Marijuana for Addiction Treatment
Posted by Glenn Beierle on 06/19/2017 in Medical Marijuana
Updated on December 21, 2018. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Richard Koffler, MD, Board Certified Physiatrist
The application of medical cannabis as a treatment therapy for those suffering from drug or alcohol abuse, dependence, or addiction is seldom discussed — at least not in the comparison to the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of the symptoms and treatments of diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDs, cerebral palsy and others. These seem to get most of the attention during discussions of the applications, efficacy, safety and legality of medical cannabis.
Notwithstanding, millions of Americans suffer from alcohol and drug addiction. If you have a drug or alcohol addiction, you know that trying to overcome it is challenging, to say the least — and almost impossible without help. That’s because your addiction originates from a physical and psychological dependence and tolerance to a habit-forming substance.
Is Marijuana a Solution for Drug and Alcohol Addiction?
When you’re deep in the throes of an addiction and are looking for a way out, it’s crucial to explore all options for lessening the struggle. When addiction has its grip on you, it can seem like there’s no way out. Thankfully, for many people, there is a way forward — marijuana.
Weed advocates argue that there is a growing amount of scientific evidence that supports the use of pot for addiction issues. An increasing number of people are touting that marijuana has helped them to kick their painkiller habit. There is also considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that many people battling addictions have real success through ingesting cannabis.
Medical marijuana treatment for addiction is often in the news due to its many benefits. With more and more states regulating its use, it’s hoped that researchers will perform more studies into why weed is beneficial in treating addiction.
Could weed be the breakthrough people with addictions have been looking for? Is it useful in managing the painful and unpleasant symptoms of addiction? In this article, we’ll look at how marijuana for addiction treatment works, its benefits, what conditions pot treats and more.
Signs and Symptoms of Addiction
Before you decide on getting addiction treatment or plan to speak to someone close to you about their substance abuse, you need to figure out whether the signs and symptoms of addiction are present either in yourself or a loved one.
Behavioral Signs of Addiction
When you’re addicted to a substance, you’ll likely find you’re letting things slip. For example, you may suffer from some of the following:
- Legal problems
- Missing school/work
- Missing important engagements
- Disrupted sleep patterns
- School/work problems
- Financial problems
- Marital/relationship problems
- Doctor shopping
- Stealing medications from friends and family
Physical Signs of Addiction
Besides having behavioral clues, you’ll also experience one or more of the following physical indications of addiction that include:
- Changes in eating habits
- Body odor due to lack of personal hygiene
- Unusual body odor
- Looking undernourished or pale
- Weight loss
- Red eyes
- Dilated pupils
- Runny nose
- Excessive sniffing
- Over- or under-active
- Repetitive speech patterns
When you’re facing an addiction, you’ll also experience the following:
- Continued substance use even in the face of adverse consequences
- Cravings and compulsive using
- Loss of control over the frequency and the amount of the substance used
How Marijuana for Addiction Treatment Works
Increasingly, people suffering from addictions are turning to pot to give them hope. Research into how medical marijuana for addiction treatment works is still in its infancy, but marijuana is proving it can be an effective treatment for substance recovery.
Cannabis is still surrounded by some stigma and controversy. However, as more studies and research highlighting the benefits of marijuana for some medical conditions, including drug and alcohol addiction, surface and states continue to pass laws for its use, these views are changing.
The following three studies illustrate the efficacy of cannabis regarding overcoming alcoholism and other more harmful drugs:
- A study from 2009, carried out by a team at the Laboratory for Physiopathology of Diseases of the Central Nervous System and published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology in 2009 discovered that THC (the primary active compound in pot) injections eliminated dependence on opiates, like heroin and morphine in animals.
- Another study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2007 found that medical marijuana patients were far less likely to use heavier drugs. They also used less tobacco than their peers who didn’t use marijuana.
- A further study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2009 found that respondents to a survey of addiction treatment and relapse rates among substance users used pot to calm their alcohol cravings. Of these respondents, 57.4 percent used cannabis as they found it better for managing their symptoms.
Further support for the benefits of medical marijuana for drug and alcohol addiction reveal that people addicted to painkillers and who received THC derived from the cannabis plant were more likely to have less difficult withdrawal symptoms and more likely to complete their treatment course than others who didn’t take THC.
In states where cannabis is legal for medical use, there are nearly 25 percent less opiate overdose fatalities. Also, more than 75 percent of people using marijuana for one month were able to taper off drugs.
Cannabinoids and Your Endocannabinoid System
Your body contains a natural system, known as the endocannabinoid system, which allows it to heal by decreasing pain and inflammation and increasing immunity. It works in very similar ways to the cannabinoids found in medical marijuana. When used correctly, marijuana supports your system and rewires your brain, unlike conventional treatments such as methadone that only block chemical transmission while they’re in your system.
