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Understanding addiction – and how medical cannabis could help

What actually is addiction? Is it an addiction, or a mental problem, or is it caused by developing dependency to a chemical? In this post, we’ll explore addiction, and whether cannabis could be an efficacious treatment for it.

Opioids have gotten out of control in the United States and all over the Western world, with patients getting hooked on increasingly stronger painkillers. The epidemic has become a fixture in the news cycle in recent times, and more than 40,000 Americans died due to opioid overdose in 2016 alone. Medical experts are in desperate need of a safer and less addictive painkiller than opioids and are being drawn toward cannabis. Some rehabilitation clinics in the US are already using cannabis as part of their addiction treatment plans.

Treating addiction – the holistic route

There are no clear-cut solutions to treating addiction, as it’s hard to pin down just what it is. We can become addicted to many things – drugs, sex and even our smartphones. The further we delve into addiction, the more questions we are left with.

Let’s try to understand what may contribute to addiction before we start investigating the therapeutic efficaciousness of cannabis. The factors can be split into three main categories – physical, sociocultural and psychological.

1) Physical factors

Genetics can play a role in addiction – some people are predisposed at birth. This suggests that physical factors are significant contributors to addiction. There’s also a chance that pharmaceutical drugs we take alter our body chemistry so that we become addicted to certain substances.

Addiction can manifest from both the physical and psychological realm. For some drugs, the withdrawal symptoms can be so bad that people would rather keep taking them, even if doing so would ultimately be detrimental to health. There is research that alterations to brain structure, perhaps due to the drug itself, can allow an addiction to fester.

An underlying health problem may be at the root of a person’s addiction problems. Some people find that the numbing effects of alcohol are the easiest way to manage the flashbacks and nightmares that can occur from mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. In such cases, it may not be enough to simply treat the addiction – an adjustment to mindset might also be required.

2) Sociocultural factors

Anybody from any demographic can become addicted to a substance, but addiction rates are high among groups with lower socioeconomic status. Education level, gender, age and race can also increase or decrease the likelihood of getting addicted to a substance or finding the necessary treatment.

To look at how other countries have handled addiction is fascinating – with Portugal being the most enlightening example. The Portuguese took the landmark step to decriminalize all drugs in 2000. Citizens were permitted to have up to a 10-day supply of a substance without the threat of incarceration. However, those with more than 10 days’ worth of drugs would be referred to a discussion unit who could determine what type of therapy was most suitable.

This is in total contrast to the United States, whose “war on drugs” has led to a zero-tolerance policy to drugs, to the great harm of those suffering from addiction. By criminalizing addiction as if it is a habit engaged in by free will, a society disregards the fact that biological, psychological and social factors also contribute to addiction. Merely punishing addiction does nothing to educate and make positive changes to people’s mindset on drugs. More nuanced policies focused on integrating drug addicts into therapy programs have yielded better results.

3) Psychological factors

Our brains develop ingrained thought patterns and learned behaviors at an early age and these can stick with us throughout life. Experiencing trauma in our formative years can also have negative effects down the line. Our brains convince us that our addictions are good by strengthening reward mechanisms. Addiction is most likely to happen during our teens when the brain is still developing – this is a prime opportunity for learned behavior to become set in.

How is cannabis being used to treat addiction?

The pill bottles are being thrown away for freshly-grown cannabis at a growing rate. In 2016, the International Journal of Drug Policy featured a study looking at the usage habits of 271 medical marijuana patients in Canada. More than 60 percent of participants opt for cannabis over prescription medication, with almost one-in-three of those ridding themselves of painkillers.

One in four said that they prefer to take cannabis over alcohol, while 12 percent had kicked their tobacco-smoking habit for marijuana. A small, but still significant 3 percent said cannabis had helped them quit “other illicit drugs.”

Various surveys have been carried out in states with medical marijuana programs, and the results are quite similar. But just what compounds in cannabis are giving people the strength to break their addiction to harmful substances? Here are five ways to ensure that you use cannabis effectively when treating addiction.

1) Take cannabis with both THC and CBD (whole-plant)

Both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) can help patients to kick their addictions, although if you aren’t in a legalized state you cannot yet access the former, due to its psychoactive properties. Fortunately, while scientists are confident THC is beneficial, they have become more intrigued with non-psychoactive CBD, which can be found in all 50 states.

CBD products won’t send your mind into a whizzing euphoria, but it will help you to relax and stay mellow. CBD was touted as a possible addiction treatment in a 2015 review, which cited the compound’s potential to treat tobacco, cocaine opioid and psychostimulant addiction.

In 2009, research was published showing that both non-psychoactive and psychoactive cannabis was a safer option than other illegal drugs. A 2012 study revealed that THC therapy reduced heroin addiction in rhesus monkeys.

Many painkillers are chemically similar to heroin (heroin is an opiate and many painkillers are opiate-based). The research that THC could treat heroin addiction without increasing the patient’s dependency to either drug is noteworthy. It’s possible that cannabis therapy may help opioid addicts to slowly bring their dose down – a stepping stone to them getting off the drug for good.

For people wary that THC’s psychoactive and euphoric effects may induce a psychological, if not physical addiction, then high-CBD or one-to-one strains with reduced THC levels may be preferable.

