Updated on November 8, 2019. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Lobbyists and lawmakers within the U.S. government have long been committed to the belief that marijuana is a “gateway drug.” But with scientific analysis and studies accumulating the way they are, official programs like D.A.R.E. and some officials like Attorney General Loretta Lynch have revoked this assertion. The notion that medical marijuana does not lead to the use of harder drugs is being actively revisited.
Marijuana could still be a gateway drug — a gateway to recovery.
The evidence continues to grow: medical marijuana for alcoholism may reduce the symptoms of an addicted patient — namely nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness, lack of appetite, alcohol cravings and fatigue that go along with withdrawal and recovery from an addictive substance like alcohol.
Below, we’ll explore medical marijuana’s potential role in treating alcoholism. We will also look at how cannabis can help with relieving psychological conditions — such as stress, anxiety and stress — instead of resorting to drinking alcohol to combat them. Lastly, we discuss the cannabis strains that might be helpful for treating alcoholism.
Alcoholism is an often progressive and chronic disease. Individuals with the disease usually crave alcohol and continue drinking despite repetitive alcohol-related issues such as drunk driving violations, relationship problems or job loss. While alcoholism involves being physically dependent on alcohol, there are other factors involved as well, such as cultural and psychological influences and genetics.
An inability to stop drinking and having cravings for beer, wine or hard spirits characterizes those who are addicted to alcohol. Physical dependence accompanies the disease — you experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink.
You have a higher tolerance for alcohol when you’re an alcoholic, meaning to feel good you need to drink larger amounts. Many individuals addicted to alcohol deny they have a drinking problem. Other individuals may abuse alcohol but aren’t dependent on it. The latter group still have some of the same symptoms as alcoholics do, but they won’t crave alcohol or experience the withdrawal symptoms.
Around 17 million Americans abuse alcohol and over 70 million individuals in the U.S. face alcoholism in their families, according to estimates provided by the University of Maryland Medical Center. Alcohol abuse is among the four most common causes of U.S. deaths. It’s also involved in around 50 percent of U.S. traffic-related deaths.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study investigated a group of people’s drinking tendencies to classify them into different alcoholism “degrees.” The researchers identified five distinct types of alcoholics based on functionality and age of onset. Below are their findings:
Researchers understand that not all people will fall neatly into each category. But they hope to use these classifications to better recognize alcoholism and its effects and to ensure those who are impaired with it get the treatment they need.
The history of alcoholism is storied. It’s mentioned in the Christian Bible and in the histories of just about every culture. Alcoholism has also accompanied us into modern times and seen our perception of it change as new research and social trends surface. In America, during Colonial times, alcohol was a huge part of the social life of the community. Individuals used it quite often not just as a beverage, but also as a medicine. Therefore, alcohol was perceived as both enjoyable and healthful.
Attempts to respond to alcoholism shifted in the mid-to-late 19th century to try to keep the substance under control rather than the individual. Around the same time, we saw a reawakening in alcohol science in the U.S. as well as the launch of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
Physical and behavioral outcomes identify symptoms of alcohol abuse. When you’re addicted to alcohol, you may engage in some of these behaviors:
You may also experience these symptoms when you have alcohol use disorder:
When you drink regularly and heavily, you’re at risk of developing depression symptoms. Routine drinking lowers your brain’s serotonin levels, which regulates your mood.
Drinking repeatedly and heavily may affect your relationships with our family, partner and friends. It could affect your work performance, and these issues may cause even more depression. If you’re drinking because you’re trying to mask your depression or improve your mood, it could be the beginning of a vicious cycle.
Depression and anxiety tend to be more common in those who drink heavily. Alcohol can even damage your memory. The processes of your brain slow down soon after you drink alcohol impairing your memory. When you drink copious amounts of alcohol, it may stop your brain from recording into its “memory store.”
Alcohol abuse and addiction statistics according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include:
Treatment for alcoholism depends on your needs, which may vary. It may involve an initial intervention, a residential inpatient stay or outpatient program and group or individual counseling. The primary goal of treatment is to stop your alcohol use and improve your quality of life.
Alcoholism treatment may include:
Your treatment may start off with a detox program where you withdraw from alcohol in a medical setting. This may take anywhere from two to seven days. You may require specific medications during your detox process to prevent withdrawal effects. You typically will in a hospital or inpatient treatment center.
Next, you’ll receive:
Your doctor may prescribe medications that assist in overcoming your alcoholism. These may include:
You may be given Naltrexone after you’ve gone through your detox stage. It works by blocking your brain’s receptors associated with the “high” of alcohol. It can decrease your alcohol cravings when combined with counseling. Side effects of Naltrexone may include:
You may experience only a couple of these side effects or many of them.
