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Overcoming Opioid Addiction With Cannabis

Last Updated: February 25, 2022By Joshua Mezher

The United States has endured the devastating consequences of the opioid epidemic for over 20 years. First designed to alleviate chronic pain and significantly improve patients' quality of life, opioids are powerful medications that can lead to a crippling addiction.

Like cocaine, many opioids began as therapeutic pain treatments in the 1990s. It soon became apparent that opioids presented a significant risk for addiction and overdose. As a result, healthcare professionals and patients began seeking pain relievers with fewer risks. In recent years, people have turned to cannabis instead of opioids to treat pain. Cannabis is safer than opioids and can also help opioid addicts overcome their addiction.

Opioid Crisis

The Opioid Crisis in Numbers

Nearly 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999. Opioid-related deaths quadrupled between 1999 and 2016. Several prescription pain relievers like fentanyl and oxycodone and street drugs like heroin are opioids. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is considerably more potent than other opioids. 

Opioids were responsible for 72.9% of overdose deaths, with most resulting from synthetic opioids, excluding methadone. These drugs are also responsible for increasing rates of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). NAS occurs when a pregnant woman exposes her fetus to opioids while in the womb, causing withdrawal symptoms at birth. From 2010 to 2017, the number of babies born with NAS increased by 82%. By 2017, 7 in 1,000 newborns had NAS, amounting to 80 newborns born with NAS every day!

With patients suffering from chronic pain shifting to cannabis as a substitute for opioids, many wonder if the controversial plant is a safer alternative. Even though there isn't much research about cannabis, researchers concluded that it is a safer option. That said, the degree of safety depends on the method, amount, and frequency that patients consume cannabis. Unlike opioids, cannabis has relatively mild side effects and zero recorded overdose deaths.

Can You Replace Your Addiction? 

If you or someone you know is suffering from opioid addiction, you may wonder if you can replace the habit with something safer. Fifty million Americans live with chronic or severe pain. Many use cannabis as an alternative to opioids, especially as more than two dozen states have passed laws to allow qualified patients access to medical marijuana. More older adults over the age of 65 have been turning to cannabis. Cannabis usage in this population has increased from 0.4% to 2.9% in just ten years. Both elderly and younger patients use cannabis as a substitute for opioids to treat chronic or severe pain. They are also using cannabis to treat insomnia, anxiety, and neuropathy instead of other prescription medications. 

Are these patients benefiting from using cannabis instead of opioids and other prescription medications? One study found that more than 54% of respondents used cannabis to treat their medical conditions. Over 67% reported using cannabis to relieve pain, and nearly 25% used it to treat depression. Many respondents also reported using cannabis to treat arthritis. Almost 40% said they could stop using prescription drugs after replacing them with cannabis.

In comparison, over 45% significantly reduced their prescription drug use. Even more promising, over 65% of the respondents said that cannabis was more effective than prescription drugs. The vast majority of respondents also reported that the side effects they experienced from using prescription drugs were much worse compared to the side effects of cannabis. The researchers concluded that more research is necessary -especially as using cannabis as an alternative for prescription drugs becomes more commonplace.

The lack of available research is a significant issue that continues to plague America's state-legal cannabis industry. For decades, federal law has classified cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance with no medical applications. Classifying marijuana this way prevents further research into the medical benefits and potential side effects. Even though several states legalized medical and recreational cannabis, federal law still hinders cannabis research.

Despite the hype and mainstream media attention cannabis has received in recent years, it is not a cure-all or a miracle drug. Anecdotal evidence suggests that using cannabis as a replacement to opioids results in positive outcomes for some people. However, we still lack peer-reviewed scientific studies to support these anecdotal claims. Plus, epidemiological research shows that cannabis use may result in marijuana use disorder.

Will Cannabis Feel Like Opiates?

A 2017 poll revealed that over half of Americans over 18 tried cannabis at least once. Patients who fall in this category probably remember how being under the influence of cannabis feels. If you haven't ingested cannabis in a while or you've never tried cannabis, and you are considering it as an alternative to opioids, you may have the following questions:

  • What are the differences between opioids and cannabis?
  • Why would cannabis or opioids be preferable to the other?
  • Are there cannabis edibles that feel like opioids? 

