The results of a recently released animal study suggest that cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) may be safe to use with opioids, bolstering previous research that has shown medical cannabis use is associated with better outcomes related to the powerful pain relievers.
The study found that CBD and THC do not enhance the rewarding effects of opioids, suggesting that the risk of addiction is not increased when the compounds are used in conjunction with one another. Lawrence Carey, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, presented the research on Monday at the Experimental Biology 2022 conference in Philadelphia.
“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 the pain-relieving effects of opioids,” Carey said in a statement about the research. “This means people could potentially use lower doses of opioids and still get relief from pain. Taking less pain medication could also lead to a lowered risk of addiction or physical dependence to opioids.”
Study Offered Fentanyl and Food As Rewards
To complete the study, researchers allowed rhesus monkeys to choose between a food reward or an injection of the powerful opioid fentanyl. The scientists then gave the animals THC, CBD or a combination of the two cannabinoids to see if it affected the number of times they chose to use fentanyl. After testing a wide range of doses of THC and CBD alone or in combination, the researchers determined that the compounds did not increase or decrease the number of times the monkeys opted for fentanyl over food.
“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,” said Carey. “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.”
THC and CBD to Reduce Opioid Withdrawal
The research comes as the opioid crisis continues to grip the nation. In November, the CDC reported that more than 100,000 people had died of an overdose over a 12-month period, the highest number of deaths ever recorded in the span of a year. More than 75 percent of the reported overdose deaths were related to opioids. Leary and his team of scientists affiliated with the UT Health Science Center San Antonio are continuing their research to see if THC and CBD can reduce the symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
“A big reason why people continue to take opioids after they become addicted is the appearance of withdrawal symptoms,” said Carey. “We are using what we learned from this study to determine whether these doses– which didn’t alter choice for food or drug rewards – may help relieve opioid withdrawal or decrease relapse and drug seeking behavior following periods of abstinence.”
The results of the study, “Effects of cannabidiol (CBD), ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and CBD/THC mixtures on fentanyl self-administration in a food drug choice procedure in rhesus monkeys,” are consistent with dozens of previous studies that have shown that the use of medical marijuana or cannabis compounds can positively impact patients’ use of opioids.
Last month, researchers affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia published a study that showed osteoarthritis patients filled statistically less prescriptions for opioids six months after beginning medical cannabis compared to six months before treatment. Additionally, one-third of the study subjects stopped filling opioid prescriptions entirely. The researchers also reported improvements in the patients’ overall quality of life.