Cannabis for Alcohol Addiction: The Facts
Alcohol Addiction is a huge problem globally, killing 2.5 million people a year according to the World Health Organization. Many studies now recommend cannabis for alcohol addiction.
Millions suffer from alcoholism and alcohol-related disorders Worldwide, including Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and Alcohol Dependence Syndrome (ADS).
Alcoholism is a serious health issue that affects not only the addicted drinkers, but many others who are either innocent domestic partners, family members or co-workers.
Also those involved in law enforcement and healthcare; who are called upon to deal with the consequences of alcohol abuse.
There are treatment programs available such as AA, SMART Recovery, SOS or WFS, however, the effectiveness of these therapies is questionable.
A study by Walsh (et al.) showed that more than 60% of patients given formal alcohol treatment relapsed into drinking alcohol.
Other studies have shown similar outcomes. According to Dr. B.G. Charlton in the United Kingdom:
“Since hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and Ireland regularly get drunk during their leisure hours, it is clear that a lifestyle drug that induces a state of euphoric release is needed, and alcohol is currently the only legal and available intoxicating agent.
Marijuana is probably a safer and less antisocial alternative to high-dose alcohol.”
Ethanol the drug
Alcohol (ethanol) is a dangerous drug that has widespread appeal due to its ability to alter brain chemistry that can relax and lower inhibitions in the user.
It is widely available and has few restrictions on its purchase; unless you are under a certain age limit, however, it use is ingrained in so many cultures that it is regularly consumed by adolescents.
Alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood. Effects are generally felt within 10 minutes after drinking and usually peak in the blood after 30-90 minutes.
Most (90%) of the breaking down of alcohol from a toxic substance to water and carbon dioxide is performed by the liver, with the rest excreted through the lungs, kidneys and also by sweating.
The liver can only break down a certain amount of alcohol per hour, which for an average person is around one standard drink.
Despite having a degree of social acceptance alcohol is basically a poison that can kill in overdose. Hypoglycemia and respiratory depression are the two most immediate life-threatening complications that result from ethanol intoxication, particularly in adolescents.
Severe alcohol addiction withdrawal symptoms include seizures, irregular heartbeat, hallucinations, spikes in blood pressure, and tremors (uncontrollable shaking).
If untreated, severe alcohol withdrawal syndrome kills one out of three sufferers. Some estimates state the number of people who die from alcoholism and alcohol-related accidents are two million per year globally. Read more on the dangers of withdrawal.
Cannabis has never been responsible for a single death and many researchers now recommend cannabis for alcohol addiction.
Medical marijuana and treatment for alcohol addiction
Much of the controversy surrounding the treatment of alcoholics with cannabis focuses on whether it can be shown that cannabis itself is also addictive.
Opponents of cannabis treatment therapy for alcoholism in particular often make the misguided claim that sufferers are merely swapping one addiction for another.
Scientific research and peer reviewed studies have proven that cannabis is merely habit forming, and not physically addictive in any way. More importantly cannabis offers no opportunity for overdose.
Lethal dosage for ethanol (alcohol)
One of the most common methods by which the toxicity of a particular drug is objectively measured is the rate at which it kills those who consume it. This is expressed by something called the LD-50 rating. LD-50 indicates a substance’s lethal dose.
For alcohol, the LD-50 is about 0.40 % blood alcohol level (BAL). Rutgers University’s Centre for Alcohol Studies reports the lethal dose for alcohol to be between 0.40 and 0.50 %.
In a 1988 ruling, DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young stated:
“At present it is estimated that marijuana’s LD-50 is around 1:20,000 or 1:40,000. In layman terms this means that in order to induce death a marijuana smoker would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times as much marijuana as is contained in one marijuana cigarette. A smoker would theoretically have to consume nearly 1,500 pounds of marijuana within about 15 minutes to induce a lethal response.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health:
“Because cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are not located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration, lethal overdoses from cannabis and cannabinoids do not occur.”
Cannabis studies into alcohol addiction treatment
Amanda Reiman, PhD MSW, is the author of the 2009 study “Cannabis as a Substitute for Alcohol and Other Drugs” in Harm Reduction Journal and manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance.
After completing fellowships with the National Institute for Health, Reiman now continues her research on the effectiveness of cannabis as a replacement for hard drugs and alcohol. She stated:
“The obvious thing is that cannabis acts as a psychoactive substitute. You want to get high on substance A, but instead you’re getting high on substance B. That’s a pretty simplistic way to look at it. When you take a little further look what you’re seeing is that there are actual properties of the cannabis plant that can aid in getting off of other substances. When you look at the withdrawal symptoms of drugs like opiates and alcohol – things like nausea, tremors, trouble sleeping – these are all conditions which cannabis is really good at fixing.”
The late Dr. Tod Mikuriya was a strong advocate of medical cannabis for the treatment of alcohol dependence.
