Study: Cannabis May Be Effective Harm Reduction Tool To Ease Stimulant Cravings

Despite the skewed messaging of the past suggesting that cannabis is a gateway drug or will lead to the use and abuse of more addictive and harmful substances, many today understand that cannabis may be utilized as a harm reduction tool. 

Whether its individuals looking to reduce or eliminate their use of opioids for medical reasons or people who use drugs seeking relief from withdrawal symptoms and cravings, research is increasingly finding that cannabis may help.

In one of the more recent studies on the topic, researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) took a closer look at cannabis use and managing cravings to stimulant drugs. Ultimately their findings, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, indicated that cannabis is not only widely used to manage stimulant cravings but that it may be an effective strategy to reduce stimulant use.

Cannabis as Harm Reduction for Other Drug Use

Researchers note how medical and recreational cannabis reform has opened the door for other conversations, namely how cannabis use interacts with other higher risk substances and that cannabis substitution is a commonly utilized method of harm reduction. 

Given today’s ongoing drug toxicity crisis and the prevalence of fentanyl contamination in a number of substances, researchers say that investigating cannabis as a substitute for stimulant use could have “important public health and harm reduction appliances among people who use drugs at a heightened risk of overdose and other drug-related harms.”

To further analyze how cannabis use may affect people using stimulant drugs, researchers collected data from three cohorts in Vancouver, Canada: the At-Risk Youth Study (ARYS), the Vancouver Injection Drug Users Study (VIDUS) and the AIDS Care Cohort to Evaluate Exposure to Survival Services (ACCESS).

Researchers used a cross-sectional questionnaire alongside logistic regression models to analyze the relationship between cannabis use to manage stimulant cravings as well as self-reported changes in the frequency of stimulant use. A total of 297 participants reported cannabis and stimulant use over the past six months and were included in the study. 

Cannabis a Common Strategy to Reduce Stimulant Use

Of the participants, 45.1% reported that they used cannabis to manage stimulant cravings and 77.6% of those participants said that cannabis use indeed decreased their use of stimulants, including powder cocaine, crack cocaine and methamphetamines. 

Researchers noted that cannabis use to manage cravings was significantly associated with reduced stimulant use specifically among those who used crystal meth daily, though it was not significantly associated with reduced stimulant use among crack cocaine users.

While the study doesn’t provide all the answers, lead author Dr. Hudson Reddon noted the importance of the results.

“Our findings are not conclusive but do add to the growing scientific evidence that cannabis might be a beneficial tool for some people who want to better control their unregulated stimulant use, particularly for people who use crystal meth,” Dr. Reddon said. “This suggests a new direction for harm reduction strategies among people who use drugs.”

Adjacent Research and the Push for Further Investigation

While it’s surely an adjacent but far different issue, myriad research has explored the topic of cannabis as means to limit or replace opioids for medicinal use. 

Recent studies have found that cannabis may be comparable to opioids in treating pain while providing more holistic relief and that patients largely reduce or fully replace opioid use after beginning a medicinal cannabis regimen. Another recent study also found that CBD curbed opioid cravings in rats.

There is far less research available regarding the relationship between cannabis and recreational drug use and abuse, though the UBC study’s findings are still echoed in past studies. 

A 2021 study similarly found that cannabis is commonly used as a harm reduction strategy to substitute for stimulants and opioids. Another 2023 study found that cannabis was often utilized as a harm reduction strategy for those who had difficulty accessing addiction treatment or those using substances where effective treatments are limited.

Dr. Zach Walsh, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, called the findings of the UBC study “promising” while emphasizing the need for further research on the topic.

“[The findings] underscore the need for more comprehensive studies to understand the full potential of cannabis in the context of the overdose crisis,” Dr. Walsh said.

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