When considering the legitimate uses of cannabis for diseases like cancer, many are wondering if it can be used to help fight addiction. Though this sounds extremely counter-intuitive, the notion is not entirely off base. Cannabis in the form of medication has shown positive results to help wean people off narcotics and retrain their receptors to pleasure and response to stimuli, but experts say it’s too early to tell whether you can establish an addiction treatment with cannabis to combat the opioid epidemic.
“I think that it is a very early topic in that we do not have the necessary information to say it is effective right now,” said Gary Tsa,, Medical Director and Science Officer of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health
The cannabis plant is made up of multiple chemical compounds. For example, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for the effects of feeling high when someone smokes marijuana, has been shown to have both a positive and detrimental effect on mental health. However, the cannabidiol (CBD) compound, an isomer of THC, has shown promise in treating seizures, pain, and other conditions.
A study published in the journal Neurotherapeutics found the non-psychoactive CBD was effective in decreasing the desire for heroin for addicts and could decrease the craving for opioids.
A report from the National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering determined that cannabis could be effective in treating chronic pain and anxiety, but director Tsai warns much more research needs to be done.
“With marijuana, the science just isn’t there yet in terms of saying this percentage of CBD, or this percentage of THC is helpful in the treatment of opioid addiction,” he said. “In medicine, we’re very specific to attribute the benefits to a specific compound or substance.”
That has not stopped some companies from beginning to develop marijuana-based painkillers targeting more than 100 million chronic pain sufferers in the U.S.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not approved any painkillers or addiction treatment medication derived from the cannabis plant. Drugs from marijuana compounds will take a while to hit the market, as it typically takes a decade or more from the discovery of a working compound for a new drug to earn federal approval.
This is with the hopes that doctors can be sure that the medications they provide to patients with drug addiction are not getting high from what they are taking. But if the person with substance use disorder is smoking or ingesting the marijuana through edibles, it puts them at very high risk for relapse and other complications.
“The problem with that is if you smoke or ingest marijuana and you’re doing it because you have opioid addiction, there’s a lot of variability in terms of how much CBD content is in that marijuana, how much THC content is in that marijuana,” Tsai says. “There isn’t a standardization that we need in order to approach it from a truly precise medical and pharmaceutical grade perspective.”
At University of California, Los Angeles, the Cannabis Research Initiative is trying to establish a study that will administer cannabis to patients addicted to opioids. The goal is to provide a much more comprehensive understanding on how the compounds interact with opioids and whether marijuana could end up helping patients who suffer from opioid-dependency.