Medical Marijuana Could Help Treat Addiction

By Pat Anson, Editor

Can marijuana be used to treat addiction?

Not according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance with “a high potential for abuse.” Adults who start using marijuana at a young age, according to the DEA,  are five times more likely to become dependent on narcotic painkillers, heroin and other drugs.

But a new study by Canadian researchers found that marijuana is helping some alcoholics and opioid addicts kick their habits.

"Research suggests that people may be using cannabis as an exit drug to reduce the use of substances that are potentially more harmful, such as opioid pain medication," says the study's lead investigator Zach Walsh, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus.

“In contrast to the proposition that cannabis may serve as a gateway (drug) is an emerging stream of research which suggests that cannabis may serve as an exit drug, with the potential to facilitate reductions in the use of other substances. According to this perspective, cannabis serves a harm-reducing role by substituting for potentially more dangerous substances such as alcohol and opiates.”

In their review of 31 studies involving nearly 24,000 cannabis users, Walsh and his colleagues also found evidence that marijuana was being used to help with mental health problems, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and social anxiety.

The review did not find that cannabis was a good treatment for bipolar disorder and psychosis.

"It appears that patients and others who have advocated for cannabis as a tool for harm reduction and mental health have some valid points," Walsh said.

With medical marijuana legal in over half of the United States and legalization possible as early as next year in Canada, Walsh says it is important for mental health professionals to better understand the risk and benefits of cannabis use.

"There is not currently a lot of clear guidance on how mental health professionals can best work with people who are using cannabis for medical purposes," says Walsh. "With the end of prohibition, telling people to simply stop using may no longer be as feasible an option. Knowing how to consider cannabis in the treatment equation will become a necessity."

The study was recently published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review. Walsh and some of his colleagues disclosed that they work as consultants and investigators for companies that produce medical marijuana.

Previous studies have found that use of opioid medication declines dramatically when pain patients use medical marijuana. Opioid overdoses also declined in states where medical marijuana was legalized..