What this means for you is that if your addiction specialist or physician treats you with a drug like methadone, your unhealed brain will still crave opiates. Cannabis, on the other hand, changes the composition of your brain, so your cravings are no longer a problem for you.
Medical marijuana and addiction treatment go hand-in-hand as cannabis promotes natural healing within your body. It also helps correct any underlying disease. Rather than just masking symptoms, medical pot offers a real solution when you’re addicted to a substance. Medical marijuana also has no side effects and is not addictive.
Medical Marijuana for Detox and Withdrawal
When you’re addicted to a substance, the first step in your recovery is to detox. Throughout this period, you’ll be required to stop taking your drug of choice or any other harmful substances. You can then become sober and rid your body of the toxins that have built up due to your drug use.
It’s no secret that detoxing is hard work. You’ll go through intense withdrawal symptoms. During this period, you might not get any pleasure from any of the activities you once enjoyed. You may also feel very emotionally and mentally traumatized.
Medical marijuana treats addiction in various ways. It’s used by many people to relieve pain and to manage upsetting symptoms, such as:
These are also symptoms associated with alcohol and drug withdrawal. It, therefore, stands to reason that it can work for people addicted to harder substances. Medical pot is useful for improving your mood. It can contribute to bettering your general outlook and enable you to regain that pleasure you’ve lost in life.
Cannabis as a Substitute for Other Drugs
For people who are seeking to fill a void in their lives left by another drug or for ones who are looking to practice harm reduction, does cannabis work as a substitute? Results from a small study of eight methamphetamine users looking to stay within a certain boundary of meth use were positive. The participants indicated that the reason pot helped them not to use as much meth was because it gave them mindfulness.
Rather than just rushing blindly ahead and taking their drug of choice whenever the mood struck them, the participants managed to slow down and think about what they were doing. They could then make the right choice for them rather than being guided by their addiction.
You might think that since cannabis is a psychoactive substance, rather than getting high on one drug, you’re just choosing the lesser of two evils instead. As we have discovered already, cannabis has many properties that help you quit other substances. It makes sense, then, that if you’re trying to wean yourself off alcohol or other drugs, doing it with weed makes it less likely you’ll relapse since your withdrawal won’t be as severe. Being able to deal with your withdrawal symptoms more comfortably can enable you to move forward and to quit the negative substance entirely.
For many people, the goal of treatment isn’t always abstinence. It’s to manage their life in ways where substances are no longer negatively affecting their lives.
Marijuana and Crystal Methamphetamine Addiction
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that comes in the form of rock-like crystals that are usually a semi-transparent blue or white color. The drug is most commonly heated and smoked via a glass pipe. It can also be injected or snorted.
This popular party drug causes many users to get hooked quickly due to its great rush. What happens when you take crystal meth is that your brain floods with the feel-good chemical dopamine, which makes you feel energetic and confident. Soon, you may find that you’d do almost anything to feel that rush again. Taking crystal methamphetamine is dangerous because as you keep using the drug, you become tolerant. You then need higher doses of meth to get the same effect — and so on as the cycle continues.
When you’re withdrawing from meth, the symptoms you experience can be intense and can include the following:
- Appetite increase
- Elevated temperature
- Intense drug cravings
- Excessive sleeping
- Difficulty sleeping
Although the symptoms of meth withdrawal are not as severe as those of heroin withdrawal, they’re still hard to contend with. One of the main benefits of using medical cannabis to treat a crystal meth addiction is that pot makes you feel calm, and therefore reduces the depression and anxiety felt as you detox. It can also help you get a better night’s sleep. Getting quality sleep as you work to overcome an addiction can help you have the mental and physical strength to achieve success.
Medical pot, when used carefully, can bring you real hope if you’re going through the challenges of dealing with a meth addiction.
Marijuana and Opiate Painkillers
With heroin and opioid addiction being a real problem in the U.S. today, and heroin overdose deaths doubling between 2010 and 2012, the medical community has attempted to treat this epidemic by prescribing even more opiates, like Suboxone and Methadone. Surely there is a better way forward. Could that involve medical marijuana?
When you’re addicted, the physical composition of your brain is changed. In opiate addiction, your brain is “rewired” and is no longer able to function without the help of the drug. If you try to stop taking your opiate, you’ll undergo difficult withdrawal symptoms that can last for anywhere from hours to days. These may include:
- Abdominal pain
- Body aches
- Involuntary leg movements
- Drug cravings
Your symptoms can be quite severe, especially if your drug addiction is due to using opiates to treat chronic pain. Your eventual withdrawal may be worse than you expected as you’ll be suffering a two-pronged pain attack.
