Could Cannabis be the Answer to Opioid Addiction?

17th September 2019

When it comes to the Cannabis debate, one of the key arguments made in the favour of legalisation is its potential to relieve pain. People have used the plant for its medicinal properties for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. But could it help to prevent Opioid addiction?

In recent years, both the US and Canada have declared an epidemic of Opioid addiction and overdose-related deaths. ‘Opioids’ in these cases, refers to both illegal drugs, such as Heroin, and prescription pain-killers, like Fentanyl. Although the issue is not considered to be as developed in the UK, it has been noted that 53% of people currently in treatment for substance dependence are addicted to opioids.

Opioid medications are most often used to treat serious cases of pain. Although considered effective for pain relief, opioids also have a high risk of abuse and addiction, as well as some unpleasant side effects. In comparison, the risk of addiction to Cannabis is significantly lower. There have also been no confirmed overdoses of the drug, or the molecules within it.

The Research

These comparisons led some researchers to wonder whether US states where medical Cannabis was legalised had seen a decline in opioid-related deaths. In 2014, a group of these researchers published the results from their ongoing 1999-2010 study: “Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States“.


At the beginning of their research, only three states had active medical Cannabis laws (California, Oregon, and Washington). However, throughout the duration, ten additional stated implemented legislation. Relevant data from all of these states were analysed.

The study concluded that medical Cannabis laws were associated with “significantly lower state-level opioid overdose mortality rates.”


A second study, which was published in 2017, found a similar trend. This study looked at Cannabis as a direct replacement of opioids in pain management.

The data was collected through surveys with 2897 medical Cannabis patients, (34% of whom had used opioid-based medication in the last 6 months). It was found that an overwhelming majority of participants “strongly agreed/agreed” that Cannabis was as effective as their other medications, without the side effects.

Furthermore, 97 % of participants reported that they had been able to decrease the amounts of opiates they consumed. 81% of participants even claimed that consuming Cannabis alone was more effective than taking Cannabis alongside opiates. These findings have given a huge basis for the development of Cannabis-derived pain medications.

Could Cannabis be the Answer to Opioid Addiction?
Cannabis plant growing indoors

The Science

The molecules found in Cannabis, which are thought to be the most effective at relieving pain, are known as Cannflavin A and Cannflavin B. These molecules have been found to be almost thirty times stronger than Aspirin. However, other molecules have been found to also have pain-relieving properties, such as CBD.

Cannflavins A and B were discovered in 1985, but research around them was halted for a number of reasons. Among these was the lack of both cultivatory needed to study the flavinoids; and scientific resourcers to understand how they are produced by the Cannabis plant.

That is, until recently. This year, researchers at the University of Guelph successfully determined how the Cannabis plant makes these molecules. Cannflavin A and B work by inhibiting the production of two pro-inflammatory mediators – prostaglandin E2 and leukotrienes.

Professor Steven Rothstein, one of the researchers who worked on the bio-synthesis of the Cannflavins, said:

“Being able to offer a new pain relief option is exciting, and we are proud that our work has the potential to become a new tool in the pain relief arsenal.”

The research collected is expected to be used in the development of new pain-killers. In fact, Toronto-based Anahit International is already working with Guelph researchers to develop a number of products.

Natural and effective pain-killers, without the often devastating side effects, may soon be here. With the strength of large-scale studies, scientific researchers, and Cannabis businesses, Cannabis could soon be the key player in pain relief.


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