As the world struggles to understand the therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis, one topic of inquiry is the use of medical cannabis to treat alcoholism. Though several studies indicate that medical cannabis may effectively reduce the pains of alcohol withdrawal, other researchers remain unconvinced. A recent meta-analysis indicates that overall more research is required before “alcoholism” ought to be added to the list of maladies that medical cannabis can be used to treat.
A major proponent of using medical cannabis to treat alcoholism was Dr. Mikuriya. Dr. Mikuriya cited how cannabis is frequently used as a painkiller. This useful characteristic could then be extrapolated for use in treating pain-associated withdrawal symptoms in patients looking to cease their dependency on opiates and/or alcohol. He also noted that medical cannabis is safer than alcohol and does not involve the same risk of addiction.
Indeed, before Dr. Mikuriya spoke out in favor of using medical cannabis to treat alcoholism, people were already self-medicating. In fact a 2009 study conducted in Berkeley California revealed that of 350 patients, 40 percent reported using cannabis for the purposes of dulling alcohol cravings. In addition 26 percent were also using cannabis to dampen the desire for harder illegal drugs, and 66 percent were substituting cannabis for prescription medications.
However some researchers remain unconvinced. A recent meta-analysis completed by Dr. Subbaraman concluded that the evidence for the efficacy of medical cannabis to treat alcoholism is altogether inconclusive. Simply put, there is not enough data to convince experts one way or another. When evaluated, the studies that have produced the encouraging results were found to suffer from some rudimentary methodological flaws. These oversights included small sample populations and samples of individuals that self-selected for participation in the studies. Furthermore, studies involving medical cannabis sometimes involve input from dispensaries that may be motivated to promote their products—either intentionally or inadvertently introducing bias. Finally, a number of confounding variables such as the severity of addiction were un-accounted for in most of the studies.
Dr. Subbaraman’s work suggests that the key for understanding the relationship between alcoholism and treatment with medical cannabis will be to conduct longitudinal studies. Such a study will necessitate following a cohort of patients over many years to evaluate if cannabis-using alcoholics will recover more quickly and with fewer relapses than patients that do not use medical cannabis. In addition, another critical matter to investigate will be whether or not medical cannabis is truly as innocuous as enthusiasts claim. Preliminary studies indicate that medical cannabis use may be linked to different kinds of cancer, psychosis, and other health risks. However, as with the matter of alcoholism, more data is needed.
Though it may seem peculiar to treat a drug addiction by prescribing another drug, the efficacy of using medical cannabis to treat alcoholism is most certainly worth looking into. Even if doctors remain hesitant to prescribe medical cannabis to recovering alcoholics, it would be beneficial to inform the widespread community that is currently self-medicating.
By Sarah Takushi