Rationale for cannabis-based interventions in the opioid overdose crisis

Harm Reduct J. 2017 Aug 18;14(1):58. doi: 10.1186/s12954-017-0183-9.


Background: North America is currently in the grips of a crisis rooted in the use of licit and illicit opioid-based analgesics. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in Canada and the US, and the growing toll of opioid-related morbidity and mortality requires a diversity of novel therapeutic and harm reduction-based interventions. Research suggests that increasing adult access to both medical and recreational cannabis has significant positive impacts on public health and safety as a result of substitution effect. Observational and epidemiological studies have found that medical cannabis programs are associated with a reduction in the use of opioids and associated morbidity and mortality.

Aims and methods: This paper presents an evidence-based rationale for cannabis-based interventions in the opioid overdose crisis informed by research on substitution effect, proposing three important windows of opportunity for cannabis for therapeutic purposes (CTP) to play a role in reducing opioid use and interrupting the cycle towards opioid use disorder: 1) prior to opioid introduction in the treatment of chronic pain; 2) as an opioid reduction strategy for those patients already using opioids; and 3) as an adjunct therapy to methadone or suboxone treatment in order to increase treatment success rates. The commentary explores potential obstacles and limitations to these proposed interventions, and as well as strategies to monitor their impact on public health and safety.

Conclusion: The growing body of research supporting the medical use of cannabis as an adjunct or substitute for opioids creates an evidence-based rationale for governments, health care providers, and academic researchers to consider the implementation and assessment of cannabis-based interventions in the opioid crisis.

Keywords: Addiction; Cannabis; Harm reduction; Marijuana; Opioids; Substitution.

Publication types

  • Letter

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / poisoning*
  • Buprenorphine, Naloxone Drug Combination / therapeutic use
  • Drug Overdose / prevention & control*
  • Evidence-Based Medicine
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Medical Marijuana / therapeutic use*
  • Methadone / therapeutic use
  • Narcotics / therapeutic use
  • Opiate Substitution Treatment
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Public Health
  • Public Policy


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Buprenorphine, Naloxone Drug Combination
  • Medical Marijuana
  • Narcotics
  • Methadone