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Alternative to Opioids

Can cannabis be a safe, effective alternative for those struggling with opioid addiction? This chapter outlines some of the reasons why cannabis may help.

Chapter 1 · 7 min read
Alternative to Opioids

With the U.S. still healing from the worst of the opioid crisis, people are searching for a pain-relief alternative. This chapter explains why that alternative is cannabis for so many.

By now, it’s no secret how destructive the opioid epidemic has been, as the over-prescribing of pharmaceutical medications led to many addictions and deaths in the U.S. Can cannabis be an effective alternative to opioids? In this chapter, we review some of the reasons why cannabis may be an effective alternative for those struggling with opioid addiction.

There Are No Known Overdose Deaths Attributed to Cannabis

In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared that the opioid crisis was a public health emergency. Overprescription of pain medications like oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin was arguably the biggest culprit for the crisis, often leading to patients becoming addicted and seeking illicit market opioids like heroin.

Although opioid prescriptions have thankfully slowed since then, opioid addiction continues to be a massive issue. Over 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose, amounting to over 45,000 deaths annually, and around 2 million a year are diagnosed with an opioid abuse disorder. At the height of the opioid crisis, overdoses were the leading cause of injury death in the U.S., exceeding motor vehicle fatalities. These figures are staggering and overwhelming.


Humans have been consuming various forms of cannabis for a multitude of reasons for centuries, and there have been no overdose deaths. Humans lack cannabinoid receptors in an area of the brain called the brainstem that controls breathing and heart rate, so consuming too much cannabis won’t cause a deadly heart attack like stimulants or permanently slowed breathing and death like opioids. This makes cannabis one of the safest drugs out there.

One of the only ways you could die from cannabis is if someone drops about ten pounds on your head from 50 feet in the air. All joking aside, smoking too much cannabis can irritate your lungs, and ingesting an abundance of any amount can get you too high. But in the vast majority of cases, all you’ll need is a good night’s sleep, and you'll live to see another day with cannabis.

Cannabis is a Proven Pain Reliever

For years now, there have been many studies conducted on cannabis as an alternative to opioids for pain relief. Even if cannabis for pain is legal in a patient’s state, it still puts doctors and physicians in tough spots to prescribe it. This is why we need to have more studies done to arrive at what form is the best for each patient’s pain, and exactly how much to prescribe. Eventually, we will get there with cannabis medicine, but we still have a long way to go.

Of course, different cultivars might be better for pain relief than others, and it’s important to explore these. However, this is minor in comparison to the issue that millions of chronic pain sufferers are still forced to take potentially harmful pharmaceuticals when a safer alternative could be out there.

One thing is for certain: countless people have no qualms about giving you their anecdotes about how cannabis helped with their pain. Sooner or later, this anecdotal evidence will turn into peer-reviewed, FDA-approved evidence that will let doctors prescribe cannabis for pain relief. One of the greatest assets of the internet is that patients can connect with others who are experiencing the same pain — this lets us know we are not alone, and that others get relief from cannabis — whatever that relief may be.

Cannabis is A Potential Treatment for Addiction

Can cannabis help people get off hard drugs like heroin and other addictive opioids? There is only anecdotal evidence that it works at this point, and as with too many other cannabis-related issues, more studies need to be done. Unfortunately, the federal illegality of cannabis prevents much of this important research from being done.

However, one unaccredited treatment facility in Harmony, Maine is helping people addicted to opioids kick their habit by consuming cannabis. The facility is called Genesis Farms, and it was covered on the show Weediquette on VICE TV. You can watch the episode for free, and we think it’s worth the time. The attendees of the cannabis rehab do dabs under the guidance and supervision of their counselors.

The fact that the rehab is deep in the woods of Maine and far away from any hospital is a bit concerning for the attendees, but cannabis seems to be helping along with the guidance of counselors. Instead of numbing chronic pain, rehab goers are taught to feel it and manage it with cannabis. Medicating with cannabis helps people cope with opioid withdrawal symptoms like vomiting and severe insomnia. Critics say that people are substituting one drug for another, but it helps people get off of opioids.

One word of caution: don’t go at it alone. If you are struggling with opioid dependence, going cold turkey after stocking up at a cannabis dispensary, especially if you are new to cannabis, is dangerous. Talk to a healthcare professional experienced in cannabis, who understands that high THC dosage may be required, and have someone supporting your journey back to health.

There have also been some studies showing that cannabis can help alcoholics quit drinking for good. A harm reduction study said that recovering problematic drinkers who substituted cannabis for alcohol showed signs of better symptom management, fewer side effects, and less potential for withdrawal symptoms with cannabis than with alcohol. Naturally, cannabis is no magic wand, but these stories of former substance abusers finding healthier ways to cope with stress and trauma by embracing cannabis sound very promising.

Opioid Addiction is a Qualifying Condition for Medical Cannabis

In Winter 2019, New Jersey added opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis. Nearby states New York and Pennsylvania had already had opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis. Some patients went from hard use of opioids to using suboxone instead, but suboxone can be addictive as well with unpleasant side effects such as nausea or itching.

Other opioid-addicted people were able to consume cannabis alone. This is mainly because they had a real drive to quit and that cannabis helps improve the quality of life for addicts by significantly reducing the harm of withdrawal symptoms. Mindset is the key for most of those in recovery, and consuming cannabis the right way can possibly help these people’s mindsets.

