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Watchdog Flags Cannabis Products with Unproven Opioid Addiction Claims

A watchdog group warns that cannabis companies may be misleading consumers by claiming CBD can help with opioid addiction. Spotlight PA, a Pennsylvania-based watchdog organization, looked at 60 sites from Pennsylvania cannabis businesses and retailers. They also checked the legitimacy of any health claims made by these companies with help from health policy specialists.

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.”

The claim that CBD could reduce cravings for drugs and addiction was a particular problem. Medical experts disagree with this claim. While there is early evidence that CBD might be helpful in this regard, they are not recommended for public consumption.

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. Opioid addiction often requires weaning. CBD can’t do that, but CBD is able to, provided the physician has approved.

Among the other findings of Spotlight PA’s investigation:

  • A 2014 U.S.-based study found that fatal overdoses of opioids were lower in countries with medical cannabis laws. Seven sites cited it. However, they did not cite any other study. 
  • Seven promoted CBD as an opioid addiction treatment. This included the ability to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Spotlight PA says that at least some messages are not limited to 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.

CBD and Opioid Addiction: The Claim

Although early evidence indicates that CBD may be useful in treating opioid addiction, regulators won’t allow products to display unproven medical claims. Although CBD was found to inhibit cue-induced heroin seeking in 2009, the research was only limited to rats. CBD has been shown to decrease cue-induced cravings and anxiety in Heroin Use Disorder sufferers.

The FDA has strict rules for cannabis companies. They must adhere to them and avoid unproven claims. For example, the FDA points out that CBD is overburdened with claims of cure-all.

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.