A recently published animal study published April 4 in Experimental Biology examined rhesus monkeys, and suggests tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) are safe to take alongside opioid pain relievers.
While there is a ways to go before human trials, it’s believed that these cannabinoids may help in reducing the dose of opioids required for pain relief—in turn, making opioid addiction less likely.
“There is intense interest in using medical marijuana in patients with chronic pain because compounds in marijuana like CBD and THC may produce pain relief themselves or enhance pain-relieving effects of opioids,” said Lawrence Carey, Ph.D.
“This means people could potentially use lower doses of opioids and still get pain relief,” he continued. “Taking less pain medication could also lead to a lowered risk of addiction or physical dependence to opioids.”
There’s been an ongoing discussion on whether or not cannabis holds the potential to curb the U.S. opioid epidemic. While much research has gone into the pain-relieving properties of cannabis, scientists are looking to find out whether or not cannabinoids have the potential to help those already struggling with opioid addiction.
In one example, ANANDA Scientific recently announced that the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a clinical trial concerning the use of CBD in opioid use disorder (OUD).
Experimental Biology’s study takes these efforts a step further—if we can reduce the risk of opioid addiction during pain treatment, we can also prevent more from falling victim to the epidemic.
As the researchers found, both CBD and THC don’t enhance the reward effects produced by opioids. In turn, it’s impossible for these compounds to increase the risk of addiction if used alongside opioids.
However, one of the biggest issues with this study (along with many concerning cannabis) is the research has only been done on animals. And it remains unclear what the effects will be like when administered in humans.
THC and CBD May Be Beneficial in Other Areas of Opioid Addiction
Luckily, in the case of the Experimental Biology study, the animals observed were rhesus monkeys. Studies have found that these primates share about 93% of the same DNA as humans which makes their biology very similar.
Within the study, each monkey was given the opportunity to choose between a food reward or an injection of the opioid fentanyl. From there, they produced a concoction of opioids alongside CBD, THC, or a mixture of both cannabinoids.
When monkeys were given the option between fentanyl and food, their decision was not altered by either CBD, THC, or a combination of the two. Even at varying doses, no changes were found.
“Giving the animals the opportunity to choose between a drug injection and a food reward helped us to somewhat replicate choices a human drug user may face, such as whether to spend money on drugs or food,” Carey said. Having the option of responding for food is also useful for studying drugs like THC that produce sedative effects. It helps demonstrate the animal is reallocating behavior from drug to food choice instead of simply shutting down response for a drug due to sedation.”
The team is now furthering their research to determine whether or not THC and CBD hold the potential to reduce the signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal and relapse. As noted by Carey: “A big reason people continue to take opioids after they become addicted is the appearance of withdrawal symptoms.”
The goal of these future studies is to determine proper cannabis doses for withdrawal and to garner a better understanding of what degree these doses can help. Still, as the researchers note, they understand that OUD is a very complex condition. And there remain a number of factors that should be considered in order to treat it.