Marijuana Dependence Researcher: Important to Focus on Teens

A drug used to treat liver toxicity in Tylenol overdoses may be helpful in treating teens dependent on marijuana, when it is combined with behavioral therapy, according to an expert speaking at the recent American Psychiatric Association annual meeting. The drug is one of a number of new treatments being tested for marijuana dependence, but is the only one so far tested solely in adolescents.

“Young people should be a particular focus of treatment for marijuana dependence,” says researcher Kevin M. Gray, M.D., Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “We want to treat it early, before a lot of serious outcomes occur when they transition to adulthood.”

His placebo-controlled study of the drug, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), found it was effective when given to teens who were dependent on marijuana. The 116 teens in the study also received weekly, brief skills-based counseling and received compensation for having drug-free urine tests, through an intervention called contingency management, said Dr. Gray, who published the results last year in the American Journal of Psychiatry. He is now setting up a similar study of NAC in marijuana-dependent adults. Both studies are funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

NAC is used to treat a number of other conditions, including cystic fibrosis and other lung ailments, and is considered very safe, Dr. Gray says. It is also sold as a supplement in health food stores.

Kevin M. Gray, M.D.

Kevin M. Gray, M.D.

Treatments for marijuana dependence have not received as much attention as those for other types of substance use disorders, he notes. “There’s a general perception that marijuana may not be as addictive as other drugs, and it’s not seen as a ‘hard’ drug, so people think it’s easy to stop using it,” he says. “The medical marijuana movement has further decreased the view of marijuana as risky. We’re seeing an increased rate of use and dependence in teens, which is especially worrisome because of the increased potency of marijuana in recent years.”

He emphasizes that NAC could be useful as an addition to psychosocial treatment, not a potential stand-alone cure for marijuana dependence. “We haven’t tested NAC alone without counseling, but I suspect it would not be effective by itself,” Dr. Gray states.

Several other potential treatments for marijuana dependence have shown early success in studies. One study published last year found the drug gabapentin, used to treat epilepsy and nerve pain, may help people quit smoking marijuana.

Researchers at Columbia University in New York are studying a synthetic version of THC—the active ingredient in marijuana—called nabilone. They found nabilone decreased marijuana withdrawal symptoms, such as increasing sleep and appetite, and decreased marijuana self-administration, in a laboratory model of relapse. Patients did not experience a “high” from nabilone, indicating it does not have a high abuse potential.

4 Responses to Marijuana Dependence Researcher: Important to Focus on Teens

  1. ProSci | May 31, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    A very incomplete article…. not one word on HOW this
    “NAC” affects the user….craving? lethargy in withdrawal? what?

  2. Gary | June 10, 2013 at 7:39 am

    Data from the Monitoring the Future study produced by NIDA does not support the good Dr.’s claim that “we’re seeing an increase rate of (marijuana) use and dependence in teens.” In fact, the rate of use among teens has decreased in the last year, is level over the past 5 years, and is no different than 10 years ago aside from a brief dip in 2006. Perceived risk of marijuana is going down, but there is no evidence that this is caused by “the medical marijuana movement.” We must be realistic about the relatively low risks of marijuana or the teens you hope to reach will think you are trying to trick them and turn you off. Teens know that marijuana is not as risky as alcohol, pain-killer prescriptions, cocaine, or heroin. What they might not know, is that they can still find themselves dependent on marijuana and that it can cause cognitive impairment in ability to learn particularly in youth.
    Had the paragraph with all the propaganda been left out or replaced with better information, this would have been an outstanding bit of news. The drug, N-acetylcysteine, is readily available without prescription throughout Europe as an over-the-counter cold medicine called ACC Hexal, an expectorant that breaks up mucous.

  3. nathalie | June 13, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Are you aware that the current push for drug testing in various work forces is cause otherwise casual marijuana users into cocaine and meth users? Because, meth and cocaine can be “flushed” out of the system with 72 hours or less and “weed” stay in your system for weeks, those who would prefect to smoke a joint vrs drink 6 beers are turning to these real addictive and dangerous chemical drugs? Your research is bias and in accurate.

  4. Shattah206 | June 14, 2013 at 2:20 pm

    @Nathalie:
    Are you aware that marijuana has a completely different effect than cocaine and methamphetamine? A “casual” marijuana user who wants to “chill” is NOT going to turn instead to coke or meth. A beer? Maybe. Six? that’s no casual marijuana user.

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