Calgary researchers are poised to study the merits of cannabis in tackling opioid addiction and slowing the rate of deaths from the painkillers, a senior physician said Thursday.
The city is host to the only publicly funded opioid de-prescribing clinic in Canada, which is handling a growing waiting list of those hoping to be weaned off the drugs, said Dr. Robert Tanguay, the provincial medical lead in opioid dependency training.
â€śItâ€™s a perfect opportunity â€” thereâ€™s just this readiness waiting to happen (for research),â€ť said Tanguay.
He said the study still requires approval from Health Canada, but heâ€™s confident a program will proceed, operated out of Sheldon Chumir M. Chumir Health Centre, which is currently host to the cityâ€™s only opioid safe consumption site.
While Tanguay said that facility is important, itâ€™s also vital to find better ways to more permanently care for those with opioid addictions.
â€śWhile a lot of work and spending has gone into keeping people alive, weâ€™ve spent little time and energy helping people recover,â€ť he said.
He said the fledgling de-prescribing is now faced with a waiting list a few months long, with 20 to 30 referrals being directed to it every few weeks.
â€śThe waiting list for getting people off (opioids) before surgery is the same,â€ť he said.
With about two people a day dying from opioid overdose last year in Alberta, thereâ€™s an urgency in stepping up research and other work directed at the crisis, added Tanguay.
Last year was the worst for opioid fatalities in the province, with 746 deaths, though recent statistics show those numbers could now be falling.
The University of Calgary-Alberta Health Services research, he said, would focus on cannabidoil, or CBD, a non-psychoactive element of cannabis thatâ€™s proven popular for medical applications.
But he said some recent data from the U.S. has tended to suggest cannabisâ€™s value in treating opioid addiction isnâ€™t as promising as once thought.
â€śWhile itâ€™s safer and easier to get people to stop it than opioids, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a panacea by any means,â€ť said Tanguay.
But he said that, with little cannabis in use at the Calgary clinic so far, heâ€™s willing to delve deeper into its potential merits.
â€śCBD might be able to help with withdrawal management, but we donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s true,â€ť said Tanguay.
At the same time, the physician said heâ€™s not a supporter of long-term use of opioids for those suffering chronic pain.
â€śIn the vast majority of cases, itâ€™s an inappropriate treatment, though a lot of physicians might disagree with that,â€ť said Tanguay, whoâ€™s also the president-elect of the Pain Society of Alberta.
The CBD research would presumably be funded by Ottawa or the province, he said.
One of Tanguayâ€™s patients whoâ€™s managed to drastically cut back her opioid consumption in response to lower back pain said cannabis research should be pursued.
â€śIâ€™m supportive of anything that might help â€” Iâ€™ve seen what cannabis can do for ALS patients,â€ť said Claudine, 40, who wouldnâ€™t give her last name.
The mother and corporate manager said she struggled with opioid addiction for 20 years and rejected the offer of cannabis treatment but said, â€śIt needs to be considered if it can work for somebody.â€ť
More study on cannabisâ€™s medical uses is badly needed, partly to assure practitioners if benefits are found, said Dr. Sana-Ara Ahmed, a chronic pain and cannabis specialist.
â€śCannabis is not going to be able to help every single problem for every single person, but we have to see if we can mitigate the risk posed by other medicines,â€ť she said.
â€śThere are not enough pain specialists comfortable with this.â€ť
Evidence has emerged, she said, that CBD limits cravings and anxiety among heroin users.
Both physicians said recreational legalization of pot has opened the doors to more research, but Tanguay said stigma still remains, particularly around treating those with opioid dependency.
â€śIf it was cancer or heart diseases, itâ€™d probably be funded. But itâ€™s the stigma of addiction and we still struggle with it â€¦ itâ€™s a disease and we should look at it that way.â€ť
Tanguay and U of C colleagues are also part of a research team, announced last month, funded by Ottawa to study the impact of cannabis in controlling migraine headaches.
on Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn