Using Marijuana to Treat Opioid Addiction

By Elizabeth Brico 06/12/18

When I'm on marijuana, the thought of injecting toxic drugs into my body seems totally unhealthy and unappealing.

Young man holding marijuana joint, contemplating it.
It's not a cure-all, but it stops me from relapsing on heroin.

If you believe that medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder (OUD) is wrong because it's "just substituting one drug for another," then you're really not going to like this article. It's not about one of the three major forms of MAT approved for opioid addiction: buprenorphine, methadone, or naltrexone. It's about another medication, which does not cause a physical dependency, nor does it contribute to the 175 drug overdose deaths that take place each day in the United States. It has fewer harmful side effects than most other medications, and has even been correlated with a reduction in opioid overdose rates. Nonetheless, it is more controversial than MAT and, in most states, less accessible. In fact, Pennsylvania is the only state that has approved its use for OUD—and only as of May 17, 2018. In New Jersey, it was recently approved to treat chronic pain due to opioid use disorder.

The medication I'm describing is, of course, marijuana.

Abstinence-based thinking has dominated the recovery discussion for quite some time. Since Alcoholics Anonymous began in the 1930s, the general public has associated addiction recovery with a discontinuation of all euphoric substances. Historically, that thinking has also extended to medication-assisted treatment, even though MAT is specifically designed not to produce a euphoric high when used as prescribed by people with an already existing opioid tolerance. The bias against MAT is finally beginning to lift; there is now even a 12-step fellowship for people using medications like methadone or buprenorphine. But marijuana, which is definitely capable of producing euphoria, is still under fire as an addiction treatment.

In addition to the ingrained abstinence-only rule, another reason that most states don't approve the use of marijuana for OUD is that there is little to no research backing its efficacy. Even in Pennsylvania, the recent addition of OUD to the list of conditions treatable by marijuana is temporary. Depending in part on the results of research performed by several universities throughout the state, OUD could lose its medical marijuana status in the future. And other states that have tried to add it have failed, including Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New Mexico. It's not that any research has shown marijuana doesn't work for OUD. There simply has not been much—if any—full-scale research completed that says it does.

But street wisdom tells a different story. Jessica Gelay, the policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance’s New Mexico office, has been fighting to get OUD added as a medical marijuana qualifying condition in New Mexico since 2016. Although she recognizes that research on the topic is far from robust, she believes cannabis has a real potential to help minimize opioid use and the dangers associated with it.

“Medical cannabis can not only help people get rest [when they’re in withdrawal],” says Gelay, “it can also help reduce nausea, get an appetite, reduce anxiety and cravings…it helps people reduce the craving voice. It helps people gain perspective.” I can relate to Gelay's sentiment, because that’s exactly what marijuana does for me.

I am five years into recovery from heroin addiction. I don't claim the past five years have been completely opioid free, but I no longer meet the criteria for an active opioid use disorder. Total abstinence does not define my recovery. I take one of the approved drugs for OUD, buprenorphine, but as someone who also struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the result of physical and sexual assault, I experience emotional triggers that buprenorphine doesn't address, leaving me vulnerable to my old way of self-medicating: heroin. But what does help me through these potentially risky episodes? Marijuana. For me, ingesting marijuana (which I buy legally from my local pot shop in Seattle, Washington) erases my cravings for heroin. It puts me in touch with a part of my emotional core that gets shut down when I am triggered. When I'm on marijuana, the thought of injecting toxic drugs into my body seems totally unhealthy and unappealing—probably the way it seems to someone who doesn't have an opioid use disorder. It's not a cure-all, but it stops me from relapsing.

High Sobriety is a rehabilitation program based out of Philadelphia that provides cannabis-based recovery for addiction, with a focus on addiction to opiates. Founder Joe Schrank, who is also a clinical social worker, says that treatment should be about treating people where they are, and for people with chronic pain or a history of serious drug use, that can often mean providing them a safer alternative—one that Shrank, who does not personally use marijuana, says is not only effective, but even somewhat enjoyable.

"[Cannabis forms] a great therapeutic alliance from the get-go. Like, we’re here with compassion, we’re not here to punish you, we want to make this as comfortable as we possibly can, and the doctor says you can have this [marijuana]. I think it’s better than the message of 'you're a drug addict and you’re a piece of shit and you’re going to puke,'" says Schrank.

People have been using this method on the streets for years, something I observed during my time in both active addiction and recovery. Anecdotally, marijuana's efficacy as a withdrawal and recovery aid is said to be attributed to its pain-relieving properties, which help with the aches and pains of coming off an opioid, as well as adding the psychological balm of the high. The difference between opiated versus non-opiated perception is stark, to say the least. The ability to soften the blow of that transition helps some users acclimate to life without opioids. Even if the marijuana use doesn't remain transitional—if someone who was formerly addicted to heroin continues to use marijuana for the rest of his or her life instead—the risk of fatal overdose, hepatitis C or HIV transmission through drug use, and a host of other complications still go down to zero. Take it from someone who has walked the tenuous line of addiction: that's a big win.

Marijuana may also be able to help people get off of opioid-based maintenance medications. Although there is no generalized medical reason why a person should discontinue methadone or buprenorphine, many people decide that they wish to taper off. Sometimes this is due to stigma; friends or family members who insist, wrongly, that people on MAT are not truly sober. Too often, it's a decision necessitated by finances.

For Stephanie Bertrand, detoxing from buprenorphine is a way for her to fully end the chapter of her life that included opioid addiction and dependency. Bertrand is a buprenorphine and medical marijuana patient living in Ontario, Canada. She is prescribed buprenorphine/naloxone, which she is currently tapering from, and 60mg monthly of marijuana by the same doctor. She says that marijuana serves a dual purpose in her recovery. It was initially prescribed as an alternative to benzodiazepines, a type of anxiety medicine that can be dangerous, even fatal, when combined with opioids like buprenorphine. The anxiety relief helps her stay sober, she says, because she'd been self-medicating the anxiety during her active addiction. She now also uses a strain that is high in cannabidiol (CBD), the chemical responsible for many of cannabis' pain relieving properties, to help with the aches and discomfort that come along with her buprenorphine taper. She says the marijuana has gotten her through four 2mg dose drops, and she has four more to go.

Bertrand would not have the same experience if she were living in the United States. MAT programs in the States tend to disallow marijuana use, even in states where it has been legalized. But studies tell us this shouldn't really be a concern. Two separate studies, one published in 2002 and the other in 2003, found that MAT patients who used cannabis did not show poorer outcomes than patients who abstained. Although this reasoning alone doesn't mean marijuana helps with recovery, these findings set the groundwork for future research.

Do the experiences of people like me and Bertrand represent a viable treatment plan for opioid use disorder? It will likely be a few years before we have the official data. Until then, it's high time we stop demonizing people in opioid recovery who choose to live a meaningful life that includes marijuana.

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Elizabeth Brico is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She got her MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University, where she justified spending more time shooting dope than doing homework because William Burroughs once taught there. Now, she writes about trauma, addiction, and recovery on her blog Betty's Battleground. She's also a regular contributor to the PTSD blog on HealthyPlace, and freelances as much as she can for The Fix and Tonic/VICE. Her work has also appeared on VoxStatOzyTalk PovertyRacked, and The Establishment, among others. In her free time she can usually be found reading, writing, or watching speculative fiction. Find her portfolio and ramblings about writing on, or stalk her on Twitter: @elizabethbrico (if you're interesting, she might even stalk you back).