Monday, April 10, 2017

Marijuana, Sleep, and Dreams

The indica vs. sativa debate, continued. 

[First published July 13, 2015.]

Anyone who has smoked marijuana more than a couple of times knows that cannabis can alter how you sleep. The effect of cannabis on sleep is even part of the never-ending debate over Cannabis indica vs. Cannabis sativa, the two major species of the marijuana plant. Indica smokers typically report a marijuana high that is body-intensive and often soporific, sometimes leading to the condition aptly known as “couch lock.” Whereas sativa smokers, according to marijuana lore, experience a more cerebral, energetic “head high,” with fewer somatic effects. Not surprisingly, hybrid strains incorporating the alleged characteristics of both indica and sativa strains are popular in the medical marijuana community.

Although there is no official sanction for it in the medical community, marijuana is often dispensed medically for sleep problems. One piece of common wisdom holds that the higher the THC content of marijuana, the more helpful it will be in promoting sleep and improving poor sleep. The stronger the better, in other words. Similarly, indica strains are assumed to promote sleep more than sativa strains.

In an effort to clear the air, so to speak, a group of researchers, writing in Addictive Behaviors, sought to “document naturalistic choice of particular medical cannabis types among individuals who self-report using cannabis for the treatment of sleep problems…. Little research has documented species or cannabinoid concentration preferences among individuals who use medical cannabis for particular conditions…. We also evaluated the interaction between the type of cannabis used and diagnosis of cannabis use disorder among study participants.”

The researchers recruited participants from a medical cannabis dispensary in California under procedures approved by the VA and Stanford University review boards. 163 people with a mean age of 40, who used cannabis twice a day on average, provided self-reported information on their cannabis use for the study. 81 participants reported using cannabis for the management of insomnia, and another 14 reported using cannabis to reduce nightmares. (Frequent smokers insist they dream less. THC does appear to decrease the density of REM cycles, leading to more restful, dream-free sleep, according to some studies.)

So what did they find?

—“Individuals who reported using cannabis for nightmares, compared to those who did not, preferred sativa to indica.” (Small effect.)

Indica, considered the “heavier” high, might have seemed the likely choice here.

—"Individuals who self-report using cannabis to treat symptoms of insomnia and those with greater self-reported sleep latency reported using cannabis with significantly higher concentrations of CBD.” (Large effect.)

Again, a somewhat counterintuitive finding, since it is widely believed that CBD conduces toward a more wakeful state than THC alone.

—“Individuals who used sleep medication less than once/week used cannabis with higher THC concentrations than those who used sleep medication at least once a week.” (Large effect.) “There were no differences in THC concentration as a function of self-reported sleep quality, or use for insomnia or nightmares.”

Pretty straightforward finding: THC makes you sleepy. It is not clear, however, that above a certain threshold, more THC makes you even sleepier. In fact, some researchers would consider this finding unexpected, given that high THC concentrations have been shown to have a stimulating effect.

—“Older individuals were less likely to have cannabis use disorder compared to those younger….

No surprise about the older folks, since prior studies show a decrease in the prevalence of cannabis use disorders with age.

—“Individuals who preferred sativa or primary sativa hybrid strains were less likely to have cannabis use disorder compared to those who preferred indica or primary indica hybrid strains.” (Small effect.)

If replicated, this finding could have significant implications; both in strengthening programs to reduce marijuana smoking among the very young, and it warning consumers that some evidence suggests indica strains may be more addictive than sativa strains in plants with similar THC/CBD levels and ratios.

—“Neither concentration of THC nor CBD were associated with cannabis use disorder.”

Common sense, but useful to remember. In other addictive behaviors, such as heroin and alcohol abuse, the relative strength of the drug is not the primary determinant of its addictive potential.

Caveats and design limitations: The survey relied on retrospective reports of sleep quality and pot preferences. Also lacking is an examination of additional variables such as PTSD and co-occurring substance abuse.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Heroin in Vietnam: The True Story of the Robins Study

Editor's note: The famous Robins study 
on heroin use among Vietnam veterans
 has been so often—and so recently—misinterpreted 
that I felt motivated to reprint an older post on the subject.

[Originally posted 7/24/10]

In 1971, under the direction of Dr. Jerome Jaffe of the Special Action Office on Drug Abuse Prevention, Dr. Lee Robins of Washington University in St. Louis undertook an investigation of heroin use among young American servicemen in Vietnam. Nothing about addiction research would ever be quite the same after the Robins study. The results of the Robins investigation turned the official story of heroin completely upside down.

