Watchdog Flags Cannabis Products with Unproven Opioid Addiction Claims

Spotlight PA is challenging cannabis claims of combating opioid addiction.

Cannabis companies are crossing the line when they display claims such as CBD as a way to battle opioid addiction, a watchdog organization warns. Pennsylvania-based watchdog Spotlight PA looked at over 60 websites from cannabis retailers and businesses based in Pennsylvania and fact-checked the validity of health claims with health policy experts.

The report, “Unproven, unsafe” was published on February 21 and covered shortly after by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Investigators listed several problems: “cherry-picking and misrepresenting parts of studies, making broad claims without citing any specific research, and providing incomplete information about what it takes to qualify for the state’s medical marijuana program.”

One claim was bothersome in particular: the claim that CBD can abate cravings for opioids and fight addiction. While early evidence shows that CBD could be useful in this department, medical experts say promoting these claims is dangerous.

Chelsea L. Shover, an epidemiologist and assistant professor-in-residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, said that promoting cannabis as an alternative for buprenorphine as an opioid use disorder treatment is “really dangerous.”

“That’s complete nonsense. If it were up to me, you wouldn’t be allowed to make claims like that,” Shover told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s kind of the worst-case scenario of this advertising.”

It’s also important to note that buprenorphine itself has a high risk for addiction and dependence, and causes respiratory distress and death when taken in high doses or when combined with other substances. But opioid addiction sometimes involves weaning, which CBD cannot do, under the supervision of a physician.

Among the other findings of Spotlight PA’s investigation:

  • Seven websites cited a 2014 study that found U.S. medical cannabis laws were associated with lower rates of fatal opioid overdoses. But they chose not to cite a later study that showed different results. 
  • Seven promoted the benefits of CBD for opioid addiction treatment, including to help with withdrawal or reduce cravings. But according to Spotlight PA, at least some of the messages go beyond the research.
  • Governor Wolf’s administration says opioid use disorder should only be a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in certain circumstances, but at least 13 websites didn’t include those caveats when they described what it takes for addiction patients to qualify for cannabis.

“The findings reveal a somewhat deceptive strategy—whether intentional or not—adopted by many dispensaries and cannabis certification websites where very specific and limited scientific research is often cited to support very broad statements about cannabis’ benefits,” Stephanie Lake, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, wrote in an email. “The result of this strategy is an oversimplified and scientifically inaccurate message about cannabis.”

The warning serves as a reminder that individual studies are hardly conclusive—especially in the eyes of the medical community and in the eyes of authorities.

The Claim of CBD for Opioid Addiction

Early evidence suggests CBD could be used for opioid addiction, but regulators will not allow unproven medical claims to be displayed on products. A 2009 study found that CBD inhibits cue-induced heroin-seeking, but the study was limited to a rat model. A 2019 double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study found that CBD for the reduced cue-induced craving and anxiety in drug-abstinent individuals with Heroin Use Disorder.

Cannabis companies must abide by strict regulations such as avoiding unproven medical claims, or otherwise face the wrath of regulators such as the FDA. The FDA notes, for instance, that the CBD industry is especially overrun with cure-all claims.

That said, if you go out looking for benefits, you’ll find plenty of peer-reviewed evidence, and if you go out looking for negative effects, you’ll also find ample peer-reviewed evidence in support of those claims. The integrity of the scientific process means absorbing all reputable evidence—good or bad.

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