Medical marijuana may be an effective substitute for prescription drugs or alcohol, just as methadone is used to treat heroin addicts, says addiction researcher and former Victoria city councillor Philippe Lucas.
"The fastest rate of addiction right now is to pharmaceutical opiates, and it's also the fastest rising rate of morbidity and mortality. In other words, people are [overdosing] on pharmaceutical opiates," said Lucas, who recently published a research paper online in the Journal of Addiction Research and Theory.
"This is the second paper I've published this year that suggests cannabis can significantly potentially reduce the amount of pharmaceutical opiates that particularly those who suffer from chronic pain need."
But addictions counsellor and interventionist Sue Donaldson said promoting marijuana as a preferable option - especially to susceptible individuals - is not a good idea.
"I have just seen devastating impacts [from marijuana use], especially on young people and their families. It is not a harmless drug," said Donaldson, owner of Pegasus Recovery Solutions.
Donaldson said she treats people for marijuana addiction "all the time."
"The way it's being touted as a harmless drug is frightening," she said.
Lucas, former executive director of medical-marijuana provider the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, surveyed 404 medical cannabis patients recruited from four marijuana dispensaries in B.C.
He found that 41 per cent reported using cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and 67.8 per cent used cannabis as a substitute for prescription drugs.
The three main reasons cited for cannabis-related substitution are "less withdrawal," "fewer side-effects" and "better symptom management," suggesting many patients may have already identified cannabis as an effective and potentially safer addition or alternative to their prescription drug regimen, Lucas says in the paper. "This kind of flips some of the common perception as cannabis on its head - the idea that this may be a gateway drug to addiction and rather posits cannabis as an exit drug for a lot of people from substances that might otherwise be far more dangerous than cannabis."
He said his findings do not mean users of pharmaceuticals, illicit drugs or alcohol exclusively substitute marijuana for their substance of choice.
"They find cannabis allows them either to not use or use less of those. So from a harm-reduction perspective this is a pretty significant finding."
Lucas said it will be interesting to test the theory of the substitution effect south of the border in Washington state and Colorado, where residents have voted to remove criminal sanctions for anyone over 21 possessing up to an ounce (28 grams) for personal use.