Could cannabis help end the opioid crisis?

cannabis and opioid crisis

The opioid overdose epidemic is one of the darkest tragedies plaguing the U.S. today, and recent studies seek hope in the cannabis plant. In Finland, researchers sought to compare the pain-relieving effects of prescribed opioids versus medical cannabis. Meanwhile, scientists in Canada inquired as to whether the plant might offset cravings for heavier pharmaceuticals, and down under in Australia, a 20-year study concluded on marijuana and heroin addiction.

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This research focuses on reducing the harm caused by heroin and opioids over the years with the cannabis plant, and a few of them found success.

Finnish study reveals cannabis and opioids offer similar pain relief

A Finnish study published in the Journal of Cannabis Research may have chronic pain patients running to the doctor for a cannabis prescription. Data was collected from about 200 chronic pain patients via internet surveys seeking to understand how the two pain medicines were compared.

40 of the respondents are medical cannabis consumers, and 161 are opioid users. The medical cannabis patients mostly consumed THC-dominant products, with the remaining 18 percent using a 1:1 THC to CBD ratio and five percent opting for high-CBD. As for opioids, almost 50 percent reported using codeine and weak opioids. 20 percent are on medium-strength opioids, and 31 percent take high-powered pharmaceuticals like fentanyl.

Participating patients answered questions and shared their subjective experiences with their chosen meds. Researchers measured experiences by Negative Side Effects, Positive Holistic Effects, and Positive Emotional Effects. The medical cannabis patients scored higher in Positive Emotional Effects and Holistic Positive Effects. No difference in Negative Side Effects was perceived.

Patients reported equal pain-relieving experiences with both substances. Perhaps prescribing doctors will take note and opt for the less addictive of the two next time they pull out the prescription pad.

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Canadian study shows cannabis is used to manage opioid cravings

Another study from Canada revealed that many unregulated opioid users consume cannabis to mitigate cravings for the addictive pharmaceutical. Just over 200 people who use cannabis and opioids were given questionnaires from December 2019 to November 2021.

Self-reported reductions in opioid use were “significantly associated” with cannabis use, with 57.6 percent of respondents stating that they chose weed to stave off opioid cravings. Further analyses told an interesting tale; this method was only successful for women with moderate to severe pain.

Researchers deduced that cannabis could be a useful tool to fight the opioid crisis.

“Increasing the accessibility of cannabis products for therapeutic use may be a useful supplementary strategy to mitigate exposure to unregulated opioids and associated harm during the ongoing drug toxicity crisis,” the authors wrote.

Regular cannabis consumption does not reduce heroin use

The bright outlook of the last study may be dimmed by the end of a 20-year-long Australian study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. This study, conducted through the University of Sydney, centered on 615 heroin users who also consume cannabis.

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Subjects were interviewed at the initial meeting, at three months, six months, a year, two years, three years, 11 years, and 18-20 years after establishing the baseline in 2001. In the meetings, researchers used the Opiate Treatment Index to assess heroin and cannabis consumption. A model to understand each person’s ability to reach their goals and achievements was also instrumental in understanding the full picture of each subject’s life.

Results were interesting, showing that an increase in cannabis use at the two-year mark led to an increase in heroin use by the three-year mark. There was also a correlation in those who were using more heroin at three months and two years consuming less cannabis at one year and three years.

These were the only significant data points, but they made an astute observation. Though some research supports cannabis for mitigating opioid dependence, the same might not be true for heroin.

There are many reasons to legalize cannabis, and these studies show that fighting the opioid crisis might be one of them. Opioid addiction is a deadly issue in the U.S., and any way to reduce harm should be considered–even if it’s green.

Cara Wietstock is senior content producer of and has been working in the cannabis space since 2011. She has covered the cannabis business beat for Ganjapreneur and The Spokesman Review. You can find her living in Bellingham, Washington with her husband, son, and a small zoo of pets.