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Ex-B.C. health minister says pot a promising substitute for opioid addiction

Former B.C. health minister Terry Lake wants more research on the effects of marijuana on opioid addiction done, saying it could play a role in lowering overdose rates.

Terry Lake pushes for more research on effects of cannabis on opioid addiction

Terry Lake, the former British Columbia health minister who oversaw the declaration of a public health emergency amid the deadly fentanyl crisis, is urging more research on the effects of cannabis on opioid addictions. (The Canadian Press/Chad Hipolito)

Terry Lake, the former B.C. health minister who oversaw the declaration of a public-health emergency amid the deadly fentanyl crisis, is urging more research on the effects of marijuana on opioid addictions.

Now a vice-president at a medical cannabis company, Lake said there is preliminary evidence that shows marijuana can help people with addictions reduce their use of hard drugs and ease the painful symptoms of withdrawal.

"I'm not saying it's the answer to the opioid crisis. I'm saying it's one of the options we should explore," said Lake, who chose not to run in last spring's provincial election.

"It's very promising and deserving of further research and there's no better place to do that than in British Columbia."

Lake, who was hired last August by Quebec-based Hydropothecary, will join a researcher, an activist and others for a discussion of pot as an opioid substitute at the Lift Cannabis Expo in Vancouver on Sunday.

'Intriguing' early studies

There have been "intriguing" early studies that have suggested cannabis might play a beneficial role in lowering the risk of overdose deaths, said M-J Milloy, a research scientist with the BC Centre on Substance Use.

A 2014 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found that states with legal cannabis had an opioid death rate that was 25 per cent lower than states where pot was illegal.

A Canadian paper, published last year in The International Journal of Drug Policy, surveyed 271 medical cannabis patients and found 63 per cent used pot as a substitute for prescription drugs and 30 per cent used it as a substitute for opiates.

More research on the effects of cannabis on opioid addictions is needed, says former B.C. health minister Terry Lake. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Milloy conducted a study that showed marijuana may help wean people off crack cocaine. His team tracked 122 Vancouver-area crack users over a three-year period and found they reported using the harder drug less often when they opted to consume pot.

He said there's a need for more formal, controlled trials on the effect of cannabis on opioid use, and he and fellow scientists at the B.C. centre plan to undertake some of that work.

"We certainly have reports from people who are suffering from opioid use disorder that cannabis helps them mitigate the feelings of withdrawal," said Milloy, who will participate in the talk with Lake on Sunday.

"We also know that many people suffering from things like trauma and chronic pain, which are often the roots of opioid addiction, that they also report that cannabis is useful for them."

Some addictions specialists are skeptical of the idea, Lake noted, as they're concerned about simply substituting one drug for another. More study is needed, and Lake said he hopes Canada will become a hub for marijuana research after it legalizes pot.

Sarah Blyth with the High Hopes Foundation says some people have used marijuana have cut back on opioid use, though she said she doesn't have concrete numbers. (Tristan Le Rudulier)

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