The opioid epidemic is crushing families and communities across the U.S. and Canada. Could medical cannabis save us?
Cannabis could be one of our most powerful weapons against drug addiction, particularly today’s opioid epidemic, which killed nearly 50,000 Americans in 2017 alone.
Opioid Epidemic Numbers Drop In Legalized States
In states with legal cannabis, opioid use drops about 25 percent. Less opioid use means less addiction and fewer overdoses.
Why do weed-legal states see less opioid use? Are people replacing opioids with cannabis? It’s true that cannabis is an analgesic – a painkiller – and, in fact, the great majority of medical cannabis patients take it for chronic pain. Interestingly, the painkilling promise of cannabis is what prompted Illinois governor Bruce Rauner to sign a law that permits doctors, in his state, to suggest cannabis as a replacement for opioids.
Research Proves That Cannabis Helps Addicts Recover
The evidence we have isn’t entirely anecdotal, either. There are severe restrictions on clinical cannabis research in the US and around the world. Despite those restrictions, people are still undertaking research, especially in Canada.
M.J. Milloy is a research scientist at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Abuse. A few years ago, Milloy began studying cannabis as a treatment for opioid and crack addiction. Milloy focuses particularly on homeless individuals and HIV patients. So far, his research proves cannabis helps opioid addicts, particularly heroin addicts. Cannabis helped heroin addicts stay on methadone, another opioid that helps wean addicts off heroin or oxycontin.
“That’s a very intriguing finding for us,” Milloy told RxLeaf by phone. “Obviously it’s good whenever we find anything that seems to be linked to keeping people on methadone, given methadone’s important role in the lives of people suffering from substance use disorders.”
The First Line of Addiction Treatment Is Substitution
Methadone, however, remains a controversial treatment. Like most opioids, it also carries the potential for addiction and abuse. Milloy said that regardless of methadone’s dangers, it’s still far better for patients to use methadone than heroin.
“There is no cure for addiction” Milloy says. “Evidence indicates that the first line of clinical therapy is substitution.”
By substituting one substance for another, patients maintain greater control over their addiction. Seeking out methadone, Milloy added, also encourages patients to seek medical care in the first place.
While Milloy studies the effects of cannabis on opioid and crack addicts, private companies are developing new products from cannabis that could supplement or replace opioids. Richard Kauffman is a bionutritional research director at NanoSphere Health, a biotech firm with offices in Colorado and British Columbia.
Asked if pain-relieving cannabis products such as those being researched by NanoSphere, could curb the opioid epidemic, Kauffman says, “That remains to be proven, but I do believe if given a fair shot, cannabis has some potential to help solve the opioid epidemic.”
Cannabis Probably Can’t Replace Opioids In All Cases
According to Kauffman, cannabis, alone, is a powerful painkiller. Even just by reducing inflammation, it can reduce pain. Cannabis can also trigger the release of endorphins through CB2 receptor mediation which leads to a reduction in pain perception.
But Kauffman doesn’t foresee cannabis completely replacing opioids. Kauffman believes that in the future cannabis and opioids will be prescribed side-by-side. Their combination could effectively control pain while minimizing opioid abuse. Cannabis and opioids work on two separate receptor systems – the opioid receptor system, and the endocannabinoid system – meaning it’s possible that these two drugs can be used together for a double-whammy pain-killing treatment.
“You can have a synergistic effect,” he explained, “an overlapping effect with the primary analgesic agents that you’re taking.”
Is there more, though? How else could cannabis help people use less or no opioids at all?
Milloy said that cannabis hits on several aspects of addiction. Many drug addicts abuse crack or opioids to relieve anxiety or pain, something that cannabis can do as well. Cannabis also appears to help addicts endure the horrors of withdrawal, which is essential to motivating the quit.
However, both Kauffman and Milloy noted that there’s still a lot of research needed before doctors can design treatment regimens that effectively employ cannabis.
“Until we do more experimental work,” says Milloy, “these are just educated guesses at this point.”
We need solid research that provides dosage information and treatment stages.