Is CBD a new tool in the fight against the Opiate Epidemic? A look at the emerging science


There’s been a lot of talk lately around CBD as a cure for addiction and replacement for opiate pain killers, especially as the opiate addiction epidemic continues to take up headlines, but what exactly is behind the buzz?


CBD’s effects on the endocannabinoid system are far ranging and therapeutic, and the discovery of the endocannabinoid system itself has led to a whole new way of seeing the body and its many systems.  But how does CBD intervene with addiction, and what can it offer the huge number of Americans struggling with opiate addiction?

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that in 2015, there were over 22,000 deaths involving prescription opioids, equivalent to about 62 deaths per day (See their research here.) 1 in 4 Americans know someone who has been personally affected by the epidemic, but prescriptions for opioid painkillers increased by FOUR TIMES in the last 17 years. With the problem both staggering in numbers and human cost, its no surprise that the hunt for an effective and safe cure has been on the forefront of the medical community’s mind.  That’s where CBD can come in.

In 2014,  the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) published a study showing that in states with medical marijuana laws on the books, there were 25% less deaths from opiate overdose than in states that did not have medical marijuana bills. Is this simply a correlation?

Scientists think not. Medical marijuana and CBD products can be effective substitutes for pain killers, and so access to these alternative treatments in states with medical marijuana could be an effective way to avoid being prescribed opiates in the first place. However, the cutting edge research is now looking at ways in which CBD can actually help overcome addiction, and help those struggling to get off painkillers escape the cycle of dependence.

Seratonin is a neurotransmitter that sends communication through receptor systems in the brain, and seratonin receptors are among those that are affected by CBD.

The therapeutic potential of cannabidiol, or CBD, in the case of addictions, is linked to CBD’s ability to affect the serotonin receptors in the brain. Serotonin, an important neurotransmitter involved in regulating mood and pleasure, also plays a role in addiction. Most traditional methods of treating addiction focus on the endogenous opiod system directly (that is, the body’s natural system that has opiod receptors), but CBD’s role in affecting Seratonin receptors has been shown to actually reduce the addictive cravings, and in preliminary studies with mice, reduced their addictive and reward seeking behavior. Working with serotonin receptors instead of opiod receptors opens up a whole new line of research for potential treatment options, and researchers are diving in.

Leafly recently reported on a double-blind clinical study carried out with heroine addicts showing CBD’s potential to stop cravings for addictive substances and therefore mitigate relapse:

“ Basically, they gave heroin addicts a dose of CBD or placebo on three consecutive days. They then showed them opioid-related or neutral video cues and measured cue-induced drug craving. They did this one hour, one day, and one week after CBD/placebo administration. CBD decreased cravings and anxiety at all time points.”

This study was carried out by Dr. Hurd and colleagues, also published by NCBI, and is currently one of the leading pilot studies on the issue. This foundational study in humans used an oral formulation of cannabidiol extract on the participants. Dr Hurd has since pushed for increased research on the subject.

In Canada, where regulations on medical cannabis products are less conflicting, the national healthcare system has even gotten on board with the potential of cannabinoids in treating their opiod addiction crisis. In a recently published article  on the trade workers union  LiUNA! 625, the Laborers International Union local  in Windsor, Canada- the union leaders announced their decision to cover medical marijuana costs for its members. Windsor has seen a 190 percent increase in opioid overdoses in the recent rise of the epidemic.


“Now that we’ve added this, we’re hoping more doctors… will move towards prescribing the cannabis oil as opposed to the opioids,” said Rob Petroni, business manager at LIUNA, in an interview with CBC. “The most important part of this is to reduce the opioid use and or abuse.”


There’s a lot more research to be done, and the political climate continues to be a barrier in some states to continued research on the potential of CBD in stopping addictive cycles. But the positive results in many clinical studies, and the hopeful moves of communities like those in Windsor, CA are a bright spot in a ghastly health crisis, and a reminder of the healing potential of CBD and other natural solutions.


Further research and studies cited in this post:

Medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in the United States, 1999-2010         
CDC: Prescribing data                                                                                                                             
Early Phase in the Development of Cannabidiol as a Treatment for Addiction: Opioid Relapse Takes Initial Center Stage

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