24 Dec Marijuana May Treat Stimulant Addiction
New research has revealed that marijuana-or more specifically, drugs that act on the areas in the brain that respond to it-may hold promise as a treatment for addiction to stimulants. With between 16 million and 51 million people worldwide using psycho-stimulant drugs and no approved treatment to speak of, the problem is at the forefront of addiction research. Cocaine is one of the most popular drugs in this class, and is used by about 15 million people worldwide, with over one-third of these in North America. With the trend of more liberal attitudes to marijuana use across America and the widespread use of the substance for medicinal purposes, the new research suggests that in the future, cocaine addicts in recovery may be offered marijuana to help reduce withdrawal symptoms and curb the urge to relapse.
What They Did
The researchers conducted a review of the evidence surrounding stimulant use and the endocannabinoid system. The researchers note that there is an observed overlap between stimulant and marijuana use, with many users of drugs like cocaine also smoking pot. This has previously been viewed as a manifestation of the “gateway” hypothesis, whereby use of marijuana leads to later use of other substances. The researchers were interested in this relationship, but specifically looked at the neurological systems implicated in stimulant addiction and how the cannabis-related portion of the brain overlaps with these regions. In particular, they were interested in whether drugs acting on the endocannabinoid system could be used as a treatment for stimulant addiction.
Although psychological counseling and interventions still form the core of substance abuse treatment, many advances have been made to come up with potential vaccines for drug abuse. Similarly, increased understanding of the brain regions implicated in different addictions could lead to the development of effective treatments for those in the midst of dependence. These advances have huge potential benefits, but have thus far only been supported by preliminary findings.
Cannabis, the Endocannabinoid System, THC and CBD
Cannabis is actually not just one substance like most other drugs; it’s a collection of chemicals with the most immediately relevant being delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, for short) and cannabidiol (CBD), the former being responsible for many of the effects associated with the drug. These act on the endocannabinoid system within the brain—basically filling the role of the natural cannabinoid substances like anandamide—which is implicated in many processes such as food intake, cognition, pain, reward, addiction and relapse.
What They Found
The fact that the endocannabinoid system is part of the brain’s reward network means that it could have the potential to disrupt the neurological effect stimulants have on the brain. Results of research on this topic have been mixed and are therefore inconclusive. While the endocannabinoid system could impact the effects of drugs like cocaine, the effect is probably mild and also influenced by several other factors, the researchers said.
One notable piece of research used a small sample size of 25 crack- or cocaine-dependent participants who smoked cannabis to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms they experienced. This is due to the well-popularized effect of marijuana as a stress-relieving substance, and in the small study, 68 percent of the sample maintained abstinence from stimulants for nine months as a result. However, a larger study conducted more recently came to the opposite conclusion, finding that marijuana use made it more likely that ex-users would relapse to cocaine. There is speculation that the effect of cannabis on stimulant relapse may be related to dosage, but this isn’t clear from research to date.
The most notable impact of marijuana on stimulant addiction actually relates to the perception and memory of the reward gained from the drugs. These findings come from studies on the specific receptors acted upon by marijuana and their impact on an environment-dependent craving in rats and mice. This can be thought of as the environmental triggers you encounter that tempt you to use again—and means that marijuana could reduce the temptation that trigger locations bring about.
The researchers conclude that the close relationship between the brain regions involved in stimulant abuse and those affected by marijuana means that there is hope for treatment of addiction to stimulants using medicine derived from (or acting similarly to) either CBD or THC (or a combination, as is found in the plant itself). In fact, while marijuana does look like it could help recovering stimulant addicts avoid relapse, many more clinical trials would have to be conducted (and turn up promising results) for this to become a reality. If these studies do emerge, though, the generally well-tolerated nature of marijuana means that it could become a feature of stimulant addiction treatment in the future.
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