Your doctor may prescribe this medication to help your brain re-establish its initial chemical state before your alcoholism. Side effects of Acamprosate may include:
You’ll want to discuss these potential side effects with your doctor.
This medication will cause you physical discomfort each time you consume alcohol, such as headaches, nausea and vomiting. Side effects of Disulfiram may include:
Support groups and aftercare programs are essential, since they help you while you’re recovering from your alcoholism by stopping you from drinking, managing any relapses and coping with lifestyle changes that are crucial to your successful recovery.
Recovery programs for addiction in marijuana-friendly states provide a new tool. Studies on weed on lab rats show it successfully eliminates opiate addiction. Additionally, those who are in addiction treatment have managed their alcohol withdrawal symptoms successfully using medical cannabis for alcoholism.
The Harm Reduction Journal published a 2009 study that indicated a continuing success rate in the following areas:
These individuals said the common reasons why they decided to substitute with medical pot were:
Recent studies on the benefits of medical marijuana show how significantly less dangerous marijuana is to individuals and society than alcohol (UK: Journal of Psychopharmacology: Popular Intoxicants — What Lessons Can Be Learned From the Last 40 Years of Alcohol and Cannabis Regulation?). Cannabis will not kill the liver, destroy brain cells or otherwise permanently damage the organs of the human body.
Also, new studies show that cannabinoids protect neural cells from cell death during the “drying out” period of alcohol withdrawal. Whereas many cells would die from the withdrawal of alcohol from the body, cannabinoids protect the cells from dying. The study took the extra step to prove the opposite is true as well by introducing a cannabinoid antagonist. Researchers saw an accelerated dell death during alcohol withdrawal. (Pharmacological Activation/Inhibition of the Cannabinoid System Affects Alcohol Withdrawal-Induced Neuronal Hypersensitivity to Excitotoxic Insults).
What does this mean for patients with alcoholism? It means they finally have a choice in going “cold turkey” and taking chances that they might fall off the wagon because the disease won’t let go of them or they can take medical marijuana to ease their discomfort and protect their brain cells during withdrawal.
However, this is fairly new research and the patients with the best opportunity are those who already reside in a legalized medical marijuana state and have very forward-thinking doctors who feel that prescribing the medical marijuana would benefit this group of patients. All the right factors have to be in place for these patients to receive the benefits of medical marijuana.
Since the majority of people who depend upon alcohol to “get high” can transfer those sensations to pot because they already smoke, this is an easy choice. The transition can be quite smooth, and significantly cheaper than liquor and alcoholism in the long run. However, the previously mentioned study regarding the protection of neurons in the brain during withdrawal by medical marijuana, the marijuana was vaporized and inhaled into the sinus passages providing direct contact with the brain. This is necessary to note should you find a marijuana doctor and wish to discuss how to take your prescription for your withdrawal symptoms.
If you’re a chronic alcoholic, there’s proof cannabis and alcoholism treatment can benefit your recovery. The Journal of Neuroscience published a study in 2014 showing that since cannabinoids can behave like neuroprotective shields, treatments with cannabinoids may help prevent brain damage sustained during withdrawal.
Researchers conclude cannabinoids may help to ease alcohol cravings when used to replace alcohol to achieve complete sobriety and help you struggle less during your recovery.
You may already know the anti-oxidant effects of cannabinol (CBD). Researchers decided to investigate CBD’s ability to reverse oxidative stress in the liver due to alcohol. They injected ethanol into mice for five days, twice daily, to model binge drinking’s impact on the liver. Before this, they administered CBD into a group of mice as a preventative measure. Results from the study showed CBD indeed could prevent steatosis of the liver.
Marijuana for alcoholism can help with a variety of alcohol disorder symptoms, including:
Many drinkers use alcohol to medicate for anxiety, depression, PTSD, stress and other psychological conditions. Using marijuana responsibly may provide relief from emotional ailments like these without the dangers of addiction and withdrawal that you see with prescription drugs and alcohol.
There are several helpful strains for alcoholism. These include OG Kush and Pure OG Kush — two potent Indica strains. To find relief, it may take just one hit, if smoking the herb. Other strains that can help combat symptoms related to alcoholism include:
Your budtender can help you choose the strain that works best for your symptoms and needs.
Individuals report taking one or two hits of medical marijuana in the morning or later on in the evening is a good dosage. Vaporizers are good alternatives if you don’t like to smoke your herb. You can always make a cannabis tea. Other methods include:
MarijuanaDoctors.com can help you find a doctor who believes in alternative medicine and the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of alcoholism. Never more than a phone call or email away, you can feel confident and secure about talking to someone who cares about your problems and will refer you to a doctor who, with compassion, will help you through the physical unpleasantness of this disease.
Search for a medical marijuana dispensary or find a doctor today so you can start your marijuana and alcoholism treatment.
For more information about how cannabis can be used to treat alcoholism, check out our resources: