The idea of smoking marijuana to overcome addiction may read less like “fighting fire with fire” and more like “out of the frying pan and into the fire”; whatever the case, blazing is involved. But there’s actually a substantial amount of research backing the claim that cannabis can aid in battling addiction to alcohol and harder drugs and, yes, this research goes beyond your roommate who used a glass pipe to help him toss out his last pack of Marlboro’s.
A Drop in Prescription-Related Fatalities
In 2014, a now-renowned study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association
that statistically supported a theory that all of the states that had legalized marijuana enjoyed a significant reduction in prescription-related drug fatalities. The data showed a 25% drop in deaths from prescription medication between 1999 and 2010 throughout the 13 states that had opted to legalize marijuana. The co-author of this eye-opening study, Colleen Barry, pointed out that it is highly unlikely (if not outright impossible) for a human to consume a fatal amount of marijuana. This led her and her colleagues to the conclusion that patients in those 13 states were swapping out their prescription painkillers in favor of the far less risky marijuana as a treatment for their ailments, thus dropping the prescription overdose death rate by a full quarter.
The Rehab Clinic Role in Overcoming Addiction
Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Phoenix House, a drug and alcohol rehab organization whose founder openly opposes marijuana legalization, offered a different interpretation of the data. Dr. Kolodny believes that…wait for it…the 25% reduction in prescription-related deaths has nothing to do at all with marijuana legalization and everything to do with progressive attitudes toward recommending rehab clinics. He points out that states that are progressive enough to legalize marijuana are also progressive enough to push rehabilitation clinics to treat addiction. Rehab clinics don’t offer spotless recovery rates
so it’s tough to view Dr. Kolodny’s assumptions as holding any more water than Barry’s. However, Barry’s study shows a concrete correlation between states that have legalized marijuana and a decrease in prescription-related overdoses. Dr. Kolodny’s theory is built upon a vague idea, unsupported by statistics, that a legal marijuana state is more likely to promote rehab clinics than a state that upholds marijuana prohibition.
Marijuana: The Exit Drug
The 2014 study published in JAMA
is not the only research done into the correlation between overcoming addiction and marijuana use. A number of similar studies have been conducted prior to the 2014 study, providing equally supportive results that marijuana use is likely a viable factor in treating addiction to alcohol and harder drugs. Another such study, published in 2014 in Addiction Research & Theory
, surveyed over 400 medical cannabis patients in British Columbia. A massive 75% admitted to substituting marijuana for other drugs, whether those be prescription-based pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs, or alcohol. Co-author of the study Philippe Lucas describes marijuana as an “exit drug”, the opposite of the gateway drug label so often attached to it, due to its proposed ability to pull people away from other drugs. Supporting the claims of cannabis as an exit drug are statistics from Lucas’ research that showed 68% of those surveyed claiming to have traded in their prescribed drugs in favor of marijuana, 41% opting for weed instead of alcohol, and 36% switching to cannabis to fight their cravings for hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
An NFL Legend’s Battle with Painkillers
Just this January, a high profile confession has brought the information of these studies to light again. Football legend and former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon credited marijuana for helping him to beat his dependency on prescription painkillers for a multitude of injuries and ailments stemming from his violent days in the NFL. McMahon suffers from early onset dementia, depression, vision and speech impairments, lapses in memory, and chronic headaches. During his brutal 15-year NFL career, McMahon was prescribed a steady diet of painkillers to which he developed an addiction. But things took a turn in 2010 when Arizona, the state in which he resides, legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes. McMahon quickly registered for his medical marijuana card. Today, he’s completely shifted his painkiller habit, which had been clocking in at a staggering 100 Percocet pills monthly to stave off physical pain, to just a few tokes of weed at morning and night with a few optional in the afternoon depending on severity of pain. Prescription painkillers may be most notorious for celebrity deaths ranging from Heath Ledger to Michael Jackson, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention measured a quadrupling of deaths related to prescription drugs between 1999 and 2013, proving this isn’t just a pitfall for the rich and famous.
How Does Marijuana Combat Addiction?
In trying to understand the efficacy of marijuana in overcoming addiction to heavier drugs, Sophie Saint Thomas of Vice
spoke with Amanda Reiman, PhD MSW, who conducted a 2009 study on marijuana as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs for the Harm Reduction Journal
. Reiman highlighted that cannabis has been noted as combating the symptoms traditionally linked to withdrawal of heavy drugs: “When you look at the withdrawal symptoms of drugs like opiates and alcohol—things like nausea, tremors, trouble sleeping—these are all conditions which cannabis is really good at fixing.” She also explained that the subjects of her study found marijuana to be an invaluable aid in granting them the “mindfulness” to consciously refrain from their addictive drug habits, opting instead for the lower risk choice of cannabis.
Whether marijuana is an effective method for overcoming addiction to prescription painkillers, alcohol, and illegal drugs is a matter that, like so many questions in the prohibition era, requires further research that is blockaded at every turn. That being said, all information gathered would suggest that, in the majority of cases, medical marijuana is a viable method of treating addiction. So much of what’s been said about cannabis in the press has been gradually turned on its head over the last few years that it’s no wonder the gateway drug of yore is most likely the low risk exit drug of tomorrow.