The end of addiction? New university research position aims to write a prescription
Before Sherry Yafai took over as the medical director at High Sobriety the patients were smoking cannabis all the time. The California drug treatment program uses cannabis as a tool to wean addicts off everything from heroine to alcohol. But uncontrolled and in isolation, cannabis wasn’t working.
“They were allowed to smoke as much marijuana as they wanted, so they smoked a lot,” says Yafai, a former family doctor who is now a medical cannabis expert. “They traded one addiction for another.”
When she took over the program the rules changed. She prescribed only low dose edibles and only in limited amounts. And she incorporated more counselling therapy. “If we don’t deal with the underlining issues that lead to use in the first place they are just going to keep using,” she believes.
Her strict rules worked. Before Yafai got involved, only two of an eleven person cohort would kick their habit. Of the first group of addicts under her new regime nine of eleven maintained sobriety.
The difference underlines the challenging reality of cannabis as a treatment for addiction. Harm reduction advocates and growing pool of research suggests cannabis is one of the most effective tools for weaning drug addicts. But it’s no panacea in isolation.
“If it was simple to stop an addiction with pot we wouldn’t see so many addicts and overdoses,” says Yafai.
The promise is exciting. As medical and recreational cannabis became legal in U.S. states it corresponded to a decrease in opioid deaths and a reduction in the number of opioid-related prescriptions.
Others found it even prevented more dangerous drug use. Crack cocaine addicts used less when they intentionally consumed cannabis and daily cannabis use lowered the risk of street-involved youth from using injection drugs.
A new research chair position at the University of British Columbia was built on this knowledge. The university recently named research scientist MJ Milloy the Canopy Growth Professor of Cannabis Science. It is one of the first cannabis focused research chairs in Canada. Funding for the position came from grants from the B.C. provincial government and Canopy Growth, a cannabis company.
Milloy is a leading researcher in substance-use and disease. As a scientist at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, he focused on the relationship between drug use, HIV and cannabis. One of his many important studies found that HIV patients who used cannabis once a daily had lower levels of the virus in their blood.
“It suggests cannabis was not simply about symptom management or about recreation. it was addressing the fundamental disease process for people living with HIV.” — MJ Milloy
“This was for me as close to an eye-opening moment because it suggests cannabis was not simply about symptom management or about recreation,” Milloy told the Vancouver Courier. “Indeed, it was addressing the fundamental disease process for people living with HIV. It opened my eyes.”
With the cannabis chair he will focus more on the relationship between cannabis and treating addiction, building on a recent study he conducted that discovered hard drug users were more likely to stick with treatment if they used cannabis, than if they didn’t. The research is badly needed. In 2018, 2066 people died of an opioid overdose in Canada. More than half were in B.C. where three to four people die every day.
“The opioid overdose crisis demands holistic and scientific approaches in order to develop new knowledge and strategies in response to this urgent health issue facing our society,” said Dr. Dermot Kelleher, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at UBC. Maybe more importantly, a high profile position at a leading university should help not only draw attention to cannabis’s medical potential but also help de-stigmatize the plant.
“We continue to face issues around the interpretation and the importance of cannabis research,” Kelleher continues. “I think we are at a turning point, but I think we have a long way to go.”
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