As we prepare to end the year, many people are thinking about which healthy changes they want to make in the new year. Many of us are gearing up to spend more time at the gym, eat healthier foods, and give up smoking, caffeine, or drug use. This time of year, United Patients Group fields more questions about ending addiction than any other topic. People want to know if cannabis will help them achieve their goals or hurt them. So this week, we decided to tackle the topic.
Cannabis as a Gateway Drug
For decades, opponents of cannabis have alleged that marijuana is a “gateway drug,” a term used to describe a drug that is not itself addictive, but that may lead to the use of addictive drugs. Proponents of this idea say that anyone who experiments with marijuana will eventually get bored and start using more dangerous drugs like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.
This theory has been thoroughly disproved, but it keeps coming up, presumably because cannabis foes don’t have a whole lot of other ways to scare people away from marijuana.
While there is little evidence to support cannabis is a welcome mat on the door of the crack house, there is a great deal of evidence that people are intentionally choosing to use cannabis as an alternative to more harmful drugs. In a survey of 404 medical cannabis patients recruited from four dispensaries in British Columbia, respondents said they had substituted cannabis for the following substances:
- 68 percent: prescription drugs
- 41 percent: alcohol
- 6 percent: other illicit substances, such as heroin or cocaine
Other studies show people are opting for cannabis for healthy reasons. In a survey of 350 cannabis users in Berkeley, California, respondents gave the following reasons for substituting cannabis for alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs:
- 65 percent: less adverse side effects
- 57 percent: better symptom management
- 34 percent: less withdrawal potential
These surveys show that more than two-thirds of cannabis users use marijuana instead of prescription drugs, and two-fifths are choosing cannabis over alcohol to avoid side effects or withdrawals. And the reason they are choosing cannabis is because it has minimal side effects, does not cause addiction, and works better for treating medical conditions.
Cannabis as an Exit Drug
Unlike other drugs, it is nearly impossible to overdose on cannabis. That makes it attractive to doctors and other professionals in the field of addiction for easing the pain of opioid and alcohol withdrawal without creating a new problem.
Using drug replacement therapy to ease withdrawal symptoms of a highly addictive drug such as heroin is not a new idea. Eli Lilly and Company began offering methadone, a replacement for heroin, in 1947. But methadone itself is addictive and very dangerous. Methadone-related deaths in the US reached 4,418 in 2011.
We’ve discussed the dangers of opioids many times on this blog. There’s no way around it; prescription opioids are dangerous and highly addictive. They are the gateway drug to heroin. Rates of prescription opiate abuse have risen steadily over the last decade, while the number of people reporting that they used heroin in the past 12 months has nearly doubled since 2007 to 620,000, according to government statistics.
One Ohio doctor estimates that half of the approximately 200 heroin addicts his clinic sees every month started on prescription opiates. They turn to heroin not because it’s better, but because it’s cheaper. In many parts of the country, heroin is one-tenth the price of an equivalent dose of oxycodone.
There are two major benefits to using cannabis as a step down drug. Not only does it ease the discomfort of opioid withdrawal, it is also considered a “folk remedy” in both the Netherlands and United States. That makes substitution approachable to certain demographics.
Alcoholics who use cannabis report exceptional results. In a 2004 study conducted by Dr. Tod Mikuriya, MD, that involved 92 patients using cannabis substitution as a treatment for their alcohol dependence, 45 reported that it was “very effective,” and 38 reported that it was “effective” for controlling cravings for alcohol. That means 90 percent of patients felt cannabis helped ease their symptoms of alcoholism!
The Bottom Line
Despite decades of fear mongering, the truth about cannabis is that it is not a gateway drug. It does not lead to harder drug use; rather, it is used instead of more damaging drugs. And it can even help people suffering withdrawal from addictive substances.
If your New Year’s resolution is to reduce or end your use of harmful substances, you may want to consider this information.