Cannabis Can Help Treat Opiate Dependence

Forget whatever Jeff Sessions babbled about opiates, and check out this Columbia University study published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal. Opiates include illicit drugs like heroin and pharmaceutical formulations like OxyContin (oxycodone) and Vicodin (hydrocodone), and the study said evidence suggests the cannabinoid system is involved in the maintenance of opioid dependence. To see if cannabis compounds could help people in recovery, the researchers gave THC-synthetic dronabinol to recovering opioid-dependent individuals.

“Dronabinol reduced the severity of opiate withdrawal during acute detoxification but had no effect on rates of XR-naltrexone treatment induction and retention,” the study concluded, noting that it also did not interfere with the drug naltrexone that reverses opiate effects. Furthermore, individuals who smoke cannabis had even more positive outcomes. The conclusion continued, “Participants who elected to smoke marijuana during the trial were more likely to complete treatment regardless of treatment group assignment.”

The latter point is particularly interesting. Compared to the placebo group, the patients taking dronabinol experienced less severe withdrawal symptoms and better rates of XR-naltrexone induction, but both groups had similar treatment-completion rates. Those who also smoked cannabis, however, had higher completion rates as well as lower rates of insomnia and anxiety.

Cannabis can also play positive roles regarding opiate overdose. The Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine published a study in 2014 that concluded, “Medical cannabis laws are associated with significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates.” In fact, opioid overdose deaths were 25 percent lower in states that allowed medical cannabis use, and significant drops occurred after state-level legalization took effect. The authors called for further study to “determine how medical cannabis laws may interact with policies aimed at preventing opioid analgesic overdose.”

The National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonpartisan think tank, published similar findings last July. Their report stated: “[We found] that states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not. Our findings suggest that providing broader access to medical marijuana may have the potential benefit of reducing abuse of highly addictive painkillers.” Likewise, researchers from the University of California-Irvine and the RAND Corporation noted in their own study that “states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.”

Opiate addicts need all the help they can get in recovery, and if cannabis has the potential to help, we can only hope that rehabilitation centers will find ways to use the plant safely and effectively.


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