Medical Marijuana as a Treatment for Opioid Addiction?

Marijuana joint and opioids.

On January 23rd, 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy officially added opioid addiction to the growing list of “eligible illnesses” treatable through the state’s medical marijuana program.

The Governor submitted anxiety, migraines, Tourette’s Syndrome, and chronic pain to that list as well.

Now all of these adverse conditions are eligible for treatment under the state’s medical marijuana laws.

New Jersey has suffered considerably with an opioid addiction epidemic and we can understand their desire to find effective remedies for opiate addiction. Medical marijuana treatment, however, is not such a remedy.

The State of New Jersey buried 3,100 residents because of drug overdoses in 2018. That’s a 15% increase from 2017. It’s a substantial loss to bear; one shared across several other states as well.

This is a local and national problem. So we can understand Governor Murphy’s frustration at the opioid crisis and his concerns that “nothing seems to work.” But unfortunately, putting opiate addicts on marijuana programs will only cause more problems in the long run.

From Their Point of View

I’m not writing this in bold defiance of New Jersey and their efforts to help their addicted residents. I understand their loss, and I feel their pain. My home state loses thousands of residents to drug overdoses every year, too. My heart goes out to New Jersey for what they are going through, and I understand their frustration at the opioid epidemic and the seeming infallibility of it all.

But just substituting one drug for another never solved anything. Replacing an opioid habit for marijuana, the “lesser of two evils” drug, won’t get New Jersey out of the addiction crisis.

Before we get into why medical marijuana won’t work for opioid addicts, let’s look at why New Jersey wants to make this transition in the first place. New Jersey is aware that New York state and Pennsylvania have already added opioid addiction to the list of illnesses qualifiable for treatment with marijuana programs. Maryland is currently considering it.

Dollars covered with marijuana hopes.

Second of all, support for medical marijuana is growing, with medicinal cannabis now officially legal in 33 states and the District of Columbia. Ten states have legalized it for recreational use, too.

“Our neighbors are starting to use this approach and nothing else seems to work for us, so why not jump on this bandwagon?”

New Jersey’s interests in using marijuana as a remedy for opioid addiction appears to be the philosophy: “Our neighbors are starting to use this approach and nothing else seems to work for us, so why not jump on this bandwagon?”

But that’s dangerous thinking.

Any time we implement a medical alternative without thoroughly researching that alternative (and our nation’s overall grasp of marijuana research is still extremely lacking), we take a risk. There is no guarantee whatsoever that medical marijuana will be helpful for opioid addicts. History tells us that opiate addicts will substitute one drug for another.

Even if the marijuana they consume on their medical program is not as potent or damaging as the opioids they were taking, they’ll adopt a habit with the cannabis instead of the opiates. Out with the old, in with the new. But in this case, the latest is not any better than the earlier one.

Research from Maryland Indicates Marijuana “Treatment” Is Potentially Harmful

Recent research indicates that using medical marijuana treatments for opioid addicts is a bad idea. State lawmakers for Maryland who are currently considering the approval of medical marijuana for use in treating opiate addicts, asked medical marijuana regulators if medical marijuana might be useful in helping opioid addicts. Why? Because Maryland has also suffered pretty tremendously from opioid addiction with thousands of residents dying from overdoses every year.

“A comprehensive review of existing medical literature shows that there is no credible scientific evidence backing up the claims that cannabis is beneficial in treating addiction….”
Holding marijuana.

According to the Baltimore Sun, here’s what the regulators said. “A comprehensive review of existing medical literature shows that there is no credible scientific evidence backing up the claims that cannabis is beneficial in treating addiction, and that there is some evidence suggesting that it may exacerbate substance use and dependency issues.”

The Baltimore Sun talks a bit about the research, but for the full data, check out the written research document here.

Marijuana is not a solution to opioid addiction because marijuana itself is an addictive drug. The real answer to opioid dependence is a course through an inpatient addiction treatment center which provides direct treatment options and assistance in reducing both the physical cravings for opioids and the psychological reliance on such drugs as well as promoting drug abstinence.

Why Marijuana Is Not a Solution for Addiction

There is no silver bullet to addressing addiction. One cannot merely get a medical marijuana card and hope to have an opioid habit get “smoked away.” It just does not work like that. Opioid addiction is both a physical dependence and a psychological reliance. It is a habit which developed around other problems that the person was having in his or her life.

Opioid addiction is a coping mechanism — a way the person “deals” with life. How can such a person possibly hope to resolve all of that just by taking another drug?

The only way to effectively tackle and remove a drug addiction is with the help of an addiction treatment center. Such programs offer the necessary tools, environments, techniques, counseling regimens, recovery modalities, educational programs, supportive environments, and safe spaces required to guide a person through to recovery.

Some argue that opioid addicts need medical marijuana not only to help them with their addiction but to help them with their physical pain as well. And while medical marijuana appears in more than half of the U.S. for physical pain relief, that does not mean that such a method is appropriate for someone who struggles with addiction.

People with chronic pain should turn to non-addictive, non-drug based pain relief routes. Utilizing the help of experts who can correct the source of the pain is helpful. Such persons are chiropractors, physical therapists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, dietitians, and so on.

There is also an extensive offering of herbal and natural remedies to pain problems that have no addictive component. Over-the-counter pain relief medicines are available that have no opioid component. With a combination of the above, one can live with less pain.

For opioid addiction recovery, medical marijuana isn’t the right choice. It is especially not the right choice when there are so many safer, non-addictive routes to take.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.