The Opioid Epidemic and Cannabis

The numbers connected to opioid addiction are staggering. In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control reported 19,000 Americans died of opioid overdose. According to their website, this was more than four times the number of opioid-related deaths in 1999.

For those that struggle with this addiction, the emotional and physical pain of recovery and relapse are real. However, due to politics and outdated cultural perceptions, we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to active cannabis treatment of opioid addiction.

Opioids Up Close

Symptoms of opioid addiction/withdrawal are cyclical in nature, making addiction difficult to treat. Both euphoria and pleasure are produced, which activate reward pathways in the brain. Sensitivity quickly decreases, requiring more and more to reach the same effect. Eventually, attempts at cessation create withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and pain.

This leads to relapse. It also explains why the relapse rate for opioids is higher than other drugs.

Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Sweating
  • Chills and goose bumps
  • Intense cravings
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Agitation
  • Muscle aches
  • Irritation
  • Shakes

Medical Marijuana

In 2014, researchers from the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25154332) found that states with medical marijuana laws had 25% less opioid-related deaths than states without. This correlation ties in with the medical fact that cannabidiol (CBD) has analgesic properties that actually treat the symptoms of addiction.

Most people think of THC and its psychoactive effects when they think of cannabis. But CBD is the number two molecule, and it is proving to be incredibly valuable in combating addiction. Most popularly used therapeutically to treat pediatric epilepsy, CBD receptors in the brain interact with the same neurological systems as opioids – most notably the serotonin receptors.

The Brain, CBD, and Addiction

If you recall Pavlov’s dogs, you know the lesson that the brain (canine and human) creates associations, or neurological pathways, based on repeated good and bad experiences. For Pavlov’s dogs, the neuro-pathways that were created were a real relationship:  a bell means food is on the way. For humans, it could be that a sound triggers PTSD, or a social setting might trigger an urge to consume alcohol.

It’s these exact same associations that cause a relapse.

Researchers have learned that CBD aids in dissolving those connections by interacting with the serotonin system – which is connected to mood. Preliminary research shows that CBD reduces withdrawal symptoms, limits cravings, and decreases drug-seeking behavior. When CBD and serotonin interact, the reward-seeking part of the brain is actually deactivated.

Current opioid treatment is focused on the endogenous opioid system. This is in part because human trials are difficult due to the fact that marijuana is still a Schedule I drug. But animal tests have shown that phytocannabinoid cannabidiol improves opioid withdrawal by interfering with the reward mechanisms in the brain.

One of the most promising (and only) human studies, conducted by the Friedman Brain Institute, shows a marked decrease in anxiety associations and heroin cessation. More research must be done to fully understand its uses and effects.

Ending the Epidemic

Public approval for legalizing cannabis is at an all-time high. This is in part because it becomes more and more apparent that cannabis has a number of health-enhancing benefits. Additionally, legalizing marijuana ensures that medical patients have access to high-quality, safe, low side-effect, and laboratory tested medicine. It’s a natural and practical solution to an epidemic that kills thousands of people a day.

Washington D.C. and 25 states have legalized comprehensive medical marijuana programs. As more health practitioners and patients are educated regarding the treatment benefits, the country can continue to move toward national legalization.