How Cannabis Ingredient CBD Could Help Tackle the Opioid Crisis

Scientists hope an ingredient found in cannabis could one day be used to treat people addicted to heroin and in turn help tackle the opioid crisis.

Taking cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana, was found to ease in former addicts the cravings and anxiety associated with giving up the powerful opioid. It also appeared to lessen signs of stress, such as an increased heart rate and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The U.S. opioid crisis has been linked to over 300,000 deaths in the past decade, according to the authors of the study, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

But doctors have a limited arsenal of medication to draw from in order to treat addicted patients. These include methadone and buprenorphine. As opioids, both drugs are addictive in themselves, carry a stigma for users and are tightly regulated.

Researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai investigated whether CBD could form the basis of new treatments. To do so, they recruited 42 men and women who were previously addicted to opioids but were abstinent at the time of the study.

The participants were randomly assigned either 400 milligrams or 800 mg doses of CBD, or a placebo drug. To test the emotional states of the subjects, the researchers showed them images related to drugs and drug use, such as packets that appeared to be filled with heroin, on three separate occasions: immediately after taking CBD or the placebo, 24 hours after and seven days after. They were also shown relaxing neutral scenes, such as landscapes. During these sessions, their vital signs were documented, and they were asked about their anxiety and craving levels.

When compared with those who took the placebo, the CBD group had significantly less cravings and anxiety linked to drug use, even seven days after they took the cannabis ingredient. The participants also didn't experience any side effects.

The study's first author, Yasmin Hurd, director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai, said in a statement, "Our findings indicate that CBD holds significant promise for treating individuals with heroin use disorder.

"A successful non-opioid medication would add significantly to the existing addiction medication toolbox to help reduce the growing death toll, enormous health care costs, and treatment limitations imposed by stringent government regulations amid this persistent opioid epidemic," Hurd said.

Ian Hamilton of the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, who was not involved in the research, told Newsweek the research produced "promising results that suggest there is potential for CBD in the treatment of people who have been dependent on opiates."

"Administering CBD appears to reduce craving when measured against a placebo. This is important, as craving is a significant threat to recovery and can trigger a relapse into using opiates," he said.

"The greatest effect seems to have been when CBD was first given in the laboratory setting. Unfortunately, the effect is less significant when the person is in their own home. This suggests environment is a critical factor which will require further investigation and development if CBD is to be used to help people in the real world rather than in a research setting," Hamilton said.

Chandni Hindocha, a University College London research fellow at Britain's National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centers, worked on a separate study showing that genetic variations in a person's endocannabinoid system play a significant role in how they respond to drugs.

She told Newsweek: "This study is incredibly important, as it shows us that there are drugs available to treat the opioid crisis."

Hindocha said it was "really important" to note that women suffered double the extent of craving and anxiety after encountering a cue when compared to men, "as it may suggest women need more support giving up than men."

However, the authors didn't measure how much CBD got into the bloodstream, Hindocha said. "It would be great to see if there was a correlation between the amount of CBD in the blood with the reduction in craving and anxiety, or with the more biological measures, such as the reduction in the stress hormone cortisol," she noted.

"It is unlikely that CBD alone will be enough to stop people using heroin, but alongside other treatments, it will certainly be useful," Hindocha said.

cannabis weed marijuana stock getty
Getty Images