Study suggests cannabis may be an effective therapy for opioid abuse

Published Sep 9, 2020 09:00 a.m. ET
iStock / Oulaphone Sonesouphap

As history is unfolding, British Columbia is experiencing its worst stretch in history for fatal overdoses. New research suggests that cannabis may be a useful harm reduction strategy for today's youth who are struggling with addiction. The British Columbia University and the BC Centre on Substance Use studied the behaviours of young people who were using drugs in downtown Vancouver, and their research seems to indicate that not only could cannabis be effective as harm reduction but that it could also be a substitute for the illicit opioid issues.

Currently, the increased supply of the toxic drug and the social contact restrictions that have been necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic has had a bearing on people using the drug while alone. The young people interviewed for the studies disclosed that getting high was not the sole purpose of using cannabis. Interviewed youth revealed that many used cannabis for therapeutic purposes. Often the youth used cannabis to help reduce the use of other illicit substances.

According to Dr. Danya Fast, a research scientist from the BC Centre on Substance Use, some youth admitted that they used cannabis for drug addiction help and to stop using other substances completely. This studies' findings indicated that the vast majority of street youth did engage in both cannabis and substances that are much more harmful, including:

  • Fentanyl
  • Heroin
  • Alcohol
  • Chrystal methamphetamine

Many of the youth involved in the studies saw cannabis as a treatment that was healthier and more effective than pharmaceutical drugs or the alternative, substance-assisted treatment methadone.  Cannabis was the substance of choice for many of the street-involved youth. A co-author of the study recounted how she had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity.

She remembers being prescribed what she recalls as a “cocktail” of medications to treat her condition. The prescribed medicines did not work, and eventually, she moved on to illicit substances for treatment. Her illegal treatments included injecting heroin and taking other opioids. She managed to obtain authorization for medical cannabis, and now she credits cannabis with helping her to stop using the deadly illicit substances altogether.

A second study indicated that using cannabis daily for a six-month time frame positively affected the amount of injecting drugs into the system. Further evidence seems to support that more people are supporting the six-month daily cannabis routine.

Research today indicates that many are using cannabis for therapeutic reasons, including coping with withdrawal from opioids and managing chronic pain. The consistent findings during the studies indicate that cannabis use has removed one of the driving risks for overdose being either by injecting the opioids or from a poisoned supply.

Final thoughts

Policymakers are encouraged to facilitate access to cannabis as harm reduction. Doing this by reducing the barriers to legal cannabis and supporting the local community groups who distribute cannabis to those at risk of an opioid overdose is perhaps the answer to this dilemma. Ultimately the studies have indicated that using cannabis for harm reduction has the full potential to save lives every day. Perhaps cannabis is the path that many should take when they are seeking addiction recovery.

Metastudy shows reduced opioid use with cannabis

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