Medical marijuana is frequently in the news, and hopefully the growing awareness of the
benefits of medical marijuana will lead to more sensible regulations and
deeper research into why cannabis is so helpful in treating so many
different conditions. Among the conditions that medical marijuana can treat is addiction, whether to drugs or alcohol.
Marijuana as a recovery treatment is controversial, not least because
there is conflicting research about whether medical marijuana is or is
not addictive. However, many studies have found that medical marijuana
is not addictive, or as harmful, as other drugs such as alcohol and
opiates. Additionally, several studies have shown that marijuana can be
an effective treatment for recovery from other substances.
Medical Marijuana as a Recovery Treatment
Since marijuana has earned an undeserved negative reputation in many
quarters, it is often difficult to determine what is fact and what is
politics when talking about medical marijuana. However, the following
three studies pointed to definite possibilities of using cannabis to
overcome dependence on more harmful drugs and alcoholism:
A 2009 study performed by the Laboratory for Physiopathology of
Diseases of the Central Nervous System found that injections of THC, the
primary active chemical in cannabis, helped eliminate dependence on
opiates such as morphine and heroin in test animals.
A survey compiling self-reported addiction treatment and relapse
rates among substance users, “Cannabis as a Substitute for Alcohol and
Other Drugs” that was published in the Harm Reduction Journal,
found that respondents used cannabis to curb their alcohol cravings, as
an alternative to previous use of prescription drugs, and even as a
substitute for more potent drugs such as cocaine. Tellingly, 57.4% of
respondents chose to use cannabis because it provided better symptom
management as well.
Another study published in the Harm Reduction Journal,
“Long term cannabis users seeking medical cannabis in California,” found
that medical cannabis users were much less likely to use more potent
drugs, and even reported less tobacco use than non-cannabis users.
Why Use Marijuana as a Recovery Treatment?
It’s clear that more effective addiction recovery treatment is needed in our country. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,
depending on the addiction, up to half of individuals who begin an
addiction treatment program relapse within six months. As more states
move to legalize medical marijuana, it is becoming easier for
scientists, doctors, and researchers to point to the benefits of marijuana as a treatment for pain relief and symptom management for many diseases. Benefits now known to the scientific community include:
Medical marijuana patients are able to function more fully in daily
activities and work, unlike with many prescription opiates for symptom
Medical marijuana patients report fewer unpleasant side effects with
marijuana than with many traditional and stronger drug treatments.
Medical marijuana patients achieve more effective symptom relief using marijuana than with other alternatives.
Since withdrawal from alcohol and serious drug use often prompts the
same symptoms as other medical conditions that marijuana is used to
treat (anxiety, depression, pain, nausea, and sleeplessness,) it is
logical that responsible use of marijuana could also help with addiction
At the same time, medical marijuana as an addiction recovery
treatment is a sensitive topic. Do your research to separate marijuana
fact from marijuana fiction to decide whether this might be a treatment
option for you, and remember that like any other healthcare decision,
this should be discussed with your doctor or other trusted medical
Role of Cannabinoid Receptors in Alcohol Abuse
By Karen McNulty Walsh
A new set of experiments in mice confirms that a brain receptor associated with the reinforcing effects of marijuana also helps to stimulate the rewarding and pleasurable effects of alcohol. The research, which was conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and was published online September 2, 2005, by the journal Behavioural Brain Research, confirms a genetic basis for susceptibility to alcohol abuse and also suggests that drugs designed to block these receptors could be useful in treatment.
"These findings build on our understanding of how various receptors in the brain's reward circuits contribute to alcohol abuse, help us understand the role of genetic susceptibility, and move us farther along the path toward successful treatments," said Brookhaven's Panayotis (Peter) Thanos, lead author of this study and many others on "reward" receptors and drinking.
Earlier studies in animals and humans have suggested that so-called cannabinoid receptors known as CB1 -- which are directly involved in triggering the reinforcing properties of marijuana -- might also stimulate reward pathways in response to drinking alcohol. Thanos' group investigated this association in two experiments.
In the first experiment, they measured alcohol preference and intake in mice with different levels of CB1 receptors: wild type mice with normal levels of CB1; heterozygous mice with approximately 50 percent levels; and so-called knockout (KO) mice that lack the gene for CB1 and therefore have no CB1 receptors. All mice were given a choice of two drinking bottles, one with pure water and one with a 10 percent alcohol solution -- approximately equivalent to the alcohol content of wine. Mice with the normal levels of CB1 receptors had a stronger preference for alcohol and drank more than the other two groups, with the CB1-deficient mice showing the lowest alcohol consumption.
After establishing each group's level of drinking, the scientists treated animals with a drug known to block CB1 receptors (SR141716A) and tested them again. (These animals were also compared with animals injected with plain saline to control for the effect of the injection.) In response to the CB1 receptor-blocking drug, mice with normal and intermediate levels of receptors drank significantly less alcohol compared to their pre-treatment levels, while KO mice showed no change in drinking in response to the treatment.
In the second experiment, the scientists compared the tendency of wild type and KO mice to seek out an environment in which they had previously been given alcohol. Known as "conditioned place preference," this is an established technique for determining an animal's preference for a drug.
Animals were first conditioned to "expect" alcohol in a given portion of a three-chambered cage while being given an injection of saline in the opposite end, and then monitored for how much time they spent in the alcohol chamber "seeking" the drug. Wild type animals, with normal levels of CB1, spent more time in the alcohol-associated chamber than the saline chamber, showing a decided preference, while KO mice (with no CB1 receptors) showed no significant preference for one chamber over the other.
"These results support our belief that the cannabinoid system and CB1 receptors play a critical role in mediating the rewarding and pleasurable properties of alcohol, contributing to alcohol dependency and abuse," Thanos said.
In addition, the fact that the mice with intermediate levels of CB1 exhibited alcohol preference and intake midway between those with high levels of receptors and those with none suggests that the genetic difference between strains quantitatively influences the preference for and the amount of alcohol consumed. "These results provide further evidence for a genetic component to alcohol abuse that includes the CB1 gene -- the same gene that is important for the behavioral effects of marijuana," Thanos said.
While it remains unclear exactly how CB1 triggers the rewarding effects of alcohol, one possibility is that activation of the CB1 receptor somehow blocks the brain's normal "stop" signals for the production of dopamine, another brain chemical known to play a role in addiction. Without the stop signal, more dopamine is released to produce a pleasure/reward response.
Since blockade of the CB1 receptor with SR141716A appears to effectively reduce alcohol intake and preference, this study also suggests that such CB1 receptor-blocking drugs might play an important role in the future treatment of alcohol abuse.
This study was funded by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science; by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, [National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism]. The DOE has a long-standing interest in research on addiction that builds, as this study does, on the knowledge of brain receptors gained through brain-imaging studies. Brain-imaging techniques such as MRI and PET are a direct outgrowth of DOE's support of basic physics research.
One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE's Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.