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Is Cannabis The Solution for The American Opioid Crisis?

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In 2016, opioids killed 63,632 Americans. According to the CDC, “nearly two-thirds of these deaths (66%) involved a prescription or illicit opioid. Overdose deaths increased in all categories of drugs examined for men and women, people ages 15 and older, all races and ethnicities, and across all levels of urbanization.”

Too many innocent people are falling victim to the prescription pad. Over-prescription is to blame for opioid addiction and is the point of departure for America’s current opioid crisis.

Early origins in big pharma

In the late 1990’s, it was Purdue Pharma that brought the opioid-based pain medication Oxycontin onto the market. At this time, doctors were assured that these pain medications were not addictive. This misinformation led to a jump in opioid prescription in the early-mid 2000’s. As a result, many patients became dependent, their lives ruined or lost.

Cannabis as an exit drug

Many people are afraid of the withdrawal symptoms of ceasing opioid use, which is why many pro-abstention treatment programs (think Alcoholics Anonymous) are not bankable solutions to this problem. Cannabis, however, has changed the face of recovery from opioid and prescription drug addiction.

Many proponents, like the well-known Steve DeAngelo of Harborside Clinic, have testified to the power of cannabis when dealing with addiction. “Within a few months [of Harborside opening its doors], dozens of patients confided to me that they were using cannabis to treat withdrawal symptoms and cravings – most often caused by addiction to pharmaceutical painkillers prescribed by their doctors,” he writes in The Cannabis Manifesto.

Clinical research is surfacing that supports the notion that cannabis can help people get off of harmful prescriptions. A recent University of California, Berkeley study looked at cannabis as a replacement therapy. When interviewing medical marijuana patients, of the 2,897 recovering opioid addicts who were questioned, 97% responded that they were able to decrease their meds. 81% agreed that cannabis was more effective on its own for dealing with pain than using opioids in conjunction with cannabis.

Dr. Sean Breen of California regularly helps his patients detox from prescription painkillers using cannabis. Of his experiences, he says, “Amazingly the effects of cannabinoids can reduce anxiety and agitation, improve sleep, and help normalize the digestive tract.”

THC and CBD

Many doctors are beginning to recommend CBD, which does not create feelings of euphoria, for those who are battling addiction and are looking for support. While THC certainly has its benefits, CBD is responsible for helping to regulate the endocannabinoid system, which is responsible for mood, appetite, sleep, and other crucial functions.

When using cannabis for support during difficult times, THC may exacerbate feelings of paranoia or anxiety. Therefore, a doctor who is helping someone use cannabis to come down from another drug dependency may be more likely to recommend CBD-rich strains with low, trace, or no THC.

Replacing one addiction with another?

Critics of using cannabis to treat addiction question whether or not it is a conflict of ethics to do so: why use one substance to treat addiction to another? This ethical concern can easily be squashed when we examine the over-prescription of medications like benzos for dealing with anxiety from withdrawal. Why not replace harmful substances with the natural, beneficial cannabis plant instead of more lab-created pharmaceuticals?

In The Cannabis Manifesto, Steve DeAngelo discusses the notion of “addiction” to cannabis in relation to other harmful substances like heroin, opioids, and even alcohol. In order for something to be addictive, the dose of the substance must be progressively increased to maintain the desired effect, and serious withdrawal symptoms occur when use of the substance is suddenly stopped.

While heroin, cocaine, opioids, prescription drugs, nicotine, and even caffeine would fit both or at least one of the above characteristics, the same cannot be said for cannabis.

“Regular cannabis users almost always settle into a consistent dose,” says DeAngelo, “and the symptoms of suddenly stopping are usually limited to lack of appetite and irritability.”

With more centers for drug addiction and dependency turning to cannabis and more doctors recognizing its anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing properties, it’s proving to be a powerful alternative to a life of heavy opioid use, addiction, and perhaps fatality.

To quote Dr. DeAngelo, “The evidence has been clear for years.”


Anne-Marie is a freelance cannabis writer and educator dedicated to cultivating and disseminating important knowledge about cannabis as legalization spreads across the globe.  After earning her BA and Masters, she followed an exciting career in the research and education field, finding innovative ways to create collaborations between community needs and research and academic pursuits.  Based in Canada, she is a full time writer for the world’s best cannabis companies, advocates and organizations.


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