Cannabis is an ineffective replacement for opioid use disorder treatments: McMaster study

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There has been a significant buzz with regards to cannabis being employed as an opiate reduction or replacement strategy for individuals with opioid use disorder.

But a new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has indicated what many opioid users have already expressed — that it’s not effective.

A research team at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, studied the effects of cannabis consumption on illicit opioid use during methadone maintenance therapy, which, like buprenorphine, is a commonly used treatment for opioid use disorder.

Researchers analyzed a total of 23 studies with more than 3,600 participants, and a meta-analysis of six studies revealed that cannabis neither reduced opioid consumption during the course of treatment, nor did it retain individuals in treatment programs.

“We found no consensus among studies that cannabis use is associated with reduced opioid use or longer treatment retention when used during methadone maintenance therapy in patients with opioid use disorder,” they concluded.

Senior author Dr. Zainab Samaan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster and Hamilton staff psychiatrist, concurs.

“There is limited evidence that cannabis use may reduce opioid use in pain management, and some high-profile organizations have suggested cannabis is an ‘exit drug’ for illicit opioid use, but we found no evidence to suggest cannabis helps patients with opioid use disorder stop using opioids,” Dr. Zainab Samaan, senior author, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster, and Hamilton staff psychiatrist said in a news release.

We found no consensus among studies that cannabis use is associated with reduced opioid use or longer treatment retention when used during methadone maintenance therapy in patients with opioid use disorder.

The findings are not shocking to experts such as professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, Palo Alto Dr. Keith Humphreys and professor and chair of the department of community health sciences, Boston University School of Public Health Dr. Richard Saitz, who referred to using cannabis as an opioid replacement as “irresponsible.”

“The conversation has generally assumed cannabis to be safer and as effective as opioids, but it isn’t clear what the truth is,” Dr. Saitz told Medscape Medical News earlier this year, noting that “substituting cannabis for [other] opioid addiction treatments is potentially harmful” to drug users.

While more research is always beneficial, sticking to effective treatments can be a matter of life or death to individuals with opioid use disorder — and these findings have the potential to save the lives of some of the country’s most vulnerable individuals.

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