It’s no secret that we are in the grip of an opioid addiction crisis. In fact, the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) estimates that 26–36 million people are abusing both prescribed and illegal opioids around the World.
Worryingly, they’re not just talking about illegal opioids but prescription opioid drugs too, like co-codamol, codeine, dihydrocodeine, tramadol and fentanyl.
All are connected to opioid addiction. but as the world struggles to contain this unprecedented crisis, could CBD turn out to be a powerful ally?
In the UK, a February 2019 special investigation by The Sunday Times journalists discovered that opioids are prescribed four times more in the north of England than in London, with three times as many people dying in northern England than in London as a result of taking addictive prescription drugs.
Hard to believe but the investigation found that more than 113,000 opioid prescriptions are now dispensed by GPs every day, and the death rate in the Northeast is 6 per 100,000 people vs the national average of 3.
In the US, the figures are even more bleak with statistics from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the United States Department of Health and Human Services revealing that in 2016, health care providers across the US wrote more than 214 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication— that’s 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people.
In the same year, more than 40% of all US opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid and so great is the problem that in October 2017, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency followed in 2018 by the launch of the Stop Opioid Abuse initiative with $6 billion to combat the driving forces behind the opioid addiction.
Could Cannabinoids be the answer?
With the situation now at crisis point, the medical and scientific worlds are looking at the potential of other therapies to break the cycle of addiction and this is where surprisingly, CBD could have a part to play.
Opioids produce pleasure and euphoria, activating the brain’s reward pathways. However, with continued use, sensitivity to the drug decreases which creates the need for more to achieve the same effect.
If you then stop, the withdrawal symptoms kick in which can include pain, nausea, vomiting and anxiety, which starts the addiction cycle all over again.
As CBD interacts with the same neurological systems that opioids interact with, scientists have already discovered that CBD can help reduce the triggers in addicts known as ‘cue-induced cravings’ by interacting with the serotonin system.
As well as being associated with mood, serotonin also has a part to play in addiction – which isn’t surprising when you consider that opioids create a feeling of pleasure and euphoria.
Whilst most studies to date have been with animals or small scale human studies, a $238,000 human study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) will probe deeper in studying the impact of both cannabinoids, THC and CBD as potential treatments for addiction.
According to Buzzfeed News, the study will follow more than 10,000 medical marijuana patients in New York over the next two years to see if their opioid use drops.
“It is a kind of natural experiment,” said the study’s lead investigator, Arthur Williams, a clinical psychiatrist at Columbia University. “The patients are there, they are taking opioids already, and we can see what happens in a controlled way.
Buzzfeed also reported that participants in the study won’t be smoking marijuana but will instead take regular, precisely measured extracts high in THC, which causes the high from marijuana, and cannabidiol (CBD).
The study will look at people taking extracts that are high-THC or high-CBD, and paired ratios of the two.
The article stated that the new NIDA project arose from a pilot study at the Columbia Care LLC dispensary, the country’s largest medical marijuana provider, amongst 76 people that found that 62% reduced or stopped taking opioids after using medical marijuana.
The results of the NIDA research and other studies will tell if cannabinoids can be classified as an effective treatment in the fight against opioid addiction.
It’s clear that the world has got to get a grip on the opioid addiction crisis, and whilst we await the findings of the research studies, a good start would be to encourage medical professionals to stop writing so many prescriptions for legal opioids.