Opioid addiction treatment usually involves giving you more drugs to attempt to mask your withdrawal symptoms. Drugs often prescribed during this period include:
- Clonidine: a medication for your blood pressure
- Methadone: an opioid that has no euphoric effects
- Buprenorphine and Naloxone: a combination drug that fights cravings
Even after your initial withdrawal ends, your physician or addiction specialist may prescribe you with other medications to stop you potentially abusing opiates again. You might be given Naltrexone, Methadone or Suboxone for example. However, taking more opioids may not be the answer to combating your addiction. Additionally, Methadone detox for opiate addiction usually requires that you be admitted to a Methadone clinic, which isn’t practical or accessible for many. You can also become dependent and even overdose on Methadone.
Studies have concluded that medical pot has some benefits, such as managing chronic pain and controlling nausea and vomiting. These are all side effects of withdrawing from opiates and heroin.
Marijuana and Cocaine
Studies in animals have indicated that by activating a receptor affected by pot, cocaine consumption can be dramatically reduced. This finding is promising as cocaine use is corrosive to the health of your mind and your body. When you’re trying to give up the drug, you face depression, body pains and headaches.
Cocaine-use creates intense feelings of euphoria within your body. Over time and with prolonged use, you need the drug just to feel normal.
A study found that lab animals addicted to cocaine, required between 50 and 60 percent less of the drug when they were given a synthetic cannabidiol. Again, this research points to medical marijuana as treatment for a cocaine addiction being a positive choice if you’re looking to kick your habit for good.
If you’ve been taking significant amounts of cocaine and you either cut down or stop taking the drug, you experience withdrawal. Symptoms can occur even if you still have some of the drugs within your bloodstream, and you’re not completely off cocaine.
When you take cocaine, it makes your brain release higher than usual amounts of some biochemicals, which then results in you feeling incredibly joyful and upbeat. However, when your high finally stops, you experience a heavy crash that makes you feel sleepy, irritable, unhappy, anxious, fatigued and sometimes even paranoid or very suspicious.
Often cocaine withdrawal has no visible symptoms. However, the levels of delayed depression, cravings and irritability can be just as strong or stronger than other types of withdrawal.
Symptoms of cocaine withdrawal may include:
- Depressed mood
- Slowing of activity
- Restless behavior
- General discomfort
- Unpleasant and vivid dreams
- Increased appetite
As the depression and cravings after giving up cocaine can be long-term and debilitating, smoking pot can help elevate your mood and provide you with a feeling of well-being that would be hard to achieve without cannabis.
Marijuana and Alcohol
For many people who have been abusing alcohol on a long-term basis, completely quitting is the best choice. Many years of daily heavy drinking can bring on a physical dependence as well as potentially life-threatening withdrawal symptoms if you try to go cold turkey or quit without professional help.
Withdrawing from alcohol is different from the stoppage of taking many other drugs as it can be deadly. The only other drugs that can cause death from withdrawal are benzodiazepines.
There are three levels of alcohol withdrawal:
1) Minor withdrawal. Symptoms appear within six to twelve hours after your last drink and include:
- Shaky hands
2) Mid-level withdrawal. Symptoms usually show within 12 to 48 hours after your last drink and include:
- Intensifying of minor withdrawal symptoms
- Tactile, visual or auditory hallucinations that you’re aware are not real
- Possible seizures
- Irregular heartbeat
- Racing pulse
3) Major withdrawal. Symptoms usually appear within 48 to 72 hours after your last drink and peak in five days. They include:
- Hallucinations that cannot be distinguished from reality
- Profuse sweating
- Severe tremors
- Severe blood pressure spikes
- Irregular and racing heartbeat
- Possible death
Can marijuana help with alcohol-related withdrawal symptoms and alcohol addiction? A 2004 study of 92 patients with alcohol dependence found that those who had been prescribed cannabis as a treatment remarked that it was either effective or very effective. Nine of the people studied had not touched alcohol for over a year and attributed this success to taking cannabis. Pot may also help alleviate the very debilitating symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.
The Future of Marijuana for Addiction Treatment
If you were wondering if weed really can help you kick your substance abuse habit or if it’s just an excuse for replacing one vice with another, it’s clear that there are many positives regarding the use of pot to quit other addictions. Marijuana is currently undergoing a popularity renaissance due to its recreational and medical legalization in many states and studies that support its therapeutic properties.
So does it stand to reason that with the rising popularity of cannabis, there will be a corresponding decline in hard drug use and binge drinking? That remains to be seen. However, as illustrated by the studies throughout this article, there is some evidence to suggest this could well be the case.
There is also anecdotal evidence through pot internet message boards or blog posts to suggest that many people credit medical cannabis in their recovery from everything from alcoholism to hard drugs. There is still so much stigma around marijuana, though, which is why education and research are of such importance.
There is mounting evidence to suggest that using marijuana is a safer way of quitting other substance addictions. Whether you’re coming off bath salts, benzodiazepines or heroin, medical pot can help. Addiction is a serious problem for people from all walks of life in the U.S. today. If you’re unsure as to how cannabis can help with your particular addiction, search for and talk to a marijuana doctor who can guide you in the right direction.