Can Marijuana Help Treat Heroin Addicts?

By Pat Anson, Editor

There’s a new twist to the rising use of heroin in the United States – and what can be done to help addicts in recovery.

A recent study by researchers at Columbia University found that medical marijuana improves the treatment outcome of heroin addicts. Patients who were given dronabinol -- a prescription drug that contains THC, the active ingredient in marijuana -- had lower withdrawal symptoms compared than those given a placebo. In addition, patients who smoked marijuana regularly during the outpatient phase of treatment had fewer sleeping problems, less anxiety and were more likely to finish treatment.

"One of the interesting study findings was the observed beneficial effect of marijuana smoking on treatment retention," the researchers concluded.

"Participants who smoked marijuana had less difficulty with sleep and anxiety and were more likely to remain in treatment as compared to those who were not using marijuana, regardless of whether they were taking dronabinol or placebo."

The Columbia study appears in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.


According to High Times, several other studies have reached similar conclusions. Studies at the New York Psychiatric Institute found that opiate addicts who consumed marijuana intermittently were less likely to start using opioids again, compared to those who never used marijuana or used it habitually.

Earlier this year, researchers at the RAND Corporation and the University of California, Irvine reported similar results in a study for the National Bureau of Economic Research – going so far as to suggest that marijuana is a good substitute for opioid pain medication.

“Many medical marijuana patients report using marijuana to alleviate chronic pain from musculoskeletal problems and other sources. If marijuana is used as a substitute for powerful and addictive pain relievers in medical marijuana states, a potential overlooked positive impact of medical marijuana laws may be a reduction in harms associated with opioid pain relievers,” they wrote. “We find that states permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.”

And what happens in states where regulations make it harder to obtain prescription opioid medication?

There were unintended consequences in Washington, one of the first states in the country to impose strict new guidelines on opioid prescribing. From 2008 to 2014, the number of deaths from prescription opioids in Washington fell from 512 to 319. But over the same period, the number of heroin deaths almost doubled, to nearly 300.

But the surge in heroin use wasn’t confined to Washington. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of heroin users nationwide rose from 161,000 in 2007 to 289,000 in 2013, an increase of nearly 80%. During the same period, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the number of poisoning deaths involving heroin rose from 3,041 to 8,257, an increase of 172%.

“There is no robust evidence that recently enacted policies regarding prescription opioids are responsible for large-scale shifts to heroin,” the CDC’s Courtney Lenard recently told Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly. Only about 1 in 25 people who use prescription opioids recreationally start using heroin within five years, she said.