Medical Cannabis as a Harm Reduction Strategy for Substance Use Disorder

15th November 2019

In a global climate where attitudes towards medical Cannabis is becoming increasingly more liberal, DrugScience announced plans to assess the drug for its potential as a harm reduction strategy for Substance Use Disorder (SUD). 

Addiction is a wide-ranging condition affecting millions of people in the UK to varying degrees. It can appear fairly harmless, as seen in addictions to gaming, or in non-intrusive behaviours, such as gambling.

However, the form of addiction which is most harmful to society relates to SUD. Deaths related to drug misuse are currently at their highest rates since comparable records began in 1993. Some researchers are now wondering if medical Cannabis can reduce the harms associated with Substance Use Disorder.

The Endocannabinoid System and Addictive Behaviour

Everybody has an endocannabinoid system (ECS) distributed throughout their bodies. This system contributes to, and mediates, a variety of cognitive, sensory, psychological, and neurological responses in the body. For example, interactions within the ECS have been found to impact things like memory, mood, and appetite.

In relation to Substance Use Disorder, the endocannabinoid system is thought to be associated with ‘reward signaling’. Although the brain’s reward signaling system is essential for human survival – it drives desires to eat, sleep, exercise, and reproduce among many other things – it can also become problematic, as seen with addictions.

The Role of CBD in Preventing Addictive Urges

Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the main components found in the Cannabis plant. It has been found to interact with the ECS and has a number of potential health and therapeutic benefits. CBD interacts with a number of receptors in the human body, including the CB1 and CB2 receptors in the endocannabinoid system.

Significantly, the compound has also been seen to interact with the opioid and seretonergic receptor systems. Some researchers believe that it may be possible to mediate the responses from these receptors, to develop a new treatment option for substance abuse.

Despite some promising results from human and animal studies, evidence of how CBD may affect reward signaling is still lacking. However, the anxiolytic and stress relieving properties of the compound – which are more extensively documented – may also contribute to its potential as reducing addictive behaviour.

Medical Cannabis as a Harm Reduction Strategy

Cannabis itself is known to be an addictive substance, with around 1 in 10 becoming dependent on the drug. However, many researchers understand that these figures relate to high-THC strains of the plant. In fact, it has been found that CBD can actually prevent, or lessen the psychoactive effects of THC.

Cannabis is being considered as a harm reduction strategy, as it could potentially replace more harmful substances. DrugScience’s Project Twenty21, which hopes to recruit 20,000 UK patients by the end of 2021, will assess Cannabis’ suitability for this use, as well as for treating a variety of illnesses and conditions. If the drug proves beneficial, it may eventually be considered as a replacement option for pain medications, like opioids.


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