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Marijuana maintenance - should you use marijuana as a substitution ‘medication’ to help you quit drinking?

The idea may surprise you, but researchers at the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley recently evaluated marijuana as a substitution medication (marijuana maintenance) across 7 criteria, and though they don’t outright recommend the idea (they call for further research) they don’t condemn it either, while noting that alcohol is more harmful than marijuana and far more dangerous in overdose situations.1

The 7 domains used to rate the acceptability of an alcohol substitution medication are:

  1. It reduces alcohol related harms.
  2. It is free of harm or less harmful than alcohol.
  3. Its misuse should be less than what is seen with alcohol.
  4. It is an adequate substitution for alcohol. It is not used along with alcohol.
  5. It is less dangerous in overdose than alcohol.
  6. It doesn’t potentiate the effects of alcohol.
  7. It results in significant health economic benefits.

Read on for their conclusions across 7 comparison domains – and then make up your own mind on this contentious issue.

Marijuana as an Alcohol Substitution Medication

According to UC Berkley Researchers:

Supporting Evidence

  • Reducing alcohol harms  - There is some evidence that marijuana substitution can reduce alcohol damage.
  • It is free of harm or less harmful than alcohol – There is significant evidence that marijuana is safer than alcohol.
  • Safer in overdose – When looking at the safety ratio, we see that alcohol is 10 times more dangerous in overdose situations.
  • Health economics – there is some evidence that at the macro level, substituting marijuana for alcohol results in community health economic benefits.

Mixed or Contradictory Evidence

  • Alcohol potentiating - Some studies suggest that marijuana potentiates alcohol, while other studies suggest that it does not.
  • Its misuse should be less than what is seen with alcohol – Though percentage dependence rates are far lower for marijuana than for alcohol, marijuana dependence rates among alcohol abusers are significant.
  • Complement or substitute – There are studies showing that marijuana is used as a substitution for alcohol but also as complementary substance with alcohol.

Is Marijuana Maintenance Common?

Whether or not addiction experts decide to back marijuana maintenance – research results from California and B.C. Canada show that many medical marijuana patients already use cannabis as a replacement for alcohol.

People with substance use disorders – whether alcohol or other drugs – commonly try substituting a less harmful substance for their drug of choice.  

  • In a study of medical cannabis users from 4 dispensaries in British Columbia Canada, 75% of those polled admitted to at least sometimes using marijuana to substitute for other substances, such as other prescription drugs (68%), alcohol (41%) and other illicit drugs (36%).2
  • In a study of medical cannabis users from California, researchers from the University of California Berkley attained very similar results, observing that 66% of patients reported sometimes using cannabis to substitute for prescription drugs, 40% used it to substitute for alcohol and 26 % used it to replace other illicit drugs.3

Potential Drawbacks

  • In some areas there are potential legal issues.
  • While intending to use cannabis as a replacement medication, there is a risk that you’d use it as a complement or additive substance – just worsening your problem.

Further Reading

Beyond alcohol, people fighting addictions to other substances, such as opioids, may also benefit from marijuana as a treatment ‘medication’.

Research published in the American Journal on Addictions demonstrates that people who use marijuana during the methadone stabilization phase experience milder withdrawal symptoms that people who do not. The use of cannabis during methadone induction had not negative impact on the process.

What Do You Think?

If you were able to switch from uncontrolled alcohol use to uncontrolled marijuana use, is this a significant improvement?

Please leave a comment below to share your opinion, experience or expertise!

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Page last updated Nov 24, 2015

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