2) Counselling and cannabis

Various traumatic experiences and stressful episodes have compounded our addiction problems. Counselling can help to unscramble our brains and look objectively at our behavioral patterns. Understanding our thought patterns makes us better equipped to tackle addiction and cravings.

Forty-eight people took part in a study that found that learned fear could be remedied with CBD. CBD works with sections of the brain that facilitate the formation of memories, although scientists are still trying to understand how. Treating the participants with CBD following a fearful event (the patients were given an associated electric shock) served to reduce fear around the association.

CBD has exhibited potent antipsychotic and anxiolytic properties in several studies, making it of interest to therapists for use in sessions. CBD appears to keep people relaxed during therapy, although more studies are needed to verify this.

3) Keep dosages low

Low-dosing cannabis can sometimes me more effective than larger doses when taking for medicinal reasons, as many of the compounds have biphasic effects. The ability of CBD and THC to reduce addictive tendencies may be enhanced when the compounds are low-dosed, according to a 2004 study on rodents. The rodents were exposed to cocaine and amphetamine but through CBD and THC treatment, their addictions slowly waned. The research looked at learned place preference. The study also showed that amphetamine and cocaine pour pleasure chemicals into the brain.

CBD and THC dosage of 5mg/kg and 0.5mg/kg respectively helped rodents to disconnect unhelpful learned reward behavior. The finding that cannabinoids can peel back conditioning could be of use in the addiction treatment process.

Administering 5mg of CBD per day to rodents helped to reduce heroin addiction for up to a fortnight after the last dose. The early evidence that CBD could have long-term benefits on addiction even after treatment has finished has excited researchers.

5) Incorporating cannabis into holistic routine

Unless an individual considers all the physical, sociocultural and psychological factors that are contributing their addiction, it’s difficult for cannabis to have a positive impact in the recovery phase. Swapping pills for cannabis may provide a short-term benefit, but you may just end up substituting one addiction for another. Remember, you’re trying to treat addictive impulses in general, not just those for a certain substance.

If you have an inflammatory condition or suffer with chronic pain, then an unhealthy diet will only make your problems worse, increasing your susceptibility to alcohol or opiate addiction. Combatting addiction involves invasive changes to all aspects of life and behaviors – it’s not just about tweaking your treatment plan.

4) Cold turkey or harm reduction?

This is often the dividing line in the medical community when looking at treatments for addiction. If a person goes cold turkey, they cut out every factor which is causing their addiction. For alcohol addicts, that means no more one-off pint of beer. Or no occasional cigarette for the smoker.

But cold turkey is difficult and can sometimes make addiction worse long-term if a person fails along the way. Harm reduction could be a much more effective method, as it allows the addict to steadily reduce their dependence on the drug. The more they can cut down their dose, the closer they are to being clean.

And for those addicted to hard drugs like heroin and crystal meth, substituting that for a cannabis habit is a good payoff. Cannabis is much, much safer than either of those, and the process of getting to cannabis from a hard-drug addiction is often much more manageable than going from a hard drug to nothing. Furthermore, switching to a substance such as cannabis poses no threat to life, unlike opioid drugs which have been linked to thousands of overdose deaths.

Not everyone is on-board with harm reduction, but perhaps more empathy is required for long-term addicts who simply don’t have the strength to get clean via the cold turkey route. History shows that zero-tolerance is a failed policy, so it makes sense to give harm reduction techniques a try.

How to ensure you don’t become addicted to cannabis

While cannabis is nowhere near as risky as the aforementioned hard drugs, it does have the potential to be harmful or disruptive if misused – so it’s important that you form healthy cannabis habits if you plan on partaking in the herb.

However, those who use cannabis in a positive way find that it’s a great stress reliever and a much nicer substance to use than addictive opioids. The psychoactive effects of THC have led to profound cannabis trips with deep realizations about life for some users.

The psychoactive trip offered by cannabis is hard to explain and therefore reports are inherently subjective. However, in a nutshell, cannabis – for some – seems to provide the tools to make helpful changes to mindset which help in the fight against addiction. Some people say that cannabis makes them feel more “normal”!

But despite these amazing stories, nearly one in 10 cannabis users do develop some form of addiction to the plant. For those who have already experienced the vice-like grip of addictions, there are rightful concerns about beating one addiction only to become embroiled in another. When using cannabis, dose sensibly and try to be mindful – treat your trip as a learning experience, not just one to ease mental and physical anguish.

Some find that keeping a journal of their cannabis experiences is a good way to collect thoughts and understand how the herb affects them. Noting down your dosage, when and where you take it and the resulting effects teaches you how your body responds to cannabis. This gives you some first-hand data to see whether cannabis is really helping with your addiction, or whether you’ve just convinced yourself it is. A journal may also flag up any bad habits you’ve picked up.

Other ways to ensure that you have a positive relationship with marijuana include taking regular tolerance breaks – this will help your wallet as much as anything! Check out high-CBD strains with limited psychoactive effects, or perhaps consult a medical cannabis expert to find the right strain for you. Consider undergoing other anti-addiction therapy in addition to cannabis. And perhaps most importantly, be kind on yourself. Loving yourself will increase your appetite for self-improvement.

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