Mikuriya (1933-2007) was an American psychiatrist and is referred to as the father of medical marijuana in the U.S.
In a 2004 study that involved 92 patients, all of whom had been prescribed cannabis as a treatment for alcohol dependence, Mikuriya reported:
“As could be expected among patients seeking physician approval to treat alcoholism with cannabis, all reported that they’d found it ‘very effective’ (45) or ‘effective’ (38).
Efficacy was inferred from other responses on seven questionnaires. Nine patients reported that they had practiced total abstinence from alcohol for more than a year and attributed their success to cannabis. Their years in sobriety: 19, 18, 16, 10, 7, 6, 4 and 2.”
Many patients involved in the study reported that their symptoms of alcohol dependence returned after they discontinued use of cannabis.
Interestingly 29 of the patients who participated in Mikuriya’s study formerly used alcohol for pain relief, but all had instead converted to using cannabis.
A significant portion of the study participants, 44, reported that they had used alcohol to treat a mood disorder such as stress, anxiety, or depression. Some also reported using alcohol to treat symptoms of PTSD. All forty four reported that they had successfully substituted cannabis for alcohol for the relief of their psychological ailments.
A study published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2009 and conducted at the University of California at Berkeley concluded with the recommendation that cannabis be used as a substitute for alcohol in the treatment of alcohol abuse.It was a large survey study in Berkeley of 350 patients. They were asked if they were choosing to use cannabis instead of something else? What they found was 75 % of them were using cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs, about half of them said they were using cannabis as a substitute for alcohol, and about 20% said they were using it as a replacement for illicit substances.
This study was replicated with an additional 400 patients in Canada and found the same thing. Then it was replicated a third time in Canada with about 1,000 patients, and results were the same.
Amanda Reiman who conducted the survey, stated:
“Substituting cannabis for alcohol has been described as a radical alcohol treatment protocol. This approach could be used to address heavy alcohol use in the British Isles – people might substitute cannabis, a potentially safer drug than alcohol with [fewer] negative side effects, if it were socially acceptable and available.”
Cannabis works well treating alcoholics, but can also be combined with extracts of a Chinese variety of the oriental raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis).
Also known as the Japanese Raisin tree, the extracts and fruit have been used for over 500 years to treat hangovers in China and compliment treatment using cannabis for alcohol addiction.
Now dihydromyricetin (DHM), a component of the extract, has shown in a series of experiments that it works by preventing alcohol from having its usual intoxicating effects on the brain, however much is in blood.
Pharmacologist Jing Liang of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the research team. Liang first tested whether DHM blocks the clumsiness and loss of coordination caused by alcohol. To do this, she measured how long it took for treated rats to right themselves after being laid on their backs in a V-shaped cradle.and.stated:
“DHM will reduce the degree of drunkenness for the amount of alcohol drunk and will definitely reduce the hangover symptoms. In time, it will reduce their desire for alcohol.”
After she injected rats’ abdomens with a dose of alcohol proportionate to the amount a human would get from downing 15 to 20 beers in 2 hours, they took about 70 minutes, on average, to right themselves.
DHM appeared to discourage rats from drinking alcohol when they had a free choice between drinking a sweetened solution of alcohol or sweetened water.
However, when an injection of the same amount of alcohol included a milligram of DHM per kilogram of rat body weight, the animals recovered their composure within just 5 minutes.
DHM also stopped rats in a maze from behaving in ways resembling anxiety and hangovers. Rats given heavy doses of alcohol cowered away in corners of the maze, whereas those given the extract with their alcohol behaved normally and were as inquisitive as rats given no alcohol at all, exploring the more open corridors of the maze.
Over a period of three months, rats will normally get addicted to increasing volumes of alcohol. Rats given DHM, though, drank no more than about a quarter of the amount that the other rats eventually built up to. Moreover, alcoholic rats that had worked up to the higher levels suddenly dropped down to a moderate intake when given DHM after seven weeks.
All the benefits of DHM were lost instantly when Liang also gave the rats a drug called flumazenil which is known to block receptors in the brain for a neurotransmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). According to Liang, this proved that DHM works by stopping alcohol from accessing the same receptors. This, she says, explains why DHM kept the rats sober even when they had huge amounts of alcohol in their blood.
Source: The Journal of Neuroscience, DOI: 10.1523/jneurosci.4639-11.2012
Cannabis treatment for alcoholics; a sober future
Abstinence-based recovery is only one framework when it comes to healing. The goal of substance treatment isn’t necessarily to demand abstinence as much as it is to help someone manage their life in a manner where substances are no longer interfering in a negative way.
Cannabis alone has enormous potential to help treat alcoholism alongside other serious drug addictions and should certainly be considered by alcoholics wishing to cure what is actually referred to as a disease. Combining cannabis treatment with DHM from Asian raisins (Japanese raisin tree) that can be administered as a herbal tea, is one of the most under researched treatments, however anecdotal advice of its efficacy in humans is readily available.