Should marijuana be used to treat ADHD? The answer is, it depends on who you ask. Some doctors believe it is helpful and in states where medical marijuana is legal, some doctors are prescribing it, even to teenagers. Others believe that it shouldn’t be used given that people with ADHD are at a higher risk of developing dependencies.
Right now (April 2014), 20 states plus Washington DC have laws legalizing the use of marijuana for medical use. Another 13 states have pending legislation. The laws vary from state to state - some allow patients to cultivate their own plants while others require patients to use government regulated dispensaries. Some states have a specific list of medical conditions marijuana can be recommended for; others leave it up to the doctor, for example, the California law includes the phrase, "for any other illness for which marijuana provides relief."
The Case For Marijuana as a Treatment for ADHD
The main symptoms of ADHD are inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. According to proponents, marijuana helps to reduce hyperactivity and allows an individual to relax, letting them focus. Stimulant medications, the traditional treatment for ADHD, come with side effects, such as insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea and stunted growth. The long-term safety of stimulants has long been debated. Marijuana, the proponents say, is safer. It doesn’t have these side effects and offers a natural way of treating ADHD.
Besides the direct effect on ADHD symptoms, marijuana can help with the "byproducts" of ADHD. Insomnia can be a direct result of ADHD. Many children and adults with ADHD complain of insomnia. Some believe that symptoms of ADHD are more a symptom of sleep deprivation. Marijuana may help with insomnia and when you get a better night’s sleep, you feel better and more alert the following day. Anxiety, depression and mood-swings commonly go hand-in-hand with ADHD. Marijuana may help lower levels of anxiety even out mood swings.
The Case Against Marijuana to Treat ADHD
In some studies, marijuana use has been associated with depression, however, the connection isn’t fully understood. It could be that the depression came first and marijuana is a "self-medicating" treatment. Or it could be that your genetics that predisposed you to depression also lead to marijuana use. Scientists don’t believe that marijuana use causes depression, but because many people with ADHD also have depression, it is important to know the signs of depression and be treated promptly. The use of marijuana has also been linked to schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis, especially when used as a teenager. Some of those against the use of marijuana for ADHD are concerned that it can exacerbate other psychological conditions.
Both teens and adults with ADHD are at a high risk of substance abuse and dependencies. This raises concern for some ADHD experts. Dr. Ned Hallowell states, "I am totally and completely opposed to the use of marijuana by people who have ADHD. John Ratey and I made this clear some fifteen years ago in our book Answers to Distraction, and our opinion has not changed. The reason I feel this way is that I have seen too many patients get into enormous difficulties due to their use of pot. Not only can they get into trouble with the law, they can develop a dependency that leads them to be less productive in their lives than they otherwise could be. People with ADHD are at great risk for developing addiction or dependency on all illicit substances, as well as activities like gambling, spending, sex, food, and even exercise. In my experience, marijuana ranks at or near the top of the list of substances that cause problems for people who have ADHD."
Along with the concerns about safety are the concerns about the age of the patient. Some doctors in California state they recommend it for teens, while other doctors don’t believe it should be used until at least the age of 21 to minimize any risk of psychiatric problems.
Despite the fact that marijuana is legal in some states, it is still against the law federally. And, some companies might not see marijuana as acceptable. As drug screening becomes more commonplace in companies, this might cause a problem for those who elect to treat their ADHD with marijuana.
Although marijuana has been around a long time, medical uses are only now being tested in studies. These studies are slow, partially because of government restrictions and partially because marijuana has long been considered a dangerous drug and therefore didn’t serve any medical purpose. The studies that have been conducted so far are usually small and therefore, not conclusive.
There is plenty of anecdotal information on how marijuana helped a certain patient and many of the doctors who are recommending it for ADHD symptoms use this information as their background information. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anecdotal information has often been used in the medical industry to determine what works and what doesn’t.
Research is bound to be ongoing. Studies on treating ADHD, PTSD and other psychological problems with marijuana will shed more light on this topic. Remember, as with stimulants or any other type of medication, each person reacts differently. Even if marijuana becomes an accepted form of treatment for ADHD, it isn’t going to be right for everyone. And dosing is still going to be important. There is a thin line between using for medical purposes and over-using.
"Cannabis and ADD," Date Unknown, David Bearman M.D., DavidBearmanMD.com
"Marijuana Use, Legalization and Cognitive Effects: Research Perspectives," 2013, Sept 3, John Wihbey, Journalistresource.org
"Medical Marijuana: No Longer Just for Adults," 2009, Nov 1, Katherine Ellison, The New York Times
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.