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Can Marijuana Help with Opiate Abuse?

America is experiencing an unfortunate tidal wave of opiate addiction and overdose deaths. Cannabis could help.bigstock-Marijuana-Medical-Choice-80555078-1024x937

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sent a letter to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) yesterday asking them to investigate if marijuana could be part of a solution to deal with the rising problem.

NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano wrote about this topic in the recent issue of Freedom Leaf magazine.

Most recently, last year researchers at Columbia University assessed the use of cannabinoids versus placebos in the treatment of opioid-dependent subjects who were given naltrexone, an opiate receptor antagonist. Investigators reported that the administration of oral THC (dronabinol, a.k.a. Marinol) during the detoxification process lowered the severity of subjects’ withdrawal symptoms compared to placebo, but that these positive effects did not persist long-term.

By contrast, patients who consumed herbal cannabis during the outpatient treatment phase were more readily able to sleep, reported experiencing less anxiety and were more likely to complete their treatment.

“One of the interesting study findings was the observed beneficial effect of marijuana smoking on treatment retention,” the authors concluded in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. “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.”

Recent observational data from states in which medical marijuana is legal further substantiates the contention that legal cannabis access is a significant harm reducer for patients at risk of opioid dependency or mortality. According to data published in 2014 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), states with medical marijuana laws experience far lower opiate-related death rates than do those that prohibit marijuana.

To reach this conclusion, investigators from the University of Pennsylvania, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore conducted a time-series analysis of medical cannabis laws and state-level death certificate data in the U.S. from 1999 to 2010—a period during which 13 states instituted laws allowing for cannabis therapy. “States with medical cannabis laws had a 24.8% lower mean annual opioid overdose mortality rate compared with states without medical cannabis laws,” they reported.

Investigators from the RAND Corporation and the University of California, Irvine reached similar findings last year in a policy paper for a nonpartisan think tank, the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluding: “States permitting medical marijuana dispensaries experience a relative decrease in both opioid addictions and opioid overdose deaths compared to states that do not.”

Read Armentano’s full article, Overcoming Opiates with Cannabinoids, here.