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Is It Safe To Use Marijuana To Help With Opiate Withdrawal?

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 24, 2019

People suffering from opiate addiction are often desperate to quit, but can’t get past the difficulties of withdrawal. While maintenance medicines, such as methadone, are an effective way to treat these symptoms, cannabis has started making a larger impact. With an increasing number of people turning to marijuana as a withdrawal aide, it is important to examine whether or not it is a safe and effective method.

The Alleged Effects Of Marijuana On Opiate Withdrawal

Over the years, there has been plenty of testimonial evidence suggesting that marijuana is a beneficial drug for getting through opiate withdrawal. For example, Kevin used marijuana to complete his final opiate addiction detoxification process and claims that the severity of his withdrawal symptoms greatly decreased with the use of marijuana.

For example, he found that the intense back pain, lack of sleep, and severe sickness he’d felt during other instances of withdrawal were nowhere near as problematic when he smoked marijuana. Yes, it was still there, but he claims it was more “tolerable” when smoking cannabis.

Another story focuses on writer Tony O’Neill and his struggle to beat heroin addiction. He claims that marijuana helped eliminate his cravings. Pointedly, he states that marijuana was more effective than methadone in curbing his cravings and treating his withdrawal symptoms.

These are just two of the many testimonial stories trumpeting marijuana as an effective opiate addiction treatment. But is there any scientific evidence to back up these claims?

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Studies That Seem to Back Up the Claim

Surprisingly, there does seem to be scientifically-verifiable evidence suggesting marijuana is an effective way to treat opiate addiction. In a study titled “Impact of cannabis use during stabilization on methadone maintenance treatment,” Thomas Jefferson University scientists studied how well marijuana helped reduce the symptoms of opiate withdrawal.

Specifically, they were testing how well and how safely marijuana could be used during methadone treatment. To their surprise, they found that marijuana played a positive role in treating severe withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, insomnia, and cramps.

They especially noted two facts: marijuana has already been approved to treat symptoms similar to those of withdrawal and that marijuana overdose seems to be an impossibility, especially when compared with the likelihood of opiate overdose.

Another study, this one conducted by the Laboratory for Physiopathology of Diseases of the Central Nervous System, found that rats addicted to morphine showed decreased instances of withdrawal severity when injected with THC, the primary active chemical in marijuana.

Clearly, there seems to be some scientific truth to the testimonial claims made by people like Tony O’Neill. Are doctors scrambling to prescribe marijuana as an opiate withdrawal medication?

Getting A Medical Marijuana Prescription

Unfortunately, that isn’t likely to be happening just yet. Although marijuana has become a more acceptable medical treatment, using it for withdrawal is still a relatively new concept and one that must be tested carefully before full implementation.

Beyond the new nature of the treatment, many doctors are likely to balk at the idea of prescribing a drug to treat drug addiction, even if they are more than ready to prescribe methadone. The perception of marijuana is still negative in certain circles and these perceptions are likely to stay the same for some time.

Dangers Of Marijuana Use

Beyond the negative perception of marijuana, doctors may be unwilling to prescribe a potentially dangerous drug. After all, marijuana is not completely safe: it is still a drug that has a wide range of effects on your mental and physical health. These effects include:

  • Severely altered perception and sense of time
  • Potentially wild mood swings
  • Difficulty moving
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Difficulty making new memories, thinking, or problem-solving

The long-term effects may be even more problematic. One study showed that heavy marijuana users lost about eight IQ points between 13 and 38.

Marijuana can also cause breathing problems, lung illness, and issues with pregnancy. Mental effects of marijuana use include increased paranoia, hallucinations, aggravated schizophrenia symptoms, severe anxiety, and depression.

However, the biggest risk comes in mixing two different kinds of drugs. Marijuana and opiates are both downers and mixing them (should you relapse) may cause a series of problems, including slowed heart rate, severe sleep problems, and even death.

That said, many people suffering from opiate addiction will find these risks acceptable as long as marijuana helps alleviate their withdrawal symptoms. Making that decision is a difficult process and one you shouldn’t do alone.

Get the Help You Need

If you or someone you love is suffering from severe opiate addiction and doesn’t know where to turn, please contact us as soon as possible. We can help you find the right treatment method, whether it’s replacement drugs like marijuana or something else, that will help you quit for good.

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