Addiction is one of the biggest health problems in the United States. A study conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University reported that “40 million Americans age 12 and over meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol or other drugs.” Addiction affects more people than those with heart disease, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease combined.
“What is so disheartening about this data is that an effective treatment with a far better probability of success for treating all of these addictions is literally right under our collective noses.”
Although not meeting the criteria for addiction, there are an estimated additional 80 million people in this country categorized as “risky substance users,” who consume tobacco, alcohol, opioids and other drugs that threaten public health and safety. According to The State is Out of Date: We Can Do Better by Gregory Sams, the annual toll from the use of these addictive substances by Americans is staggering with 450,000 deaths from tobacco, 85,000 from alcohol and 20,000 from opioids. These addictive substances have plagued the country’s citizens for years, but finally a solution can be found in cannabis.
Here’s the Situation
With an estimated $200 billion in sales annually, America’s gargantuan consumption of alcohol is normalized, aided and abetted by the prolific advertising campaigns undertaken by the alcohol industry continually associating alcohol with celebration, socialization and sex. The end result is over 17 million Americans suffering from alcohol abuse and dependence. Although there is a genetic component to addictions, stress from problems associated with family, jobs, mental illness or trauma is especially susceptible to alcohol addiction as drinking alcohol results in the release of naturally occurring “feel-good” opioids known as endorphins. Alcohol makes you “feel better” even though the problems still exist, while also creating new and more serious problems such as cardiovascular disease, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, cancer and death.
In 2013, over 200 million prescriptions for opioids (mostly used to treat pain) were dispensed to over 100 million Americans resulting in billions of opioids being consumed. This shocking increase in prescription opioids is abetted by the aggressive promotion of prescription opioids by the pharmaceutical industry, resulting in two million Americans with a substance abuse disorder involving prescription pain relievers. Most addictions to opioids begin with a legitimate need for a medical prescription to treat pain. Opioids interact with the brain’s opioid receptors relieving pain but also producing pleasurable effects. These pleasurable side effects lead many people to continue taking opioids even though the pain has subsided. Like alcohol, it is an escape mechanism and has serious, but different negative side effects including constipation, sedation, vomiting and respiratory depression. The only serious side effect that opioids share with alcohol is death.
Unlike alcohol and opioid addictions, addiction to tobacco almost always begins in adolescence. The seductive ads run by the tobacco industry featuring masculine men and glamorous women enjoying tobacco products assures a continuing stream of new smokers as they become addicted to the nicotine found in tobacco—a natural substance more addictive than heroin. Nicotine produces mildly pleasant feelings, which distracts the user from unpleasant feelings by flooding the brain’s reward circuits with a mood-affecting chemical called dopamine. This, coupled with the physiologically addictive properties of nicotine, make tobacco users want more. From minor problems like bad breath and yellow teeth to respiratory complications, deteriorating heart muscle and lung cancer, the dangers from tobacco are different and take longer to develop than the problems caused by alcohol and opioids, but for many users they all share the same eventual outcome—death.
The Science of Cannabis
What is so disheartening about this data is that an effective treatment with a far better probability of success for treating all of these addictions is literally right under our collective noses. A peer-reviewed, evidentiary based study, Cannabis Is A Potential Exit Drug To Problematic Substance Use published in the November 2009 journal Addiction Research and Theory by seven addiction treatment specialists who reported that cannabis can indeed be used as an “exit drug” to help treat addiction. “While some studies have found that a small percentage of the general population that uses cannabis may develop a dependence on this substance, a growing body of research on cannabis-related substitution suggests that for many patients cannabis is not only an effective medicine, but also a potential exit drug to problematic substance use,” the study reads.
Famed Harvard Medical School researcher Dr. Lester Grinspoon wrote that “treating addiction to substances such as heroin, methadone, alcohol, tobacco and other drugs with a non-addictive, nontoxic alternative is an effective therapy for some recovering addicts.” The “nontoxic alternative” that Grinspoon was referring to is, of course, cannabis.
Cannabis doesn’t solve the underlying problem causing the addiction, but provides symptomatic relief from the physical and mental manifestations of whatever is causing the addiction. This symptomatic relief allows the individual to lead a normal and productive life while pursuing treatment options for the problems that lead to the addiction in the first place. In many cases cannabis “calms the demons” to such an extent that even though the underlying problem is never resolved, the individual can live with it.
Unlike pain medications and almost every prescription and over-the-counter medicine available, cannabis has practically zero severe negative side effects. It might cause inactive people to become even more laid back, but that is a small price to pay for its pain relieving, depression mitigating, sleep inducing, addiction resolving properties.
There are no medicines that work for everyone and the same holds true for cannabis. Cannabis will not solve everyone’s addiction, but for a very significant number, perhaps even a majority as more than one research study has concluded, cannabis will resolve the problems caused by addiction restoring normalcy, productivity and life.