Updated on January 21, 2020.
Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
As marijuana is legalized in more and more states for medical and recreational use, a very important question has arisen. Can marijuana be used to help combat opiate addiction? The opioid epidemic is a devastating issue that claimed more lives since 2017 than the entire Vietnam war. It is obvious that something must be done to help offset this dramatic loss of life. There are a few different ways to look at it, before we do that let’s take a look at how detox programs, rehab facilities, outpatient clinics and others are approaching this.
Detoxing from Opiates
Most detox centers will use prescription medications to help offset the physical pain associated with opiate withdrawals. When used short-term and just as a detox medication, these substances do wonders to help an addict comfortably overcome opiate withdrawal. The typical stay in an opiate detox center is around 5-10 days, depending on the amount used, length of use and the client’s age, height and weight. When the person with addiction enters the detox facility they will have a taper set up. This means the amount of the medication they receive on a daily basis will slowly lower until they are no longer on them.
This is the most typical approach for most opiate detox facilities, some programs will take a different approach, getting the user off their drug of choice and prescribing or distributing the detox medications over a longer term. This can be very helpful to get the user off the harder drugs and onto something more easily obtainable and cheaper. This helps prevent the person with addiction issues from going back to their main drug of choice, but they will remain physically dependent. This means the user will have to eventually get off these medications or stay on them for life.
Opiate Rehab Facilities
Drug rehab centers throughout the United States have various approaches to help clients overcome their abuse/addiction issues. Some will combine various therapies, like one on one sessions, group therapy, EMDR and cognitive behavioral therapy. Other’s use a religious approach while some are wilderness programs and therapeutic communities (TCs). Then there are programs that combine different approaches combined with a 12-step approach. There is no way to say what approach is best for each individual, that is something that must be decided on a case to case basis. Some of these programs suggest abstinence from any and all mood and mind-altering chemicals.
Marijuana to Combat Opioid Use
Medical marijuana is currently legal in over half of the United States, it is used to treat a variety of medical conditions and illnesses, and in some instances marijuana be used to help with opioid addiction. Some programs and medical professionals are trying this new controversial approach. Their ultimate goal is to reduce the number of opiates used until the user is no longer on any.
While using marijuana to fight opiate use may seem counterproductive; after all, abstinence is a very important part of recovery. The first few months of recovery are very challenging, for some cessations from all substances is not always possible, especially in the beginning. Finding a method to help those addicted to opiates get their life back is the most important part of finding success in sobriety.
When marijuana is used to treat opioid addiction, it is done so by a method called harm reduction. This means that it is used to help reduce the number of opioids taken by an individual, this will help reduce the chance of an overdose or other dangerous consequences from occurring. This approach is still very new and not enough studies have been conducted to provide definitive proof whether it works or not. Some people swear by it, while others think it is just a temporary fix and that the user will soon turn back to opiates.
When medical marijuana is used to help people with opiate addiction, it will actually enhance the effects of opioids. This will make it easier for the user to take less of their drug of choice when they are also using marijuana. A study was done in 2016 by PubMed where they surveyed 244 medical cannabis patients in Michigan. The use of medical cannabis was associated with an overall 64% decrease in opioid use. This is a very small test group, obviously, more studies will and are being conducted to see if marijuana can help with opioid addiction.