicide if they can’t get it anymore.
Behavioral therapy and counseling are vital treatments for addiction. They guide you to find ways of coping with your cravings and and strengthen your ability to resist the urge to return to addictive behaviors. Psychotherapy can also help you deal with any underlying issues that caused you to begin taking alcohol, drugs, or carrying out addictive behaviors in the first place.
In the long term, ongoing group therapy can help you to resist the temptation to return to addictive substances and behaviors when times get tough. Self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous help you avoid feelings of shame and isolation that can lead you back to addiction again. It also helps you to understand that you are not alone.