Many adults use marijuana to cope with ADHD, but there are some risks.
One of the most popular reasons people use marijuana is to relax and calm their thoughts. Many people choose to take advantage of this to help treat disorders that are associated with an overactive mind, such as ADHD.
There are not many scientific studies into the use of marijuana for ADHD, but many people believe that marijuana is an effective way to treat their symptoms. Some doctors are voicing support for marijuana as an alternative treatment for ADHD.
However, there are also some risks, including developmental abnormalities and a risk for substance abuse disorders.
What is ADHD?
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental disorder that can affect focus, attention and behaviour.
ADHD is often diagnosed in childhood, and can negatively impact success in school. When ADHD continues into adulthood, it can impair the ability to work and maintain relationships.
While there are many ADHD symptoms, they all fall into three major categories: inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity.
The most common treatments for ADHD are stimulant medications, such as Adderall, Ritalin, Concerta, or Vyvanse.
Stimulants work well for many people with ADHD, but not everybody. These medications may cause side-effects such as decreased appetite, sleep problems, and anxiety.
Can Marijuana Help ADHD?
Many people believe that marijuana helps with their ADHD. Currently, there is a small amount of evidence supporting the idea that marijuana can help treat ADHD.
A 2013 study indicated that some adults use marijuana to manage symptoms of impulsivity and hyperactivity.
A 2017 study found that Sativex (a pharmaceutical cannabis extract containing THC and CBD) helps improve hyperactivity and impulsivity in adults with ADHD, without any impairment to cognition.
Cannabis may especially help people with severe ADHD that doesn’t respond to standard treatment with stimulant drugs.
A German study published in 2015 investigated the effects of cannabis on 30 patients who didn’t respond to Adderall or Ritalin. After treatment, the majority of subjects experienced “improved concentration and sleep, and reduced impulsivity.”
Dr. Eva Milz, a psychiatrist who co-authored the study, said that standard medications were “more demanding” on patients, whereas cannabis brought them “control that helped them in life, love and work, without feeling intoxicated.”
How Does Marijuana Help ADHD?
Scientists don’t know exactly how marijuana can help with ADHD, but they do have some ideas.
One theory is that people with ADHD suffer from what is known as a clinical endocannabinoid deficiency. This means they have abnormally low levels of the body’s natural cannabinoids. These people may be more likely to benefit from using cannabis, since cannabis mimics these endocannabinoids.
Some experts believe that people with ADHD may be drawn to using cannabis because it helps relieve their natural endocannabinoid deficiency.
Dr. David Bearman is a practicing physician in California and an expert in the medical marijuana field.
If a person who is deficient increases their cannabinoids, “you’re likely to slow down the speed of neurotransmitters and you’re going to give the brain a little bit more time to concentrate and focus,” Dr. Bearman says.
According to Dr. Bearman, the ability of marijuana to limit impulsivity and increase concentration has made a huge impact on patients.
“I had a patient who credited graduating with his use of marijuana. And I had a PhD candidate who credited marijuana with being able to get his PhD, and that’s because it helped him concentrate.”
“The feedback I’ve received from patients that have ADD or ADHD who use cannabis has been universally favorable,” he says.
Marijuana vs. Stimulants
ADHD patients are typically prescribed stimulant medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall. However, both Dr. Milz and Dr. Bearman say patients often combine cannabis and stimulants.
According to Dr. Bearman, cannabis not only treats ADHD, but also treats possible side effects of stimulant medications. For example, stimulant drugs can cause nervousness, loss of appetite and sleep problems, whereas cannabis can treat those issues.
However, Dr. Bearman says his first choice would be to treat a patient with cannabis alone.
“One of the important criteria in practicing medicine is to balance the side effects versus the therapeutic effects. The therapeutic effects of marijuana are the same or better than conventional drugs… and the side effects are much less.”
Dr. Milz agrees and says many patients prefer marijuana treatment.
“ADHD patients don’t seem to use any medication without a clear cost-benefit analysis. Cannabis seems to have the lowest cost,” Dr. Milz says.
For ADHD patients who do choose cannabis treatment, Dr. Bearman sometimes prescribes two and a half milligrams of Marinol, two or three times a day.
A relatively low dose of cannabis with a low amount of THC will also treat symptoms, he says. Dr. Milz says a portion of CBD seems to help patients with pronounced impulsiveness.
Risks of Using Marijuana For ADHDWhile there is still some debate, marijuana use does not seem to make the symptoms of ADHD worse. But people with ADHD may still be negatively affected by cannabis use in other ways.
Substance Abuse Disorder
People with ADHD are more likely to develop substance use disorders and addictions. A 2016 study estimates that 34-46% of adults seeking treatment for their cannabis use also have ADHD.
A 2014 study followed people ages 18-22, and found that those with ADHD were more likely to be dependent on marijuana, alcohol and nicotine than their peers without ADHD.
Some scientists estimate that teens with ADHD are between 4-5 times more likely to start using marijuana heavily after only trying it once.
Heavy cannabis use can be particularly risky for teens still undergoing brain development. The science isn’t yet conclusive, but heavy cannabis use in teenagers appears to alter brain development and cognition.
A 2013 study found that people with ADHD performed worse on a variety of cognitive tasks. People who started using cannabis before the age of 16 were likely to perform worse on these tasks.
A 2017 study found that people that had a diagnosis of ADHD and who use cannabis have a thinner cortex around the brain areas that control memory, inhibition and movement. Participants that had more severe ADHD, as well as participants that started using cannabis earlier in life, had the thinnest cortex in these areas.
Correlation vs. Causation
Most studies on marijuana and ADHD are correlational in nature. This means that it is hard to determine the true cause of the outcomes.
For example, scientists aren’t sure whether people with more severe ADHD are more likely to use cannabis, or if using cannabis causes more severe ADHD.
Only future studies will be able to confirm the nature of these relationships.
Many people who suffer from ADHD use cannabis to help their symptoms.
Some evidence shows that people not formally treated for ADHD have found cannabis works for them and self-medicate as a result.
A growing number of doctors support the use of marijuana as an alternative to stimulant medications.
Even though cannabis doesn’t seem to make ADHD worse, there are still risks to keep in mind, such as an increased rate for substance abuse and possible developmental risks.
The bottom line is that when it comes to using marijuana for ADHD, it seems like only your doctor will be able to accurately weigh all the potential benefits and risks.