Article written by
Tina MagrabiSenior Content Writer
Content reviewed by
Dr. Lewis JasseyMedical Director - Pediatric Medicine
Table of contents
People thought of cannabis as a gateway drug for many years, and science has begun to see cannabis as an exit drug instead. Some people are integrating cannabis and cannabidiol (CBD) into their treatment programs to reduce the intake of opioids, sedatives, alcohol, and other drugs.
However, the effectiveness of CBD and cannabis treatment for addiction depends very much on the drug you’re trying to quit. Learn how medical cannabis may be useful for drug addiction and which drugs it can reduce or replace.
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Cannabis and Opioid Addiction
How Cannabis and CBD Help
- Cannabinoid receptors are found in the same brain areas as opioid receptors. Cannabinoid receptors can “talk” to and influence opioid receptors and reduce the pain signals sent to the affected areas.
- CBD can reduce anxiety.
- Both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD can reduce cravings.
- THC and cannabinol (CBN) can be useful for treating insomnia.
- THC can reduce nausea and increase appetite.
So, when people say they use cannabis to reduce their painkiller intake and avoid addiction, the evidence supports their statement.
Cannabis and Benzodiazepine (Sedative) Addiction
How Cannabis and CBD Help
Opioids aren’t the only types of medication that can lead to addiction. Physically addictive substances such as benzodiazepines (“benzos”) are medications many people want to reduce or stop taking. Sedatives are often prescribed for anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, epilepsy, and tic disorders. They work by increasing the effects of a neurotransmitter called “GABA,” slowing down the central nervous system and inducing a state of sedation.
A study in the Journal of Health Economics found that, in Italy, the availability of “cannabis light” – flowers from high-CBD hemp plants with up to 0.6% THC – was connected to:
- An 11.5% decrease in dispensed boxes of anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications).
- A 10% reduction in dispensed sedatives.
- A 4.8% reduction in dispensed antipsychotics.
Other studies show similar results in benzodiazepine reduction with medical cannabis. It is suggested that CBD amplifies the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Excitatory “go” signals are inhibited, which can be useful in treating conditions like epilepsy.
Please note that you need to taper off benzodiazepines slowly, as sudden withdrawal can be dangerous. Please notify a doctor of your goal to reduce benzodiazepine use with medical cannabis and set up an appropriate treatment plan.
Cannabis and Alcoholism
How Cannabis and CBD Help
Alcohol is the most popular recreational substance worldwide and, alongside tobacco, has the most significant impact on human health. However, even though many people use alcohol moderately, binge drinking is still a problem. Those unfortunate enough to suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) may become physically addicted to alcohol. As with sedatives, you cannot just stop using alcohol, either, as abrupt cessation is physically dangerous and can cause seizures, hallucinations, and confusion.
There is cross-tolerance between alcohol, opioids, and sedatives because all three substances act similarly on cannabinoid receptors (in particular, CB1 receptors) and dopamine receptors. Both opioids and alcohol bind to CB1 receptors, leading to depressant effects on the central nervous system (CNS). This action occurs because binding to CB1 receptors can increase GABA (the “stop” signal) and decrease glutamate (the “go” signal).
Cannabinoids like THC and high doses of tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) also antagonize CB1 receptors but do so in a far safer way than alcohol or opioid receptors, which tend to “overload” the dopamine receptors, potentially leading to an overdose. Cannabinoids, meanwhile, manage to influence dopamine and serotonin receptors in a way our bodies tolerate better. Using cannabis on its own doesn’t slow down breathing in the way alcohol, sedatives and opioids do, and the body breaks down THC and CBD quickly enough to prevent a deadly overdose from occurring.
There are some other good reasons why cannabis can be used to replace alcohol, including:
- The terpene-cannabinoid beta-caryophyllene is also found in black pepper and has anti-inflammatory and pain-killing effects. Beta-caryophyllene has been shown to reduce alcohol intake in several animal models.
- Both CBD and beta-caryophyllene have been shown to reduce liver damage.
- Myrcene, humulene, and pinene are terpenes found in hops and cannabis. Those seeking a flavor profile and a sedative effect similar to beer may find a suitable replacement in cannabis.
Many states that have legalized medical or recreational marijuana have seen reductions in the sales of alcohol. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that cannabis can be used in place of alcohol as a potentially safer recreational alternative.
Cannabis and Stimulant/Cocaine Addiction
How Cannabis and CBD Help
There is less evidence that cannabis can reduce the intake of prescribed or recreational stimulants such as amphetamines or cocaine. Using cannabis for cocaine withdrawal has been met with mixed results.
However, some good-quality evidence suggests CBD can reduce cravings for stimulants. Many people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have successfully used cannabis to reduce or replace prescription medications such as Adderall or Ritalin (methylphenidate). Limonene also shows promise as an alternative to stimulants.
More research is needed in this area, but cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis (e.g., CBD, THCA, THCV, beta-caryophyllene, limonene, and pinene) could prove immensely useful for those who wish to replace stimulants with something less addictive and more tolerable.
Those using medical cannabis to reduce their reliance on stimulants should taper their stimulant use, as cannabis and Ritalin interact significantly and may increase the likelihood of suffering from side effects like an increased strain on the heart, dry mouth, and confusion or memory loss.
The Bottom Line on Using Cannabis for Addiction
The first and most crucial step in treating addiction is to seek help. Qualified professionals at drug treatment centers are available to guide you on your journey to freedom from addiction. From there, speak with your primary care physician about whether cannabis is an appropriate tool to help you overcome addiction. Under proper care and with a legal medical marijuana card, you will have the means to fight addiction.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Can CBD help with drug addictions?
Regarding replacing opioids, sedatives, and antidepressants, cannabinoids and medical marijuana have proven immensely useful. Cannabis could be an ideal recreational alternative to alcohol as well. There is less evidence for using cannabis in place of stimulants. However, some evidence suggests that medical cannabis can help manage ADHD symptoms, reducing reliance on drugs like Adderall and Ritalin.
Can marijuana help to overcome opioid addiction?
For some people, marijuana may help overcome opioid addiction. But a full treatment program under professional supervision is essential for success.
Can marijuana cure alcoholism?
Marijuana cannot “cure” alcoholism or any other disease. But the cannabis plant can be a viable supplemental treatment for people trying to overcome alcoholism and other addictions.