How Cannabis Can Be Used To Aid Opioid Use Disorder

How Cannabis Can Be Used To Aid Opioid Use Disorder

October 20, 2022

An addiction to any substance can be a tragic matter for everyone involved - users and their loved ones - but few drugs are as catastrophic to one’s life as opioids. Opioids are a major problem in the United States, so much so that in 2019 an estimated 10.1 million people, ages 12 or older, misused opioids or opiates (naturally found opioid substances ie. heroin).

Of that 10.1 million, 745,000 used heroin and 9.7 million misused prescription opioids. 

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, the synthetic variant fentanyl, and legally prescribed pain medications such as oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and more. Opioids operate by binding to mu-opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and body to ameliorate pain.

These drugs are incredibly efficient pain relief. However, they can quickly become extremely addictive and harmful substances that destroy lives. 

The Signs of Opioid Addiction

Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is defined by the inability of a person to stop using opioids. Generally, opioid addiction begins with a prescription from a doctor to treat pain after injury, or chronic pain. Consequently, in cases such as these, the early stages of addiction can be difficult to notice. Often the lines between medication, recreation, and abuse blur slowly.

Opioids trigger the release of endorphins, which are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters in the brain. Over time, repeated use of opioids causes the body to slow down its natural production and release of endorphins. This means that users need more and more narcotics to get the same euphoric, pain-relieving effects they once felt. This can often put users onto stronger opioid medications, illegal substances like heroin, dangerous synthetics like fentanyl, or other types of drugs that offer a similar high.

While some cases of opioid addiction and abuse may be relatively easy to spot, others may not be so. Some of the signs that you or a loved one could be addicted to opioids include: 

  • An Inability to control opioid use
  • Uncontrollable cravings
  • Drowsiness
  • Changes in sleep habits
  • Severe weight loss
  • Frequent flu-like symptoms 
  • Changes in exercise habits
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Stealing from family, friends or businesses 

What Is Opioid Withdrawal?

A daunting aspect of discontinuing opioid use, and a common reason why many addicts do not seek help, is the subsequent withdrawal period. Opioid withdrawal is the set of symptoms that occur when one restrains from opioid use after a heavy and/or prolonged period of use. 

Withdrawal from opioids is a grueling period that can be physically uncomfortable and painful and can result in life-threatening consequences.

Symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Yawning
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

How Does Cannabis Help Addicts?

Whenever using a substance to get clean or minimize withdrawals from a different drug, be sure to do it after consulting with a doctor. 

Some studies show that cannabis could help to alleviate opioid withdrawal symptoms. 

  • A study in 2021 reported that CBD could be used to reduce dominant symptoms including:
    • Severe anxiety or depression
    • Insomnia
    • Pain
    • Muscle spasms
    • Nausea/vomiting
  • A study based on reports from users themselves showed that many people are using cannabis to help with opioid abuse. 

However, Scientists generally agree that cannabis is not a viable option alone to treat more serious opioid use disorder cases or to remove an addiction entirely. It is recommended that cannabis be used in conjunction with Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), and then later to ease withdrawals. Here’s more on MAT:

  • MAT treatment relies on drugs that block opioid receptors, tricking your brain into thinking it has already gotten the high it so desperately now craves after prolonged opioid use. 

  • Peter Grinspoon, an opioid use disorder survivor and an addiction medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, is a strong advocate for marijuana use for OUD. However, he doesn’t recommend cannabis for OUD except as an adjunct to MAT. 

  • There are currently 3 drugs that are FDA approved for treating opioid use. MAT can take place at a specialized facility, but it doesn’t have to be in all cases. Often it can simply be supervised by a physician.

Final Words For Those Struggling

If you are struggling with opioid addiction, whether serious abuse of drugs like heroin and fentanyl or a case of excessive prescription drug use, be sure to contact a professional to seek help.

Getting off any substance can be difficult, but opioids may be the most daunting with regard to detoxing. Keep in mind that while undergoing treatment, cannabis may likely be an option to ease withdrawal discomfort and stay clean from opioids.