Cultivars that May Help With Pain Relief

As more evidence for the vast therapeutic benefits of cannabis emerges, pain relief is one of the leading reasons why consumers choose the healing power of the plant medicine. Cultivars with high levels of CBD tend to be on the list of favorites.

50 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. Many of them find relief with cannabis. With all of this positive evidence indicating cannabis can act as a natural pain reliever, you’re probably wondering which cultivars are some of the best at doing so? We’ve got you covered.

Most high-THC varieties are typically not ones you will want to consume while microdosing or if you need to perform important tasks during the day. As such, be sure to keep that in mind. Here are just 5 examples.

Blueberry Headband

Blueberry Headband is a hybrid of the classic blueberry variety crossed with the heavy-hitting headband. Headband is a cross of OG Kush Indica and Sour Diesel Sativa, and gets its name from the relaxing cerebral feeling that consumers tend to experience.

Blueberry headband is the cousin of GSC and shares its effects of high-flying Sativa and purely relaxing Indica. Blueberry headband is excellent for relieving tension headaches and just about any other pain above the shoulders.

Master Kush

Master Kush is a classic variety that delivers full-body relaxation while melting away aches and pains. A cross of old-school Skunk and Hindu Kush, Master Kush has a range of THC between 16-20%.

Experienced consumers might feel cognitive enhancements and mental stimulation, improving hobbies and other leisure activities. However, newbies tend to feel dizzy and paranoid - especially after consuming too much and not staying hydrated.

Jack Herer

The Jack Herer cultivar is named after the legendary cannabis activist, arguably the most important of our time, selling over 600,000 copies of his book The Emperor Wears No Clothes. The late great Jack Herer educated Americans about the history of cannabis prohibition in the U.S. since 1986. Herer also opened the eyes of thousands to the vast practical uses of hemp as well as the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, so the least the cannabis community could do was name a cultivar after him.

Jack Herer has a lineage of Northern Lights mixed with the offspring of Shiva Skunk and Haze. Even though Jack Herer is Sativa-dominant, it combines a clear-headed body high with a smile-inducing effect that melts away stress.


As we evolve as cannabis consumers of the future, many of us search for cultivars that are low in THC and high In CBD. Cannatonic is just that, as its psychoactive effects are mild due to its low THC level.

Most Cannatonic flower contains around 7% THC while offering between 5-8% CBD. Cannatonic is an Indica-dominant hybrid blend of MK Ultra and-13 Haze. Vaping or eating the Cannatonic cultivar is a great choice for pain-relieving microdosing while still being able to function during the day.


Named after the legendary Aussie band, ACDC is a cross between Cannatonic and a common ruderalis variety. ACDC offers a lot of CBD content, about 15-20%, and 1% or less THC content.

This makes AC/DC great for consumers seeking pain relief who get too anxious from THC. Its high-quality CBD content makes this cultivar perfect for relieving stress aches in your neck and back due to sitting at a desk working from home all day.


Another low-THC cultivar, Harlequin contains about 7% THC while offering between 7% - 11% CBD. Harlequin comes from three classic cultivars: Colombian Gold male, Thai, and a Swiss landrace.

Named after the classic Batman villain, Harlequin is a rare combination of Sativas that offer remarkable pain relief. Even though it does contain 7% THC, most consumers report that they feel no paranoia or anxiety from Harlequin, making it a great choice to vape while getting things done.

Everyone is Different

There are no miracle drugs, and cannabis is included. When consumed properly the way their doctors prescribed, opioids can be necessary, effective, and relatively safe for pain relief. There are simply some levels of pain that cannabis can’t touch for some people, and that’s okay. We’re not suggesting that all necessary pharmaceutical medicines be substituted for cannabis.

Everyone is different. Not everyone will respond the same way to a specific cannabis cultivar, or respond to cannabis at all. Some people are even unfortunately allergic to cannabis. Some people don’t like the way cannabis makes them feel, or don’t respond as strongly to its pain-relieving properties. It’s similar to how someone might prefer Alleve over Tylenol, no drug is for everyone.

As the layers of cannabis prohibition are peeled back, the deeply entrenched, failed war on drugs will go along with it. As more honest conversations can be had about the harms of both drug addiction and the failed war on drugs, we can start to heal those lives so affected by them.

What We Learned: Alternative to Opioids

With millions of American families suffering from and due to the opioid epidemic, cannabis offers healing. In this chapter, we learned some of the primary reasons cannabis may be an effective and safe treatment for opioid addiction. Here’s what we learned in this chapter:

  • Opioid addiction is a qualifying condition for medical cannabis access in some states, and chronic pain is a qualifying condition in almost every state.
  • No deaths have been attributed to cannabis alone.
  • Cannabis is a proven pain reliever.
  • Cannabis is a potential treatment for addiction.
  • Cannabis with high CBD can offer pain relief.
  • Everyone has a different pain tolerance.

You’re off to a good start! Ready for the next chapter in our Cannabis and the Body Guide? Answer the question below and let’s move right along.

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Chapter Question

How many people annually are diagnosed with an opioid abuse disorder?

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Even though cannabis has been consumed by millions of people for thousands of years, no one has ever died directly from the plant.

Dr. Michele Ross
Medically reviewed by

Dr. Michele Ross

Dr. Michele Ross is a serial entrepreneur and the founder of Infused Partners, a digital health consulting firm and plant medicine incubator. She has served on the medical advisory boards of many companies in the cannabis and wellness spaces and holds a PhD in Neuroscience as well as an Executive MBA.




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