New treatment for cannabis dependence – can cannabinoids help?

Marijuana, a drug from the cannabis plant that is also known as cannabis, is reckoned to be the most popularly used casual drug in the world, yet despite the frequency of its use, actual addiction to the drug is not common. There are no chemicals in marijuana that cause physical dependence and addiction is probably due to cravings and withdrawal symptoms that include anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness and increased aggression.
There is currently no medication solely for the treatment of marijuana, or cannabis, addiction. Behavioural therapy, which focuses on current problems facing the addict and tries to modify behaviour accordingly, is the most common approach, but again success rates are low with one study indicating a relapse rate of 71% within six months.
New research by a team at New York’s Columbia University, however, may have found an answer. The scientists treated a small group of marijuana abusers with nabilone, a synthetic version tetrahydrocannanibol (THC), which is the active ingredient in marijuana, while a control group was given a placebo. They found that those given nabilone experienced a reduction in the level of withdrawal symptoms – they could sleep better and had better appetites – and the nabilone did not give them a “high”, suggesting that there was little potential for abuse.
Nabilone is currently given to patients suffering from extreme nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy treatment for cancer, but only if other medications have proved ineffective. It is a prescription-only drug and, according to conventional wisdom, produces affects users in a similar way to marijuana (albeit much less strongly) and may be habit forming.
Another possible treatment for marijuana or cannabis dependence is also being examined. Patients are treated with a combination of THC and lofexidine, a non-opioid drug that is used to relieve the symptoms associated with drug withdrawal but has no known effect on cravings. The treatment has been shown to reduce the severity of withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. Its success rate is better than if either drug is used alone.
Cannabis addiction treatment with cannabis, or more accurately a synthetic cannabinoid, might seem a novel approach, but if it is effective then thousands of addicts will benefit. As medical science comes to understand more about drug dependency, more treatments are likely to emerge.