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April 12, 2017

Can we treat heroin addiction with marijuana?

While an increasing number of institutions and communities are turning to Narcan to treat heroin and opioid overdoses, some drug treatment programs are reportedly turning to a different type of substance in the hopes that it will successfully cure these kinds of addictions – marijuana.

Dr. Mark Wallace, chairman of the division of pain medicine at the University of California, San Diego’s department of anesthesia, recently told the New York Times that he has been able to help hundreds of patients transition off of heroin and opiates by using cannabis as an alternative.

This unusual form of rehab takes place at High Sobriety, a drug treatment clinic operated by Dr. Wallace that seeks to use marijuana as a way to transition addicts off of stronger and potentially more dangerous substances, even though research into such uses has been inconclusive.

Back in January, the National Academies of Sciences published a report that Harvard professor and report committee chairwoman Dr. Marie McCormick said found “no evidence to support or refute the conclusion that cannabinoids are an effective treatment for achieving abstinence in the use of addictive substances.”

Even Dr. Wallace admits that scientific evidence is lacking, though he insists that his patients have benefited from the program. The “majority” of them “continue to use” marijuana, he told the Times, but they added that, thanks to the drug, they no longer feel like a “slave” to heroin.

Concept is ‘absurd’ and ‘doesn’t work,’ experts warn

While the treatment program at High Sobriety has “attracted national attention,” the Washington Post noted that there is a long history of “analogous miracle cures” like this – including an effort in the late 19th and early 20th century to use morphine (an opiate) to combat alcoholism.

Likewise, the newspaper said, similar efforts in the past looked to use heroin to cure patients of their morphine addiction, and cocaine to cure addiction to morphine, heroin, tobacco and alcohol (an effort supported by none other than Sigmund Freud). In the short term, patients may actually feel better, experts say, but these so-called miracle therapies often come with consequences.

“Physicians like new drugs,” University of North Florida  historian David Courtwright told the Post. “When one becomes available it often gets overused. In the 1970s, for example, physicians prescribed Valium for a wide range of conditions, from anxiety to insomnia to muscle spasms. Quite a few patients became dependent.”

“The concept [of using marijuana to treat heroin addiction] on its face is absurd,” Dr. Mark Willenbring, a psychiatrist who formerly worked at the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, added in an interview with the Times . “I’m not prone to making exaggerated or unqualified statements and in this case I don’t need to make any: It doesn’t work. Like trying to cure alcoholism with Valium.”

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