Cannabidiol, the non-psychoactive ingredient in hemp and marijuana, could treat opioid addiction, a new study says. Given to patients with heroin addiction, cannabidiol, also known as CBD, reduced their cravings for illicit drugs as well as their levels of anxiety.
“The intense craving is what drives the drug use,” said Yasmin Hurd, the lead researcher on the study and director of the Addiction Institute of Mount Sinai. “If we can have the medications that can dampen that [craving], that can greatly reduce the chance of relapse and overdose risk.”
The available medications for opioid addiction, such as buprenorphine and methadone, act in a similar way, curbing cravings. Public health experts say there are obstacles to getting these drugs, which are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, widely distributed. Because methadone and buprenorphine are still opioids, who can prescribe and how much can be prescribed are highly regulated.
Concerns about diversion and addiction to these drugs remain, despite their success in reducing mortality by up to 59% a year in the year after treatment.
‘So many people are dying’
Nearly 400,000 Americans have died of opioid-related causes since 2000, just slightly fewer than the number of American troops who died in World War II.
For their study, published Tuesday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Hurd and her colleagues looked at 42 adults who had a recent history of heroin use and were not using methadone or buprenorphine.
The research team also measured heart rate and cortisol, the “stress hormone,” and found that the levels in those who got CBD were significantly lower than those who hadn’t received the drug.
The researchers used Epidiolex, the first FDA-approved cannabis-based medication, as their source of CBD.
With many CBD products on the market now the exact concentration of CBD is unknown. In addition, they may have additives such as pesticides and even lead. But, Hurd said, with Epidiolex the exact concentration and other ingredients in the drug are known, which was key. “We are developing a medicine. We are not developing recreational cannabis,” she said.
The study’s potential was not lost on others.
“This is an extremely significant paper. We need to utilize every possible treatment in helping people with chronic pain to find other ways to manage their symptoms and in people with opiate addiction to find relief,” said Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist in New York and former assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine.
“CBD not only manages the anxiety and cue/craving cycle but also diminishes the original pain and inflammation that leads to opiate use in the first place,” said Holland, who was not involved with the new study.
Hurd said there are still a lot of questions to answer in the next study, including the best dose, how many times it needed to be administered and the mechanism in the brain that is working to diminish the cravings.
But she was optimistic about the implications. “It’s not addictive. No one is diverting it. It doesn’t get you high, but it can reduce craving and anxiety,” she said. Ultimately, “this can really help save lives.”