Faced with the serious problems caused by heroin addiction, some people have turned to cannabis during the detoxification process, as it appears to be more than effective when it comes to dealing with drug withdrawal.

They call it the opioid pandemic and it has already become the main cause of accidental death in the US. In fact, opioid painkillers and heroin are responsible for an overdose death every 19 minutes. In the last decade alone, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported a 2.8-fold increase in the US overdose mortality rate due to opioid drugs.

According to official sources, in 2014 more than 28,000 people lost their lives to opioids. Heroin addiction in the US was previously associated with minorities and disadvantaged social groups, but this recent pandemic is also affecting a new group of people.

While overdose death figures amongst Hispanic and African Americans remain unchanged, the number of deaths amongst white, middle-class Americans is soaring. These alarming figures make us wonder what is going on in the US and why the American society is hit that badly by the addiction to these substances.

The Cause of a Crisis

This unprecedented phenomenon seems to stem from the addiction to the opioid painkillers that doctors have been prescribing, rather lightly, to their patients for years.

Drugs such as Vicodin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone are prescribed daily in the US—the number of prescriptions per year in the US amounts to 259 million, which equates to a pill bottle per adult—creating a social fabric that gets used to operating under the effect of these legal drugs.

In a society where painkillers are the answer to the slightest feeling of pain, the situation is reaching unbearable levels, as opioid painkillers are highly addictive and responsible for other negative effects.

Even if the root cause of the problem appears to be, amongst other things, the excessive prescription of opioid drugs, their high price coupled with a country in financial crisis has led many patients to resort to heroin. It’s the perfect substitute, as it provides a stronger effect at a considerably lower price.

This has led to cities becoming drug meccas, home to a population with extremely high addiction rates and to an economic network based on drug-trafficking.

Cannabis and Opioid Addiction

The government has tried to tackle the opioid epidemic in different ways, including detox programs in which patients are administered with aggressive, unhealthy heroin substitutes. In states such as California, however, there are detoxification programs in which cannabis is regarded as a substance that can help heroin addicts fight the intense symptoms associated with drug withdrawal.

Let’s look a bit closer at this method to see how it works exactly and if it really is as effective as some people claim.

We interviewed Ryan, a young New Yorker that was prescribed opioid painkillers at the age of 15. The opioid in question was hydrocodone, which was prescribed to him to treat his backache. He never thought that taking those pills would imply an addiction; he actually found the effect amusing.

When he was 19, some friends offered him heroin. For eight years, his life revolved around this drug. He had five overdoses that almost killed him. After several failed rehab attempts, Ryan asked an acquaintance who owned a cannabis farm in California and was familiar with the plant’s medicinal use for help.

This is how he joined a cannabis-based detoxification program that has helped him overcome his heroin addiction.

Before being addicted to heroin, you used prescription opioid painkillers on a regular basis. Do you think these drugs are prescribed too lightly and that they can originate addiction problems?

When I started to use hydrocodone, I was not aware of the problems this drug could cause me. So, my answer is yes, some doctors prescribe this kind of drug as if they were candy and they can create addiction problems indeed.

Do you think people that use opioids are more likely to turn to heroin?

As I see it, it depends largely on the person’s context, on whether heroin is present in their life. If you are addicted to painkillers and you try heroin, there’s no doubt you’re going to like it and you will probably get hooked.

The rise in consumption in the US is being described as a pandemic. What’s going on? What’s the reason behind it?

I think it’s happening because of the easy access to the drug and its low price. Anyone can buy heroin in the streets of Rochester, New York, for five dollars a bag. You need five hydrocodone pills to get high and the cost is about $10 each. With heroin, the effect is much stronger and ridiculously cheaper.

What type of cannabis and what consumption method did you use during the heroin detoxification process?

I had tried different detox programs in New York, but I always ended up replacing heroin with another pharmaceutical to stay sober. It didn’t make any sense. But this last attempt was different. I went to the Californian mountains and used THC- and CBD-rich coco oil, a substance that is very similar to a drug called suboxone, which is used in the rehab process in New York. The thing is this cannabis oil really helped me fight drug withdrawal and I didn’t experience the side effects of the medication I had tried before.

Did you use concentrated forms of cannabis, dabs for example?

It’s funny you ask me that question. When the symptoms of drug withdrawal became unbearable, I did use THC-rich dabs. They helped me sleep when I couldn’t. Sleeping during the heroin detox process is virtually impossible and dabs where incredibly helpful in that period. That was the only time I took cannabis in that form.

So, you don’t use dabs anymore? What type of cannabis do you use and how?

That’s right, I have given up extractions, I prefer CBD-rich strains with lower THC levels. That’s what works best for me, but it might not be the case for everyone.

You use cannabis on a daily basis, but have you considered giving it up or reducing the dose?

I’ve thought about it, but the truth is cannabis is now part of what I am. It helps me with my daily routine, physically and psychologically. I don’t really see a reason to quit. Doctors prescribe drugs that must be taken every day and that are very harmful to health. What I do is go for a natural treatment that works better than the chemical ones and that helps me fight depression, anxiety, and backache. For me, it works much better than all the therapies I’ve tried before.

Do you feel you have replaced one addiction with another one?

At this stage of my life, if my cannabis addiction has replaced my heroin addiction, then I’m grateful. Believe me, I wouldn’t be here giving this interview were it not for cannabis.

Do you know similar cases? People that have overcome their heroin addiction thanks to cannabis?

Yes, I know people from California and Colorado. There aren’t many cases in New York because of the cannabis legislation. I believe that if the legal framework was different, there would be more cases. Cannabis for medicinal use is legal, but not for the treatment of addictions.

I believe that if this option was taken into account, heroin consumption would drop noticeably. We are now working on a project that promotes cannabis during the heroin detoxification process and we are encountering many difficulties because of the legal issue.

Is this method suitable for everybody or does it depend on each person’s organism?

I think that if you choose the right program, the method can work for everybody. Cannabis is a very special plant that, if used correctly, really makes something change in your mind. It can benefit all opioid addicts and help them stay clean.

The program itself must be very well-structured and focus on the patients’ personal situation too, not only on heroin detoxification. I think this kind of programs should educate patients on cannabis as well, and have a section on cultivation and other aspects of the plant. This kind of training could be really useful for them to find a job in the cannabis industry in the future.

Precisely how did cannabis help you give up heroin? Does it really reduce the symptoms of drug withdrawal?

It can’t be understood as a separate element, it is part of a process. The first thing I did when I decided to get clean was to stay away of all the people that had something to do with the heroin world. Cannabis gave me a new outlook on life. It hit something in my mind and somehow my anxiety and my heroin craving decreased. Cannabis has changed my life in many ways, not only in terms of my heroin addiction. It has been incredibly helpful both physically and psychologically.

As for the second part of the question, the answer is yes. I don’t think I would have been able to endure withdrawal symptoms had it not been for cannabis. As I said before, I’ve been in many detox programs in New York but the one with cannabis has been the only one to really help with my addiction. I worked for months in the cannabis fields of a farm in California and that made me appreciate the plant.

At present, I am happy and finally free of heroin, and I’m really grateful for that.