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Is Marijuana the Key to Solving the Opioid Crisis?

A new study this week found that opioid-addicted rats were less likely to relapse after being treated with a CBD gel

CBD doesn't get you high, but it is nonetheless classified as a Schedule I drug, which makes it difficult for researchers to study its health effects

When he was 34, Che* broke a disc in his back. His doctor prescribed OxyContin for the pain, and Che took it for about a year. But when his doctor suspected Che was abusing the drug, he cancelled his prescription. That led Che to find other ways to access the substance, including stealing money from his family.

“By the time I was 37, I lost my career and my family and I was homeless,” he told “I became a full-on criminal to support my addiction.”

After seven years of opiate addiction, Che began working towards recovery. The withdrawal gave him severe depression and as a result, a friend recommended he smoke marijuana. Weed helped to alleviate his pain, but his cravings for OxyContin persisted. Then, about three years ago, Che tried CBD, or cannabidiol, a compound found in cannabis.

CBD doesn't get you high (that would be THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, another compound found in marijuana), but the Drug Enforcement Administration still classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has high potential for abuse. In Canada, however, where Che lives, CBD is legal when used for medical purposes, and it can be purchased in pill form at dispensaries.

Once Che started taking CBD, he says his cravings diminished. He now takes one 33 mg capsule once a day. “It allows me to do anything I want now,” he told “I can work. I can go out in public without being anxious. It’s as simple as taking $1.50 worth of CBD a day.”

By now, the stories of men like Che are all too common. The opioid addiction epidemic has evolved into a full-blown crisis, with President Trump declaring it a public health emergency in 2017. In the United States, opioid addiction is the leading cause of lethal drug overdose: in 2015 alone, there were 20,101 deaths attributed to prescription painkillers, as well as 12,990 fatal heroin overdoses.

The potential link between marijuana and opioid addiction treatment is well documented: multiple studies have indicated that for those struggling with chronic pain, marijuana could be a viable, non-addictive alternative to opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin. Yet over the past few years, some medical researchers have been looking to CBD in particular as a potential aid for opiate addicts, believing it could alter the neural pathways in addicts' brains to help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

New research from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego provides promising evidence that CBD could serve as an effective treatment for substance addiction. In the study, researchers gave alcohol and cocaine to rats, then administered CBD gel to some of the rats. They found that rats who had been given CBD were less likely to relapse or exhibit stress-induced, drug-seeking behavior than the rats who had not been given CBD — even five months after the CBD had left their systems.

In certain health and wellness circles, CBD, which is available in the form of gels, capsules, oils, and sprays, has a reputation as nothing less than a miracle drug. Its benefits have been widely covered in the worlds of fitness, food, and beauty, and it's been touted as a treatment for everything from anxiety to joint pain to even cancer.

Most CBD proponents emphasize that the compound is non-psychoactive, unlike THC, which means you get its purported health benefits without any of the high. But it's still classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. (It's the same designation afforded to substances like LSD and heroin.)

“The one thing about CBD is you don't have to use it daily for it to be effective."

While there are currently 17 states with laws that allow for the use of CBD to treat conditions like epilepsy, there are nonetheless extensive government restrictions for researchers who wish to study the drug: they must first get a license from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), followed by an OK from the FDA to give the drug to patients. For perhaps this reason, there have been no long-term clinical studies on CBD’s effects on human subjects.

“We’ve only done short-term studies,” says Dr. Yasmin Hurd, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience, and pharmacology and director of the Addiction Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

In 2009, Hurd and her team studied rats who had been self-administering heroin, then gave some of the rats CBD. Hurd found that the rats’ cravings diminished after taking CBD. Perhaps even more promising, in further animal trials, she found that not only did CBD decrease heroin-seeking behavior, but it was also shown not to have any addictive properties.

“With many disorders [potentially treated by CBD], you’re talking about lifelong diseases. You may need to be using it on a more long-term basis,” Hurd says of CBD treatment. “The one thing about cannabidiol [for opioid addiction] is you don't have to use it daily for it to be effective.”

"CBD has been offered as the wonder treatment for anything that moves."

For the last eight years or so, Hurd has been studying the side effects of CBD when taken orally with opioids. The results have been positive enough to lay the groundwork for future research with human subjects, which will be crucial to the promotion of CBD as a treatment for addiction.

Nonetheless, some researchers are skeptical of CBD's use as a treatment for drug addiction — in part because, generally speaking, CBD has a reputation as a miracle drug of sorts. Many websites and CBD product manufacturers advertise CBD as a catch-all treatment for all ailments, yet none of these products have been approved by the FDA. (In this vein, the FDA has issued warnings to multiple companies that market CBD products as cancer treatments.)

“CBD has been offered as the wonder treatment for anything that moves,” says Dr. Uri Shalev, an associate professor in psychology at Concordia University.

In 2016, inspired by Hurd's study, Shalev and his research team at Concordia administered CBD to a group of drug-addicted rats, except they gave the rats cocaine instead of heroin. The results of his study weren’t nearly as optimistic: unlike Hurd's study, which found that CBD diminished the rats' cravings, Shalev and his team found that CBD had very little impact on the rats’ cocaine consumption.

“In our hands, CBD was not as helpful,” Shalev says. “It was quite disappointing for us, of course.”

These mixed results, combined with a lack of funding for marijuana research and opioid addiction treatments, prove we're still a long way away from CBD being considered a mainstream treatment for addiction. So what’s next?

For Hurd, the first step is for the DEA to change CBD’s distinction as a Schedule Idrug. Removing the stigma would make it much easier for researchers to move into further human clinical trials. There have been promising steps in this direction: for instance, last year, the National Institutes of Health awarded a grant to researchers studying the link between marijuana use and chronic pain treatment among opioid users; Yet without substantive human studies, it’s still difficult to say for sure whether CBD has concrete healing properties.

“I’m a scientist,” Hurd says, “and at the end of the day, it’s science and evidence that will say if this is advantageous or not.”

The opioid crisis is on the rise, with President Trump declaring it a full-blown public health emergency last year

Researchers are looking to CBD, a compound found in marijuana, to help reduce cravings for opioids and treat chronic pain.

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