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Dec 25, 2019 8 min read

Can cannabis help treat addiction?

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by Emily Earlenbaugh, PhD.
Medically reviewed by Roni Sharon, MD
Sponsored by

Overview

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.

Potential side effects of cannabis use

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. 

Cannabis side effects: fatigue, memory, appetite, reaction time, mood, paranoia, addiction

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.

Disclaimer

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.

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