Daily Cannabis Use Can Help Patients Stick with Opioid Addiction Treatments, Study Finds

The study found that those who used cannabis every day were much more likely to stick with treatments than non-users.

Daily marijuana use may help those in opioid use disorder programs stay in treatment, according to a new study published in the journal Addiction.

Researchers from the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) interviewed 820 people enrolled in opioid agonist treatment (OAT) programs over a 20-year period, between December 1996 and March 2016.

OAT is a treatment regimen involving taking opioid agonists methadone or buprenorphine to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs.

The researchers found that everyday cannabis use is associated with greater retention rates. The participants who reported using marijuana daily were approximately 21 percent more likely to still be in the treatment after six months than non-using participants.

“Untreated opioid use disorder is a key driver of the overdose crisis in BC and across North America,” said Eugenia Socías, lead author of the study and research scientist at BCCSU, in a press release.

“With cannabis use common among people with opioid use disorder, these findings highlight the urgent need for clinical research to evaluate the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids as adjunctive treatment to OAT to address the escalating opioid overdose epidemic.”

treatment for opioid addiction

Growing Body of Evidence

Prior observational studies have consistently revealed the benefits of cannabis for reducing opioid abuse and fatal overdoses. Legal access to marijuana has been linked to drops in opioid use, doctor-written opioid prescriptions, opioid-related hospitalizations, and opioid overdose deaths.

The possible reasons for cannabis’ efficacy for reducing opioid intake and overdoses could include its benefit of being a safer alternative for managing pain, as well as its ability to help those being treated for addiction to manage withdrawal symptoms. Research has shown that marijuana can reduce cravings of other drugs like opioids.

While the new study from BCCSU and UBC researchers adds to the emerging body of evidence suggesting cannabis has a positive impact on those who use other dangerous substances, it is the first to find a beneficial link between frequent cannabis use and OAT retention.

The researchers called for more research into cannabis’ potential for addressing the opioid epidemic.

“Given the well-known mortality risk reduction benefit of sustained engagement in OAT, findings from the present study alongside prior research evidence support the urgent need for clinical research to evaluate the therapeutic potential of cannabinoids as adjunctive treatment to OAT to address the escalating opioid-overdose epidemic,” the study concluded.

“The therapeutic benefits of cannabis are only just the beginning to be understood,” said senior author and BCCSU research scientist Dr. M-J Milloy, in an interview.

“This research suggests that cannabis could have a stabilizing impact for many patients on treatment, while also reducing the risk of overdose. Further examination of its therapeutic value and clinical application is clearly needed.”

You can access the entire study, “High‐intensity cannabis use is associated with retention in opioid agonist treatment: a longitudinal analysis,” through the Wiley Online Library

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