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Cannabis consumers around the globe are flushing their painkillers and giving up some long-held bad habits. With the opioid epidemic making what seems like daily headlines, patients are in serious need of safer and less addictive alternatives. Already, progressive rehabilitation clinics are guiding addicts to health with cannabis. To find out how and why here is the complete guide to using cannabis to treat addiction.

Holistic approaches for addiction

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There are no simple answers when it comes to addiction. Is it a disease? A psychological problem? A chemical dependency? Addiction is a topic that broaches several different disciplines and inspires more questions than answers.

Before diving into how cannabis might treat addiction, it’s important to point out what underlying factors contribute to the problem. These factors are:

1. Physical

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Addiction is very much a physical phenomenon. Not only are some people genetically predisposed to certain kinds of addictions, but drugs themselves may be addictive due to their effects on your body chemistry.

People can have physical as well as behavioral addictions to substances. The physical side effects of going off of a drug may be bad enough that continuing the habit is preferable. There is also evidence that addiction is associated with physical changes in brain structure, perhaps partly caused by the drug itself.

Some people may also struggle with addiction due to an underlying health condition. For example, excessive drinking is sometimes seen as a way to self-medicate for conditions like post-traumatic stress, anxiety, or pain. So, treating just the addition without also addressing other underlying health or behavioral issues may be unsuccessful.

2. Sociocultural

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While addiction can be found in all income brackets, it is more common in those with lower socioeconomic status. Other social factors like race, education level, gender, age, and whether or not a person was incarcerated also contribute to a person’s overall likelihood of developing or getting treatment for an addiction.

The way that different cultures perceive addiction is also important. In the year 2000, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. Instead of locking up those in possession, the Portuguese are able to have a 10 day supply of substances on their person. Those found with more than a 10 day supply are sent to a discussion team and perhaps sent to counseling or another drug treatment program.

Other countries, like the United States, have zero-tolerance drug policies. This criminalizes addiction as a personal behavior, rather than a complex psychological, biological, and social issue. This zero-tolerance mindset focuses on punishing addiction as the end result, rather than preventing addiction through more integrative interventions.

3. Psychological

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Thought patterns learned behaviors, and traumas early on in the home environment can play an important role in addiction. Over time, as the connections between the addictive behavior and reward are strengthened in the brain, making an addictive habit more and more difficult to shake. Individuals are most susceptible to addiction during the teen years, which is an intensive period of brain development, learning, and memory.

How to use cannabis to treat addiction

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Already, patients are putting down their prescriptions and picking up cannabis. A 2016 survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy questioned 271 Canadian medical cannabis patients.

The survey found that 63 percent of patients use cannabis over prescription drugs. Of those, 30 percent admitted using cannabis over prescription painkillers. In terms of other drugs of addiction, 25 percent reported that they use cannabis over alcohol. 12 percent said they had replaced tobacco with cannabis, and 3 percent had given up other illicit drugs.

Other surveys in state-based cannabis programs have had similar findings. But, how do patients successfully kick their habits for cannabis? Here are five things to consider when using cannabis to treat addiction:

1. Both THC and CBD

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Two primary cannabis compounds are thought to be helpful in addiction treatment. Though, given the evidence thus far, one compound may be preferable to another. Both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive in cannabis, as well as cannabidiol (CBD). Right now, CBD is the main topic of interest in addiction treatment.

Unlike THC, CBD does not provide a psychoactive “high.” Instead, it provides a non-euphoric mood boost and plenty of relaxation. A 2015 review suggests that CBD has potential as a therapy for addiction. In particular, the review cites evidence suggesting that CBD may help with opioid, cocaine, psychostimulant, and tobacco addiction.

Another 2009 publication suggests that cannabis, psychoactive or not, should be considered as a safer substitute for more harmful illicit drugs. Even more research from 2012 found that THC treatment reduced self-administration of heroin in rhesus monkeys.

Products similar to heroin are often sold as pain medications, and this research shows that the THC-heroin combination did not increase the addictive potential of either drug. This study provides early support for the idea that cannabis can be used along with opioids to fight pain and reduce the dose of the addictive medications.

Those concerned about the habit-forming and euphoric properties of THC may want to consider one-to-one strains or sticking with CBD alone.

