Volunteer groups in Canada are providing relief to people struggling with addiction by giving away free marijuana and cannabis edibles as a substitution for opioids. Addiction experts, however, are wary that the unproven treatment might prevent people with opioid use disorder from seeking evidence-based therapies that have proven to be effective.
In London, Ontario, volunteers with the Cannabis Substitution Program set up a table outside a church each Tuesday to distribute packages of free cannabis and edibles to people who use drugs. Members of the group maintain that high doses of THC, as much as 100 milligrams baked into an edible, can serve as a substitute for opioids and other dangerous drugs while treating the symptoms of withdrawal.
Since launching in April, the program has been popular, with up to 200 people showing up each week and forming a line that stretches down the block. Members of the group say that the cannabis it distributes is paid for and donated by private individuals.
Stefan Nichol, outreach director at Impact Church and a supporter of the substitution program, said that while cannabis is not a definitive treatment for opioid addiction and withdrawal, it can provide relief to those trying to break the cycle of drug abuse.
“To be honest, weed will never cure dope sickness,” Nichol told the CBC. “But it does help people sleep through a day of it.”
Cannabis Substitution Program volunteer Mary McCarty said that organizers began holding the weekly events to help address the city’s opioid epidemic after learning of similar initiatives in Vancouver, British Columbia and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I thought, ‘You know what? London needs one of these,’” McCarty said. “It’s ridiculous what’s going on.”
In Halifax, volunteers with the East Coast Cannabis Substitution Program put together packages of cannabis to be handed out to people who use drugs every Monday. When CBC News visited the group at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, each package included a roll-your-own joint kit, a cannabis gummy, THC capsules, and edibles including chocolate, cookies and a meatloaf slider.
Volunteer Chris Backer, who travels to the city’s north end each week to hand out the packages, says that he believes the donations can help people quit more dangerous drugs.
“It’s breaking the cycle of addiction,” he said last year. “Cannabis has been documented to be very successful and is an adjunct to try to help beat addiction.”
Addiction Experts Skeptical of Weed and Edibles as Substitute
Addiction experts including Steven Laviolette, professor in the School of Medicine and Dentistry at Western University in London, however, are skeptical of using cannabis for those struggling with opioid abuse.
“I’m not aware of any evidence to suggest that would be effective as a substitute for opioid-related dependence and addiction,” he said.
But Laviolette acknowledged that cannabis may have a place in treating some forms of addiction. He has conducted research into the use of CBD as a treatment for amphetamine addiction.
“We were able to show that it quite literally blocked the activation of these drugs on the dopamine neurons, so the neurons would stop firing in the presence of CBD,” he said. “That has really strong implications for CBD as an anti-addiction treatment.”
Laviolette noted that researchers in the U.S. are also studying CBD’s potential as a treatment for opioid addiction. But he says that THC may pose a risk to some people with addiction disorders.
“THC has been shown to cause overactivation of addiction pathways in the brain,” he said. “It could make it even worse because THC would be ramping up the brain’s addiction pathways and could potentially make problems like relapse and withdrawal an even greater issue for people suffering with opioid dependence.”
Dr. Samuel Hickcox, the physician lead for addictions medicine at Nova Scotia Health, said that the cannabis substitution programs do not have “high-quality scientific evidence” to support their effectiveness. He fears that people will turn to cannabis instead of medications that have been proven to be an effective treatment for opioid addiction.
“That really worries me because we know that people who have an opioid addiction, if they are on medications like Suboxone or methadone, that their health will improve. They’re much less likely to have fatal overdoses,” he said. “If we take that away from people by offering an unproven alternative, we run the risk of actually causing more harm than benefit.”
McCarty, however, says that she has witnessed how the gifts of cannabis can positively impact those struggling with addiction.
“People come and thank us all the time,” she said.
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