Let’s get real for a second.
It’s estimated that around 9% of cannabis consumers develop an addiction to the herb.
That means that if these statistics are correct, of the 55 million Americans that admit trying cannabis, a little less than five million develop some kind of cannabis use disorder.
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, rates of cannabis addiction are far lower than that of alcohol (22.7%) and nicotine (67.5%).
In contrast to these legal intoxicants, cannabis addiction clocked in a measly 8.9% among the 7,389 participants that fessed up to trying the herb.
You could easily argue that dependence on caffeine is more prevalent and likely than cannabis addiction.
Addiction to cannabis, however, is a very real concern to patients and doctors exploring this as a potential treatment for the first time.
After all, this generation has already borne witness to the stark aftermath of an epidemic of over-prescribed painkiller medications.
And even though too much cannabis won’t kill you, it could get in the way of day-to-day functioning and productivity if you take too much too often.
For those who are concerned about potential negative reactions to cannabis, scientists might just have an answer: pharmacogenetic testing.
Your genes tell you what drugs you should take
Pharmacogenetic testing is a trendy subject among medical professionals.
This testing evaluates an individual’s genetics to get a read on how they might respond to certain pharmaceutical drugs.
Using a simple cheek swab test, doctors can determine whether or not you’re likely to have an adverse reaction to certain medications.
Testing may even help doctors determine what dose of a drug may be appropriate for you as an individual.
If recent trends are any indication, pharmacogenetics seems to work.
This type of testing is already being applied to common drugs like antidepressants and blood thinners.
The implications of pharmacogenetics are vast.
Each year, around two million adverse drug reactions are reported to the Food and Drug Administration.
Poor drug reactions are thought to be responsible for 100,000 deaths each year.
This screening of patients for genetic variations that might make them more or less sensitive to the effects of certain drugs is expected to reduce the chances that a patient is given a medicine that either doesn’t work or actually causes them harm.
But, if genetic testing can determine what type of antidepressant you should take, can it tell you whether or not you’ll have a less-than-ideal reaction to cannabis?
One Harvard-trained doctor thinks it can.
Bringing genetics into cannabis medicine
“The biggest concern of most patients who have never tried cannabis before is getting ‘high’, addicted, or having anxiety, or other unpleasant side-effects,” begins Dr. Gregory Smith.
Smith has been a medical doctor for over 30 years. He’s also an author, holds a Master’s in Public Health, and is a Harvard-graduate specializing in preventative healthcare.
Recently named the Medical Director for Labs on the Go Genetics, Dr. Smith thinks that pharmacogenetics will help take cannabis medicines into the mainstream limelight.
“The available [pharmacogenetic] testing is able to address all three of the clinical issues,” he says.
“By alleviating fears and also using the test results to pick the correct dosing of cannabis, there will be better clinical outcomes and less patients abandoning medical cannabis due to unpleasant side-effects, or fear of addiction.”
However, the benefits of pharmacogenetic testing go beyond just making a patient feel at ease.
This type of testing can also be a vital tool to help doctors monitor how a patient might react to cannabis.
Genetic testing for cannabis addiction
For example, Smith articulates genetic testing can determine “if someone is likely to get ‘higher’ than the average person with certain doses of THC.”
THC is the chemical compound responsible for the euphoric and intoxicating effects of the cannabis plant.
Genes can also tell you whether a person is at an increased risk of being dependent or addicted to THC.
In addition, looking for certain DNA variations can show whether or not a person is at a greater risk of expressing psychotic symptoms after trying cannabis.
“Individuals with polymorphisms of COMT and AKT1 genes may be at increased risk for psychotic symptoms or expressions of psychotic disorders after the use of THC,” he explains.
“There is also an increased risk in these individuals when there is a family history of psychotic disorders or a prior history of psychotic disorders or childhood trauma.”
Smith suggests that some variations of the COMT gene, which partially regulates the pleasure and attention neurotransmitter dopamine, may make some individuals more susceptible to memory impairment from THC.
Other variations have been linked to an increased likelihood of developing drug dependence.
Room for development
While genetic testing is already helping doctors create better treatment plans for their patients, there is still a lot to learn about the relationship between cannabis and your DNA.
Genes can tell you whether or not you are more likely to have a specific reaction
They typically cannot tell you, however, that you are destined to have a negative or positive reaction to the plant.
Yet, there’s no doubt that testing for these variations can be immensely helpful to both doctors and patients alike.
For doctors, testing for variations in these genes prior to recommending cannabis can offer patients greater perspective on how the herb might affect their individual body.
More importantly, genetic testing seems to offer a partial remedy for some of the main concerns about using cannabis as medicine more often.
“This is new state-of-the-art technology,” explains Smith. “The prices are just now coming down to make this affordable for average cost-conscious patients.”
For those interested in pharmacogenetic testing, Smith has a hunch that insurance companies may help offset the cost in the near future.
Let’s hope his predictions come true.