The dirty secret that Robins laid bare was that a staggering number of Vietnam veterans were returning to the U.S. addicted to heroin and morphine. Sources were already reporting a huge trade in opium throughout the U.S. military in Southeast Asia, but it was all mostly rumor until Dr. Robins surveyed a representative sample of enlisted Army men who had left Vietnam in September of 1971—the date at which the U.S. Army began a policy of urine screening. The Robins team interviewed veterans within a year after their return, and again two years later.

After she had worked up the interviews, Dr. Robins, who died in 2009, found that almost half—45 per cent—had used either opium or heroin at least once during their tour of duty. 11 per cent had tested positive for opiates on the way out of Vietnam. Overall, about 20 per cent reported that they had been addicted to heroin at some point during their term of service overseas.

To put it in the kindest possible light, military brass had vastly underestimated the problem. One out of every five soldiers in Vietnam had logged some time as a junky. As it turned out, soldiers under the age of 21 found it easier to score heroin than to hassle through the military’s alcohol restrictions. The “gateway drug hypothesis” didn’t seem to function overseas. In the United States, the typical progression was assumed to be from “soft” drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana) to the “hard” category of cocaine, amphetamine, and heroin. In Vietnam, soldiers who drank heavily almost never used heroin, and the people who used heroin only rarely drank. The mystery of the gateway drug was revealed to be mostly a matter of choice and availability. One way or another, addicts found their way to the gate, and pushed on through.

“Perhaps our most remarkable finding,” Robins later noted, “was that only 5% of the men who became addicted in Vietnam relapsed within 10 months after return, and only 12% relapsed even briefly within three years.” What accounted for this surprisingly high recovery rate from heroin, thought to be the most addictive drug of all? As is turned out, treatment and/or institutional rehabilitation didn’t make the difference: Heroin addiction treatment was close to nonexistent in the 1970s, anyway. “Most Vietnam addicts were not even detoxified while in service, and only a tiny percentage were treated after return,” Robins reported. It wasn’t solely a matter of easier access, either, since roughly half of those addicted in Vietnam had tried smack at least once after returning home. But very few of them stayed permanently readdicted.

Any way you looked at it, too many soldiers had become addicted, many more than the military brass had predicted. But somehow, the bulk of addicted soldiers toughed their way through it, without formal intervention, after they got home. Most of them kicked the habit. Even the good news, then, took some getting used to. The Robins Study painted a picture of a majority of soldiers kicking it on their own, without formal intervention. For some of them, kicking wasn’t even an issue. They could “chip” the drug at will—they could take it or leave it. And when they came home, they decided to leave it.

However, there was that other cohort, that 5 to 12 per cent of the servicemen in the study, for whom it did not go that way at all. This group of former users could not seem to shake it, except with great difficulty. And when they did, they had a very strong tendency to relapse. Frequently, they could not shake it at all, and rarely could they shake it for good and forever. Readers old enough to remember Vietnam may have seen them at one time or another over the years, on the streets of American cities large and small. Until quite recently, only very seriously addicted people who happened to conflict with the law ended up in non-voluntary treatment programs.

The Robins Study sparked an aggressive public relations debate in the military. Almost half of America’s fighting men in Vietnam had evidently tried opium or heroin at least once, but if the Robins numbers were representative of the population at large, then relatively few people who tried opium or heroin faced any serious risk of long-term addiction. A relative small number of users were not so fortunate, as Robins noted. What was the difference? Was it a change in setting and circumstances that allowed most heroin users to quit? Or was it that the minority of soldiers who stubbornly became readdicted did so because, like Dr. Li’s rats, they were biochemically different from their friends who stayed clean?

Quotes from: Robins, Lee N. (1994). “Lessons from the Vietnam Heroin Experience.” Harvard Mental Health Letter. December.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Manifesto for Children of Alcoholics

Parental heavy drinking affects everyone.

The British House of Commons recently issued a manifesto timed to coincide with International Children of Alcoholics Week. The manifesto was co-written by children of alcoholics, policy analysts, and representatives from charities, medical groups, and other interest groups. The ten-point plan makes the following demands:

        —Take responsibility for children of alcoholics.               
        —Create a national strategy for COAs
        —Properly fund local support for COAs
        —Increase availability of support for families battling addiction to alcohol
        —Boost education and awareness for children
        —Boost education and training for those with a responsibility for children
        —Develop a plan to change public attitudes
        —Revise the national strategy to tackle alcoholism to focus on price and availability
        —Curtail the promotion of alcohol – especially to children
        —Take responsibility for reducing rates of alcoholism

The complete manifesto can be downloaded here. You can visit the group's site, the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, by clicking here.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Don't Be a Holiday Fool

Sobering Up––Myths and Facts

Myth: You can drive as long as you are not slurring your words or acting erratically.