Both opioids and cannabis can provide relief from pain by interacting with receptors in the brain and body, but they all work a little bit differently. Opioids like oxycodone, morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and hydrocodone bind with active opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. These structures work together to induce pain, pleasure, and euphoria. Your body becomes used to the euphoria these drugs induce with regular use. These effects make you more likely to use them repeatedly or develop an addiction.

On the other hand, cannabis contains cannabinoids that interact with cannabinoid receptors on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, and periphery organs. This network of cannabinoid receptors and endocannabinoids make up the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are naturally occurring cannabinoids that your body produces. 

The endocannabinoid system is a communications pathway that regulates functions like pain, appetite, mood, sleep, and memory. Cannabis doesn't interact with receptors that induce pleasure or euphoria or receptors in critical regions of the brain. As a result, more people prefer the cannabis mechanism in place of opioids because it presents a reduced risk for addiction and overdose.

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What We Know About Cannabis and Opioids

Cannabis and opioids can provide relief from pain via wildly different mechanisms. Many people die each year from drug overdoses, most of which result from opioid addiction, so more people are turning to cannabis. The scientific community has to delve deeper into the relationship between these substances. They are studying a variety of factors to develop a better understanding of the treatment applications of cannabis, including:

  • Which conditions does cannabis usually treat? 
  • How effective cannabis treatment is versus opioids. 
  • What are the addiction rates of cannabis vs. opioids

Lower opioid use

According to researchers, there is an association between the increasing prevalence of retail cannabis and reduced opioid-related mortality rates. They also found that increasing access to high-quality cannabis reduced opioid use and abuse rates, opioid-related hospitalizations, traffic fatalities, and drug treatment admissions. 

This 2021 study compared medical cannabis patients who were chronic opioid users to controls who were also chronic opioid users. Medical cannabis consumption had an intermediate effect on opioid use. Patients who were on a higher opioid dose observed a much more significant reduction in opioid use. Additionally, the researchers found that patients who received medical cannabis treatment reported less opioid use and were less likely to stop taking prescription opioids than the controls.

Patients who used fewer opioids and those who used higher doses reported different reduction rates. The high dose group reported a more significant drop in opioid use. The consensus was that there is an association between cannabis use and reduced prescription opioid use. A study in Israel found that 43% of chronic pain patients using prescription opioids significantly reduced their opioid use once they started using medical cannabis. Several other studies also found that increased access to medical cannabis may be responsible for reduced use of prescription opioids. 

Increased pain relief

The effectiveness of cannabis treatment depends on the type of pain the patient is experiencing, the type and dosage of the prescription opioid, and if the patient is using other drugs with the opioids and cannabis. As a result, patients increasingly prefer the cannabis mechanism in place of opioids to treat their pain.

Studies analyzing the association between opioids and cannabis have also discovered another interesting fact. Cannabis enhances opioids' analgesic properties via two cannabinoids: delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and dronabinol. Researchers also studied the analgesic properties, potential for abuse, and the cognitive performance of each cannabinoid. They found that a 2.5mg hydromorphone and dronabinol dose improved opioids' analgesic properties and posed the lowest risk for abuse. A 10 mg dose resulted in a minor reduction in pain rating and had a hyperalgesic effect with increased pain sensitivity. 

The study concluded that cannabis could enhance opioids' pain-relieving properties, reduce side effects, and prevent the development of tolerance and withdrawal symptoms from allowing for easier detoxification. The level of improvement in these symptoms depends on individual differences. Additional studies are necessary to analyze the effects of cannabis instead of cannabinoids on these outcomes and to study patients instead of using experimental models of clinical chronic pain conditions. 

Thanks to anecdotal evidence and a robust body of literature, more people opt for cannabis instead of other controlled substances, including alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medications. A 2019 study that analyzed 1.5 billion individual opioid prescriptions between 2011 and 2018 found that the prevalence of medical and recreational marijuana laws led to a reduced supply of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). A similar study revealed that over 60% of respondents reduced or discontinued their other medications thanks to cannabis. Another survey of military veterans found that most of the participants used cannabis instead of other substances, including alcohol.

