Flora Cannabis is located at 201 – 3710 Hoskins Road in West Kelowna, B.C. (Contributed)

Cannabis could be a useful form of harm reduction for addicted youth, B.C. study reveals

Findings come as B.C. is seeing its worst stretch in history for fatal overdoses

Cannabis could be a useful harm reduction strategy for young people struggling with addiction, according to new research out of B.C.

Two newly published studies from researchers with the BC Centre on Substance Use and the University of British Columbia examined cannabis use behaviours among young people and other people who use drugs in downtown Vancouver.

Together, these studies suggest that cannabis could be effective both as harm reduction as well as a substitute for illicit opioid use.

The findings come as B.C. is seeing its worst stretch in history for fatal overdoses, due to a increasingly toxic drug supply and social contact restrictions amid COVID-19 driving many to use alone.

“Contrary to common perception, many of the young people we interviewed shared that they used cannabis not for recreation but for therapeutic purposes, often to help reduce or stop altogether the use of other substances,” said Dr. Danya Fast, research scientist at the centre.

“While some youth in our study identified negative effects of intensive cannabis use, policy and provider education and training should be responsive to the ways many youth in our setting are actively using cannabis to navigate their needs.”

In the first study, published in PLOS ONE and led by Fast, researchers interviewed youth who were street-involved about their cannabis use, finding that the vast majority engaged in daily cannabis use at the same time as they cycled on and off other substances that were perceived as much more harmful—primarily alcohol, fentanyl, heroin, and crystal methamphetamine.

Fast’s team interviewed 56 young people recruited from a cohort of street-involved youth in Vancouver between 2017 and 2019.

Most reported deriving significant pleasure from the use of cannabis, though no participants in the study described using cannabis for purely recreational purposes. In fact, a number of participants explicitly framed cannabis as a form of mental health and substance use treatment that was more effective and “healthier” than the long-term use of psychopharmaceuticals and medication-assisted substance use treatment, such as methadone.

As a teen, Scarlett, a co-author of the study and peer research associate with centre’s At-Risk Youth Study, was prescribed what she describes as a “cocktail” of medications to treat her diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiance disorder.

None worked and eventually she turned to using illicit substances to treat her conditions, including injecting meth and heroin. Eventually, she obtained an authorization for medical cannabis, which she credits with helping her stop using illicit substances altogether.

“Cannabis, for me, was an exit ramp from using other, more dangerous drugs and helped make me feel better overall,” she says.

In the second study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers found that six month periods of at-least-daily cannabis use had significantly higher rates of ceasing to inject drugs.

Dr. M-J Milloy, senior author of that research, said that a growing body of evidence supports Scarlett’s experience.

“We’re learning more and more in our research how people who use drugs are using cannabis for therapeutic reasons, such as addressing chronic pain or coping with withdrawal,” Milloy said.

“Today’s findings are consistent with this research, showing that some people who use drugs are limiting one of the driving risks for overdose—injecting opioids from the poisoned drug supply—by using cannabis.”

Milloy and his team evaluated the impact of frequent cannabis use on injection cessation and injection relapse among 2459 people who inject drugs interviewed every six months from 2005 to 2018.

In any six month period, they found that at-least-daily cannabis use was associated with a 24-per-cent increase in the likelihood a participant stopped injecting illicit opioids, such as heroin or fentanyl, during that period.

They did not observe statistically significant relationships with injection stimulant cessation of methamphetamine or cocaine nor injection relapse (beginning to inject again after at least a six month period of no injection drug use).

“The implications of these findings are important given the risks associated with the toxic illicit drug supply that is fueling the overdose crisis,” he said, adding that these findings underline the need for researchers to test the life-saving potential of cannabis.

“Meanwhile, our policymakers should make sure they are facilitating access to cannabis as harm reduction by, for example, reducing barriers to legal cannabis or supporting community groups distributing cannabis to people at risk of overdose.

“Our findings suggest using cannabis for harm reduction has the potential to save lives.”


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

opioid crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

B.C. Greens hurrying to get candidates in place for provincial election

No candidates announced yet in Nanaimo, Nanaimo-North Cowichan or Parksville-Qualicum

RCMP: Trio arrested, firearms seized after report of shots fired in rural Qualicum Beach

Police say search also found evidence of large-scale drug operation

Parksville Royals second at Victoria baseball tournament

Seniors player showcase talents in front of scouts

Dougal the blind raven enjoys role as ambassador at North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre

Bird helps animal care technicians teach visitors about his species

B.C. reports 91 new cases as officials remain worried over ‘clusters of COVID-19

There have now been a total of 8,395 cases in B.C. since the pandemic began

Canada’s active COVID-19 cases top 10,000 as daily new cases triple over the past month

Dr. Tam repeated her warning to young people, who have made up the majority of recent cases

First 8 months of fatal overdoses in B.C. have now exceeded 2019 death toll

Nine people died every two days in August, BC Coroners Service data shows

Liberal effort to reset policy agenda panned by rivals as too much talk, not action

Trudeau said it’s ‘all too likely’ families won’t be able to gather for Thanksgiving next month

‘Show us the money’ for cannabis, local governments tell B.C.

Municipal tax, transit revenues falling as costs rise

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Cops for Cancer: COVID-19 can’t stop Tour de Rock

‘having the chance to come back and ride this year means everything to me’

‘It’s a boy’: Southern Resident killer whale calf born to J Pod is healthy, researchers say

J35 had previously done a ‘Tour of Grief,’ carrying her dead calf for 17 days

People ‘disgusted’ by COVID-19 election call, B.C. Liberal leader says

Andrew Wilkinson speaks to municipal leaders from Victoria

Most Read