Mclean Hospital

Fighting the Myth of Marijuana: Clinical Investigator Addresses Marijuana Dependence

May 12, 2010

As a psychiatrist working in McLean’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program, Kevin Hill, MD, MHS, recognizes the reality of relapse—and the perseverance patients need to overcome their drug dependence. Every day, Hill treats individuals addicted to a range of substances and witnesses their struggles as they battle addiction.

Kevin Hill, MD, MHS
Kevin Hill, MD, MHS

“Compared to other psychiatric disciplines, addiction treatment has a long way to go in terms of targeting effective therapies. For many substance use disorders, there are few FDA-approved medications and the medications that are available for substance use disorders could use improvement,” he says.

In addition to caring for patients, Hill contributes to the addiction knowledge base through his research on marijuana dependence, an often-overlooked problem. Marijuana is the most widely used illicit drug, with 14 million active users in the United States alone; approximately two million of these users meet the criteria for marijuana dependence listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders. Marijuana is considered a “gateway” drug that often leads users to other drugs. “Often, when I review the histories of patients coming into our program for treatment for alcohol or opioid dependence, they tell me they used marijuana daily for years before other drugs became an issue,” he adds.

One of Hill’s studies centers on nabilone, a manmade drug structurally similar to marijuana and FDA-approved to treat cancer-related nausea. Similar to the way opiate-based medications are used to treat heroin addiction, Hill plans to study if nabilone can be used to gradually ease patients off marijuana.

A recipient of McLean’s Adam Corneel Young Investigator Award, Hill received funding that enabled him to gather pilot data for his nabilone research—data he can now use to compete for federal funding. “The Corneel fellowship—and being at McLean—have done a great deal to advance my career both as a physician and as a scientist. I am hopeful that my work here will lead to better treatments for the millions of people addicted to marijuana,” he says.