Reduced cravings

Finally, some studies show that cannabis enhances opioid use disorder treatment by mitigating opioid-related cravings. One of the reasons it is so hard to recover from opioid addiction is because the withdrawal symptoms (opioid withdrawal syndrome) can be brutal and life-threatening. This gives people with substance addictions minimal incentive to seek treatment.

Researchers in Canada recruited participants from community-based addiction centers in Ontario to explore the association between opioid use and cannabis use during treatment. They found that individuals who consumed cannabis daily were less likely to relapse and use opioids than occasional cannabis users. Another 2020study found that cannabis may have the potential to reduce opioid consumption, dull opioid withdrawal symptoms, ease opioid cravings, improve OUD treatment retention, prevent opioid relapse, and reduce opioid deaths.


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How to Substitute Opioids With Cannabis

Choose your strain 

Now that you have a better understanding of the relationship between opioids and cannabis let's explore how you can substitute your prescription opioids with cannabis. 

There are many different cannabis strains. Each strain's unique cannabinoid and terpene profile gives rise to a variety of mental and physical effects. Some cannabis strains are great for insomnia or anxiety, while others can help boost concentration and creativity or treat pain. To ensure successful treatment for chronic pain, you need to pick a medical cannabis strain that effectively relieves all kinds of pain. 

Cheerful relief

Sour Diesel is a cannabis strain that fits the bill, and it's becoming the preferred medical marijuana strain due to its potent pain-relieving abilities. This Sativa cannabis strain leaves users feeling cheerful and energized all day.

Social and pain-free

Another strain that may treat your pain is White Widow. It is a potent Indica-dominant hybrid that's so potent that beginners should wait to try it until they are more familiar with the ways cannabis affects them personally. It works well to relieve pain and provide anti-anxiety and sleep-inducing effects, making it the perfect strain for anyone looking to sleep off their aches and pains. 

Rest well and relaxed

Blueberry is a high THC, high cannabidiol (CBD) strain that has been around since the 1970s. The high levels of THC and CBD make it very effective for treating pain and relieving anxiety. ACDC is another high THC, high CBD strain that's popular among individuals looking for pain relief. CBD reduces the intoxicating effects of THC and boosts its therapeutic properties, making this Sativa-dominant strain a worthy adversary for pain. Northern Lights is another Indica strain that is famous for its pain-relieving and relaxation effects.

Grow Your Plant

Once you have settled on a suitable strain, you can purchase the cannabis from a dispensary or grow your own. Depending on your state and its cannabis laws, you may be able to grow as many as 12 plants at home, allowing you to grow your cannabis organically. Cannabis plants absorb and store whatever is in the soil, including minerals, toxic fertilizers, and herbicides. You should make sure the cannabis you consume is organic and doesn't contain contaminants. 

If you are a first-time grower, you should probably use a premade growing kit like those produced by A Pot 4 Pot. These kits come with everything you need for your cannabis growing journey, from seed to harvest. All you need to do is plant the seeds in the kit and water them as directed. Purchasing A Pot 4 Pot cannabis growing kit also gives you access to a support team to answer your questions and advise you as your plants grow. These kits are entirely organic, so your plants will be healthy and free from impurities when it comes time to harvest them.

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Do I Vaporize or Make Edibles?

Eating edibles and vaping are safer ways to consume cannabis compared to smoking. There are cannabis edibles that feel like opioids and have strong, long-lasting effects. A cannabis edible can offer pain relief for between 6 and 24 hours. The effects will take between 15 minutes to 2 hours to kick in, depending on your metabolism.

In contrast, vaping cannabis causes the effects to kick in almost immediately. After vaping, the effects peak within 30 minutes and last for 1-3 hours. If you want fast-acting and long-lasting pain relief, you can use them both at the same time by taking a few puffs from the vape to give you pain relief while you wait for the edibles to kick in. 

Summing it up…

That's everything you need to know before choosing to substitute opioids with cannabis! Plenty of people say they have been able to reduce or eliminate opioid use thanks to cannabis. Others have been able to complete opioid use disorder treatment with the help of cannabis. Just remember to consult your state laws and talk to your doctor, especially if you are pregnant or on other medications. 

If you're ready to take the leap and grow your own cannabis, a Pot for Pot is happy to help. Investing in one of our organic cannabis growing kits can ensure you harvest clean and healthy cannabis.
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