2. Low to moderate dosages

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As it turns out, a little goes a long way with cannabis. Both THC and CBD may effectively reduce addictive behaviors even in small doses. A 2004 study in rodents found that low doses of THC and CBD reduced learned habits associated with cocaine and amphetamine exposure. The study examined learned place preference. Both cocaine and amphetamine flood the brain with pleasure molecules.

In this study, rodents were conditioned to have a preference for a location due to a surge of feel-good brain chemicals. Treatment with low doses of THC (0.5 mg/kg) and CBD (5 mg/kg) successfully disconnected the learned reward from the behavior, indicating that the cannabinoids can help extinguish conditioned learning. This could be useful in the treatment of addiction.

Additional research has found that a 5-milligram daily dose of CBD relieved conditioned heroin-seeking behavior in rodents for up to two weeks after the last administration. This is a good indication that CBD treatments may help at least certain kinds of addiction.

3. Integrating cannabis into holistic care

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To successfully integrate cannabis into addiction recovery, physical, sociocultural, and psychological factors all need to be addressed. Throwing out the prescription bottles and picking up an ounce of cannabis may be effective in the short run, but the process can be made easier by making sure that you and your care team are addressing factors that fuel the addiction, rather than just making simple substitutions.

For example, poor diet can be contributing to pain and inflammation, leading to a greater need to turn to relief in the form of opiates or alcohol. Successfully treating addiction can mean looking at all areas of health and wellness, not simply focusing on medicating behaviors.

4. Cannabis and therapy

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Oftentimes, major life stressors and traumas contribute to addiction. Counseling and behavioral therapy are thought to be helpful in addition and cannabis can be seen as a tool to make therapy more effective.

A human trial of 48 participants shows CBD may reduce learned fear. The cannabinoid engages with parts of the brain responsible for memory formation, though the active mechanisms are not entirely clear. The trial found that CBD treatment after a fearful event (an electric shock associated with a colored square) helped to prevent a fear associated with a particular color.

Similarly, early research suggests that CBD has potent anti-anxiety and antipsychotic properties, which could potentially make it useful in therapy sessions. While more research is needed, CBD seems to help people remain in a calm and relaxed state of mind during treatment.

5. Cold turkey vs. harms reduction

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Generally speaking, there are a couple of different approaches people often use to change habits. One is the cold turkey approach, where you immediately cut out all of the factors contributing to addiction. This often means no indulgences, like the occasional glass of beer or a few puffs of cannabis.

Instead of going cold turkey, gradually cutting back or developing a healthier relationship with a substance is a way of taking a harms reduction approach to addiction.

Picking up a cannabis habit in exchange for something more severe like opioid or heroin addiction is harms reduction. The herb has a higher margin of safety than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco. It’s also less addictive than seemingly all other substances of abuse and has yet to be correlated with even a single overdose death.

The harms reduction approach is controversial, as critics view this as simply trading one habit-forming substance for another. However, this criticism largely stems from a culture of zero-tolerance, which has a long history of failure.

How to avoid cannabis dependence

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Cannabis is not simply a less harmful replacement for more dangerous and disruptive drugs. While some may find that cannabis is simply a healthier alternative to opioids and other substances of abuse, cannabis treatments can have far deeper spiritual and psychological meaning.

Though the cannabis experience is subjective, many find that the psychoactive components in the herb are helpful for getting into a new mindset. It’s also not uncommon to hear people say that they feel more “normal” after consuming cannabis.

Still, research suggests that about 9 percent of cannabis consumers become addicted to the herb. After battling with other forms of addiction, it’s not surprising that many addicts or concerned parties are a little wary about the herb. To find success with cannabis, it’s important to approach the plant with mindful attentiveness.

Keeping a detailed record of how you are using the herb can help consumers stay responsible. This record can include dosages you are taking, time of each dose, cravings, or other noticeable side effects or changes. Taking note of this information helps you and your medical team see precisely whether or not the plant is actually helping. It can also tip you off about other lifestyle or relationship factors that may contribute to binges.

Some other ways to develop a healthy relationship with cannabis include:

  • Consider low-THC strains
  • Take tolerance breaks 
  • Stick to lowest therapeutic dose
  • Integrate cannabis into a larger treatment plan
  • Work with trusted professionals
  • Practice self-compassion

Disclaimer: the information presented in this article is intended for educational purposes and should not be used in place of medical advice or treatment. 

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