New Study Suggests Marijuana Could Reduce Withdrawals In Opioid Users

By McCarton Ackerman 07/30/15

But anti-pot advocates are mad that researchers are touting weed as a safe alternative to pills.

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It may seem counterintuitive for those in recovery to substitute one drug with another, but a new study has found that marijuana could help reduce the often painful withdrawal symptoms associated with opioid addiction.

The findings, published this month by researchers at Columbia University, analyzed 60 patients who were detoxing from opioids in a clinic. Half were given a daily 30 gram dose of dronabinol, a man-made compound that contains cannabinoids found in marijuana, and the other half were given a placebo.

Those who were given dronabinol reported significantly reduced withdrawal symptoms compared to those who were given the placebo. After they left treatment, those who smoked marijuana during the outpatient phase also noted having less insomnia and anxiety than those who didn’t smoke.

A joint study published last August by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center found that states with legalized medical pot had 1,700 fewer deaths per year on average from prescription drugs.

Although a correlation wasn’t made between legal medical marijuana and the reduction of drug overdose deaths, study senior author Colleen L. Barry, an associate professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School. "We can speculate ... that people are completely switching or perhaps supplementing.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted a 300% jump in prescription painkiller overdose deaths between 1999 and 2008, with 46 people currently dying from them each day. Statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration also show that 15,000 Americans die annually from prescription overdose deaths.

However, anti-pot advocates are upset that research projects like this are touting marijuana as a safer alternative to pills, suggesting that it could spark addiction among those who interpret the findings to mean that marijuana is harmless.

"In today's supercharged discussions, it could be easily misunderstood by people," said Kevin Sabet, director of the Drug Policy Institute at the University of Florida College of Medicine. "There may be promise in marijuana-based medications but that's a lot different than 'here's a joint for you to smoke.'"

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.