Dealing with addiction cannabis vs. alcohol and other drugs

Apr 12, 2018

According to the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), individuals who were able to recover from cannabis addictions did so at younger ages and with fewer supports or assistance than those attempting recovery from addictions to alcohol or other drugs. Researchers believe this may reflect the increased potency and availability of cannabis available to users in recent years.

“Compared with alcohol and other drugs, cannabis holds a unique place in federal and state policies–continuing to be illegal federally but with medical and recreational use legalized at the state level. Due to this increased availability and the proliferation of a for-profit cannabis industry, understanding the needs of individuals with cannabis problems will be increasingly important.”- John Kelly, PhD and director of the Recovery Research Institute and leader of the study

Using data gathered from 40,000 U.S. adults who answered the question “did you use to have a problem with drugs or alcohol, but no longer do?” as part of the Knowledge Panel of the market research company GfK, more than 2,000 of the 25,000 respondents who indicated that they had solved their substance abuse problem were directed to the full study survey. As reported in its publication in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, more than half of these 2,000 participants claimed to have resolved their issue with cannabis with no assistance.

Dr. Kelly then focused on these participants, who made up 11% of the group, reflecting approximately 2.4 million U.S. adults. These participants reported that they had used cannabis once a week or more at a younger age, and resolved the issue at an average of 29 years, whereas alcohol and other drugs were resolved on average at age 38 and 33, respectively.

Those who primarily used cannabis, as opposed to illicit drugs, were less likely to participate in formal treatment or support services, but were more likely to appear in drug courts; additionally, cannabis users had shorter “addiction careers” than those who’d used alcohol (12 years as opposed to 18), which may explain the greater health impairment associated with alcohol use and abuse.

“We did expect that the cannabis-primary individuals would be less likely than the illicit drug groups to use formal treatment,” says Kelly, “but very little is known about the magnitude or nature of such differences. That may be due to fewer physiological and other life consequences compared with the impairments caused by drugs and alcohol or opioids. For example, while there is a documented withdrawal syndrome related to cannabis dependence, withdrawal from opioids or alcohol is notoriously more severe and often requires medically-managed detoxification.”

Today’s cannabis has higher levels of THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis (1 to 20 percent, versus 1 to percent 10 to 20 years ago), which posed an interesting question for the research team regarding whether or not support services have changed over time to reflect the higher potency of the drug. Researchers’ findings indicated that over the past 5.5 years, outpatient services were more often sought out by cannabis users wishing to resolve their addiction, while inpatient services were more commonly sought out by those who had resolved their problem twenty years before. It is important to also note that insurance companies now require participation in outpatient treatment before coverage for inpatient care is provided.

Therefore, it is more likely that cannabis users today will require assistance in successfully resolving their addictions. “Now it will be important to determine whether the recovery timeline from high-potency cannabis will be different and more challenging,” says Kelly. “And since so many of the cannabis-primary group resolved their problem without either formal treatment or mutual help organizations like Marijuana Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, it will be critical to understand the changes in their lives that helped make recovery possible.”