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Is It Possible to Treat Alcohol Addiction with Marijuana?

Alcohol use disorder is a widespread public health issue affecting over 15 million American adults. As researchers continue seeking new ways to treat alcohol addiction, some are now investigating whether marijuana or its components could help manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce alcohol cravings and use, and interact with brain reward pathways implicated in addiction.

This article explores the current evidence for using marijuana-based interventions to manage withdrawal symptoms, reduce alcohol cravings and use, and interact with brain reward pathways implicated in addiction. It also discusses concerns around substance substitution, the need to incorporate marijuana into comprehensive treatment plans, and legal barriers currently limiting research in this area. Keep reading if this subject interests you.

Alcohol Addiction

Managing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

One major challenge in treating alcohol addiction is managing distressing withdrawal symptoms that occur when alcohol intake stops suddenly. These can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Nausea
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate

Research suggests the marijuana compounds CBD and THC could help relieve some withdrawal side effects due to their anxiety-reducing and sleep-promoting properties. Another small pilot study also indicates CBD may increase appetite, which could benefit recovering alcoholics struggling with nutritional deficits and low body weight.

However, evidence confirming marijuana or its isolated components reliably and safely manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms in humans is still minimal. More rigorous clinical trials are needed to truly determine efficacy. Researchers also need to better understand optimal dosing, administration methods, and which marijuana ingredients are most helpful for this application.

Reducing Alcohol Cravings and Consumption

In addition to managing withdrawal distress, researchers are also assessing whether marijuana-based interventions could help reduce alcohol cravings and consumption among those with alcohol use disorder. So far, research findings have been mixed on the potential efficacy of compounds like CBD and THC in reducing harmful alcohol use.

Animal Studies

  • Several rodent studies have found that administration of CBD and THC resulted in decreased voluntary alcohol consumption and preference in alcohol-dependent animals. This suggests potential for reducing cravings.
  • However, other animal studies found no significant differences in alcohol intake between test groups treated with marijuana compounds compared to control groups. This implies that the compounds may not reduce alcohol cravings or use.

Human Studies

  • Some small experimental trials in humans report that CBD and THC administration resulted in decreased alcohol cravings, reduced the number of drinks consumed, and increased sobriety compared to placebo. This points to a potential therapeutic effect.
  • Conversely, other human experiments found no measurable effects of CBD or THC on alcohol cravings reported by participants or on their alcohol consumption patterns. This implies the compounds may not be effective for reducing cravings or use.

While some initial research shows promise, larger-scale, rigorous, double-blind clinical trials have yet to investigate marijuana-based compounds for reducing alcohol use over longer periods of time. More consistently positive evidence from well-controlled human studies is still needed to conclusively confirm the efficacy of CBD, THC, or other marijuana compounds for sustainably decreasing alcohol cravings and consumption in those struggling with alcohol use disorders before definitive medical recommendations can be made.

Concerns Around Substance Substitution

When using marijuana to treat alcoholism, an important concern is the risk of substituting one substance dependence for another. Key considerations include:

  • Marijuana use disorder is now a recognized clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5
  • Research shows early marijuana exposure could increase vulnerability to addiction later in adulthood
  • Replacing alcohol addiction with marijuana addiction could worsen long-term functional outcomes

However, evidence also suggests marijuana may have a better safety profile than alcohol regarding overdose risk, the development of severe medical disorders like cirrhosis, and impairment of motor and cognitive functions when used heavily. More comparative research is still needed on the long-term outcomes of marijuana dependence versus alcohol addiction.

Incorporating Marijuana Into Comprehensive Treatment Plans

Rather than wholly substituting controlled alcohol use for ongoing marijuana use, experts generally recommend incorporating marijuana-derived components into comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment programs. Key elements of these plans may include:

  • Individual and group counseling
  • Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Healthy lifestyle changes involving nutrition, exercise, and sleep hygiene
  • Developing positive social connections and activities
  • FDA-approved medications like: Acamprosate, Naltrexone, Disulfiram
  • Marijuana-based medical interventions

      When used judiciously under medical supervision, marijuana-based therapies could play a constructive role alongside these evidence-based treatments. They should not be the only intervention relied upon.

      Interactions with Brain Reward Pathways

      To better understand marijuana’s therapeutic potential for addiction treatment, researchers have studied how its active ingredients may interact with the mesolimbic dopamine system – the brain’s reward pathways strongly implicated in multiple types of substance use disorders.

      Evidence suggests both alcohol and marijuana can excessively activate this system. However, they may do so through slightly different mechanisms, which can influence addiction vulnerability and treatment approaches.

      Human neuroimaging studies show CBD and THC also alter mesolimbic functioning, sometimes in seemingly opposing directions. Clarifying how marijuana component effects on dopamine signaling could theoretically treat dysfunction in brain reward pathways warrants more study.

      Overcoming Legal Barriers to Addiction Research

      While medical marijuana is now legal in the majority of US states, federal law still prohibits marijuana use and possession. This poses challenges for rigorous clinical addiction research. Currently, the US Drug Enforcement Agency classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance with high abuse potential and no accepted medical applications – even more restrictive than alcohol and tobacco.

      However, changing state-level policies have enabled small pilot studies on medical marijuana for issues like chronic pain, PTSD, and epilepsy. Expanding such efforts to investigate marijuana-based alcohol addiction treatments may require loosening current federal restrictions. Supporting additional research can help determine if marijuana-based interventions could benefit those struggling with alcohol use disorder when incorporated into comprehensive treatment plans.


      In summary, while some preclinical evidence suggests marijuana interventions could help manage alcohol withdrawal, reduce alcohol consumption urges, and favorably modulate brain pathways implicated in addiction, significant research gaps remain. Experts advise against substituting one substance dependence for another without strong clinical evidence of safety and efficacy. Still, addressing current legal barriers can enable more conclusive human trials to determine if marijuana-derived therapies could play an adjunctive role alongside counseling, social supports, lifestyle changes, and FDA-approved medications when treating alcohol use disorder.