(WJW) – You’ve probably heard of a medicine called naloxone, which can quickly reverse the effects of opioids and save lives.

It’s the only drug that can revive people who are suffering from overdose at a time when overdose deaths are at record highs.

But researchers are now exploring cannabidiol (CBD), a component of marijuana, as a potential alternative to naloxone.

The findings from researchers at Indiana University were published in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry in July.

The research could potentially lead to the development of a new and more powerful antidote for overdoses.

Overdose deaths driven by fentanyl

Fentanyl can be legally prescribed for pain and is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. The FDA approved the synthetic opioid for pain relief in the late 1990s. It’s now “the main driver of overdose deaths,” according to the CDC.

Data shows opioid-involved overdose deaths began rising in the early 2000s.

In the most recent data year (2021), opiates are blamed for more than 80,000 overdose deaths, accounting for more than 75% of all drug overdose deaths that year.

That’s thousands more people than could fill a sold-out Browns stadium.

While it can be taken and used by prescription, the government says tests indicate the fentanyl behind many recent overdoses was illegally made.

Also, the government warns of new risks with other illicit drugs. Cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine are frequently mixed with fentanyl without the user ever knowing. Meaning, some people who overdose from fentanyl don’t know they’ve taken it.  

In 2021, 5,397 people died of drug overdoses in Ohio, according to state records.

Cuyahoga County by the numbers

The most complete recent localized data is from 2022. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner received its first overdose victim on January 1 that year – and its last on December 31.

In 2022, 584 people died of an overdose in Cuyahoga County.

The victims range in age from 1 to 80 years old and include firefighters, civil engineers, nurses, special education teachers and financial executives, according to data from the medical examiner.

What the data doesn’t include – non-fatal overdoses, a key component to understanding the prevalence in our communities.

“Studies of non-fatal overdoses, and users in general, are needed to better understand trends in the community at large,” the National Library of Medicine wrote about the 2022 data in Cuyahoga County.

The National Library of Medicine’s report on Cuyahoga County overdoses in 2022 showed that fentanyl was present in 90% of the cases.

How CBD fights the effects of an overdose

Fentanyl poses a unique challenge.

“The synthetic opiates bind very tightly to the opioid receptors,” said Alex Straiker, senior research scientist for the Gill Center for Biomolecular Science. “Naloxone must compete with opioids for the same binding site in the central nervous system to cancel out an overdose. But during a fentanyl overdose, naloxone and fentanyl bind to different sites, meaning there is no competition.”

Straiker led the team of scientists who studied different substances to see if any of them could stop the bad effects of fentanyl.

They found a component of cannabis called cannabidiol (CBD) could possibly help. But they needed to make the CBD stronger, so they changed its structure. When they tested it on blood and tissue samples, it reversed the effects of fentanyl.

But it doesn’t work alone. The CBD compounds can make naloxone more potent.

When used with naloxone, they found CBD accelerated the medication’s effect, forcing the receptors to release opioids.

“We’ve identified structural parts that are important for the desired antidote effect,” stated Straiker. “Some of these compounds are much more potent than the lead. We’ve collaborated with another lab to model the binding site, which may help identify additional compounds for further exploration.”

The next critical step involves testing the findings in living organisms. Tests done on blood and tissue samples showed the CBD component reversed fentanyl’s effects.

“Given that naloxone is the only drug available to reverse overdoses, I think it makes sense to look at alternatives, Straiker said.

Lifesaving Naloxone

You can buy naloxone without a prescription at your local pharmacy. Pharmacies nationwide stock it and can dispense it without a prescription. If your pharmacy doesn’t have it on hand, ask them if they can order it for you.

While researchers look for more ways to help reverse the effects of an overdose, naloxone is saving lives.

According to the CDC, naloxone can restore normal breathing within 2 to 3 minutes in a person whose breath has slowed, or even stopped.

Project DAWN

Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) is a network of opioid overdose education and naloxone distribution programs (OENDP) coordinated by the Ohio Department of Health.

It’s named in memory of Leslie Dawn Cooper who struggled with substance abuse disorder for years before dying from an opioid overdose on October 3, 2009.

Anyone in Ohio can get free naloxone and overdose response education through Project DAWN locations. To find a site near you, click here for a full List of Project DAWN Locations. 

You can also get a list of free naloxone mail-order programs here: NaloxoneOhio.

Need help?

  • If you, or someone you know, need help to stop using substances call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889
  • FindTreatment.gov – this locator provides information on state-licensed providers who specialize in treating substance use disorders and mental illness.