Fact: The coordination needed for driving is compromised long before the signs of intoxication are visible and one’s reaction time is slowed. Plus, the sedative effects of alcohol increase the risk of nodding off or losing attention behind the wheel.

Myth: Drink coffee. Caffeine will sober you up.

Fact: Caffeine may help with drowsiness, but not with the effects of alcohol on decision-making or coordination. The body needs time to metabolize (break down) alcohol and then to return to normal. Also, when caffeine wears off, there are the additive effects of the increased sedative effects of alcohol and post-caffeine sleepiness. There are no quick cures—only time will help.

Myth: The warm feeling you get from drinking alcohol insulates you from the cold of winter. When you’re drinking, there’s no need to wear a coat when it’s cold outside.

Fact: Alcohol widens the tiny blood vessels right under the skin, so they quickly fill with warm blood. This makes you feel warm or hot, and can cause your skin to flush and perspire. But your body temperature is actually dropping, because while alcohol is pulling warmth from your core to the skin surface, it is also depressing the area of your brain that controls temperature regulation. In cold environments, this can lead to hypothermia. So, wear a coat when it’s cold outside, particularly if you are drinking alcohol.

Have a safe holiday season!

For more information on celebrating your holidays safely and tips for cutting back, visit:

NIH Publication No.16-5639 December 2016

Monday, December 19, 2016

It's That Time of Year Again

Our annual look at Christmas 
Decoration Addiction. 

"Five years ago, I covered something called Christmas lighting addiction in our then-fledgling newsletter. It was a bit tongue-in-cheek, because I’m not a big believer in most addictive behaviors. Christmas lights? I mean, c’mon…

But as I guess with anything in life, you can go overboard with decorating your house in Christmas lights...."

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Cancer: Alcohol’s Dirty Little Secret?

What Doctors Don’t Tell You

It is, in fact, no secret at all that alcohol causes cancer.  Rather than conferring any demonstrable metabolic benefit, alcohol is more likely to damage your health in a variety of ways. The body converts alcohol (ethanol) into acetaldehyde as part of the metabolic process, and acetaldehyde is carcinogenic in sufficient quantities. Drinkers are particularly susceptible to cancers of the head and neck, as well as the liver, breast, and bowel.

However, you wouldn’t know this if you only talked to doctors. In a commentary written for the journal Addiction, Terry Slevin and Tanya Chikritzhs of Curtin University in Perth, Australia, suggest that health professionals may be consciously or unconsciously in denial.

A 2015 survey taken in the UK demonstrated that only about 13% of the population was aware of a link between alcohol and cancer. Moreover, surveys of physicians show that “significant proportions are not aware of or resist the notion that alcohol causes cancer and do not advise their patients of the relationship. This is compounded by the fact that many physicians are reluctant to ask about patient alcohol use, particularly when drinking does not appear to have a direct impact upon their health.” (98% of medical students in a survey from Saudi Arabia, where drinking is rare, said that alcohol causes cancer.)

The authors raise the following question: Could individual alcohol use among doctors be part of the problem? Some studies have shown that physicians drink more than average, other studies conclude that they drink about the same as everybody else. As for attitudes about drinking, the authors reference a U.S. study showing that 24% of doctors admitted to having imbibed alcohol while on call. 64% reported witnessing colleagues who appeared to be under the influence of alcohol while on call.

Given that most doctors probably drink socially at about the levels one would expect of the general population, the authors point up the possibility that a form of cognitive dissonance might be behind an apparent, perhaps unconscious reluctance to discuss the alcohol/cancer link. If true, “an important source of health information for members of the public may not be communicating the alcohol-causes-cancer message consistently or effectively.”

The alcohol industry itself has always viewed the alcohol/cancer question primarily as a threat to sales. These powerful companies exhibit “a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of relative ignorance, uncertainty and denial among the general population and their trusted health advisors. In the face of this, it is time that health professionals set aside any leanings that might stem from their own drinking—good or bad—and convey unreservedly to their patients and the communities they serve that alcohol causes cancer.”

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