Can Marijuana Treat ADHD?
Marijuana is sometimes used as a self-treatment by individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Advocates for marijuana as an ADHD treatment say the drug can help people with the disorder handle some of the more severe symptoms. These include agitation, irritability, and lack of restraint.
They also say that marijuana has fewer side effects than traditional ADHD medications.
Read more about what research has discovered about the use of marijuana in individuals with ADHD.
Laws and research
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Each year, more U.S. states have passed laws allowing the sale of marijuana for medical purposes. Some states have legalized it for recreational purposes, too. Many states still outlaw any use of marijuana. At the same time, research into the effects of the drug on health conditions and diseases has increased. This includes research on marijuana use in individuals who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD.
Online health forums are filled with comments from people saying they use marijuana to treat symptoms of ADHD.
Likewise, individuals who identify as having ADHD say they have few or no additional issues with marijuana use. But they aren’t presenting the research on adolescent use of marijuana. There are concerns for the developing brain’s learning and memory.
“Many adolescents and adults with ADHD are convinced that cannabis does help them and has fewer side effects [than ADHD medications],” says Jack McCue, MD, FACP, an author, physician, and emeritus professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “It may be that they, not their doctors, are correct.”
Dr. McCue says he’s seen patients who report classic marijuana use effects and benefits. They report intoxication (or being “high”), appetite stimulation, help with sleeping or anxiety, and pain relief, for example.
Dr. McCue says these people sometimes report effects that are often seen with typical ADHD treatments, too.
“The limited research on what patients say cannabis does for ADHD symptoms indicates that it is most helpful for hyperactivity and impulsivity. It may be less helpful for inattentiveness,” Dr. McCue says.
Research in 2016 analyzed some of these online threads or forums. Of the 286 threads the researchers reviewed, 25 percent of posts were from individuals who reported that cannabis use was therapeutic.
Only 8 percent of posts reported negative effects, 5 percent found both benefits and harmful effects, and 2 percent said using marijuana had no effect on their symptoms.
It’s important to remember that these forums and comments aren’t clinically significant. They’re also not evidence-based research. That means they shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Talk with your doctor first.
“There are descriptive accounts and demographic surveys that report that individuals with ADHD describe marijuana as being helpful in managing inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity,” says Elizabeth Evans, MD, psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.
However, Dr. Evans adds, “while there certainly may be individuals who experience benefit in their symptoms of ADHD, or those who are not adversely impacted by marijuana, there is not sufficient evidence that marijuana is a safe or effective substance to treat ADHD.”
Cannabidiol (CBD) is also promoted as a helpful treatment for individuals with ADHD.
CBD is found in marijuana and hemp. Unlike marijuana, CBD doesn’t contain the psychoactive element tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That means CBD doesn’t produce a “high” the way marijuana does.
CBD is promoted by some as a possible treatment for ADHD. Dr. McCue says that’s because of “anti-anxiety, antipsychotic effects of CBD.”
However, “the lack of a potential paradoxical benefit from the stimulating effects of THC make CBD theoretically less attractive,” he says.
Dr. Evans adds, “There are no large-scale clinical trials looking at CBD for ADHD. It is not considered an evidence-based treatment for ADHD at this time.”
Some people with ADHD report that they find therapeutic benefit from using marijuana. Despite these anecdotal stories, research doesn't support marijuana, or CBD, as a treatment for ADHD. Who's right?
Can marijuana help treat ADHD?
Research on the consequences and effectiveness of using marijuana to treat children, teens, and young adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder continues to evolve.
However, the results are mixed and do not advocate the use of the drug for this condition on a medical basis.
Medical marijuana is still illegal in many states, and research has not proved its suitability for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This article looks at the scientific research and other evidence for and against the potential use of marijuana as a treatment for symptoms of ADHD.
Share on Pinterest Marijuana is still unproven as an effective treatment for ADHD symptoms.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects around 6–9 percent of children and young adults, and about 5 percent of adults, globally.
A person with ADHD might find it hard to focus on tasks, frequently fidget, show signs of restless behavior, and they may be unable to stay still or quiet at appropriate times.
ADHD can lead to people having relationship problems or difficulties with academic work at school and college despite having normal or superior intellectual abilities.
Treatment for ADHD usually involves doctors prescribing stimulant medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall.
These medications are believed to help correct the levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. However, they may have unpleasant side effects.
To avoid these adverse effects, some people with ADHD use marijuana as a treatment option. This is because marijuana is believed to have the same impact on dopamine levels as prescription medications.
However, there remain many unanswered questions about how useful it is, and its safety, especially for children and young people.
Supporters of marijuana often claim it is a safe drug and has no risks of addiction. But opponents call it a “gateway drug,” potentially leading to the use of other drugs, and they claim it is more dangerous than some realize.
Marijuana is one of the most commonly used recreational drugs in the U.S. and is popular among younger adults. Most people smoke or eat the plant to produce a “high.”
In recent years, marijuana has made news as an alternative treatment for a variety of health conditions, including pain and mental health problems.
Despite these facts, questions and doubts remain.
A study of 268 separate online discussion threads reported that 25 percent of people said they believed that marijuana had a positive role to play in ADHD symptom management. The study points out, however, that research proving a connection between marijuana the management of ADHD is limited.
Some schools of thought suggest that ADHD migt stem from a lack of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.
As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is a chemical that transmits signals between nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine is believed to affect thought processes, including memory and attention.
Substances in recreational drugs, such as marijuana, lead to the production of more dopamine in the reward center of the brain.
The brain’s reward center gives an individual a pleasant sensation when they use marijuana and other drugs. However, this cycle of recreational drug use and increased dopamine can lead to the development of dependence.
Nature journal published a study in 2017 that discusses the dopamine-releasing action of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active chemical component in marijuana, and the source of its pleasure sensation. The researchers advised that THC boosts short-term dopamine levels but may dull the system that releases dopamine long-term.
This varying effect suggests that even if marijuana provides short-term symptom relief, better focus, or sedation for people with ADHD, longer-term use may result in more harm than good.
However, in the journal Brain, an imaging study by researchers at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom disputed the connection between ADHD and dopamine. They, instead, related ADHD to the structure of the gray matter in the brain.
One trial from 2017 tested a cannabinoid medication on people with ADHD. While the participant number was small and the findings were not statistically significant, the results did show small improvements in ADHD symptoms. The results also suggested that adults who take cannabinoids for ADHD experience the side effects less than children.
A further review of available clinical evidence on marijuana cited a case that — although not involving ADHD — showed that a child with autistic spectrum disorder had improved hyperactivity levels after receiving a cannabidiol treatment.
However, other research shows a relationship between marijuana dependence and ADHD.
One study of 99 people seeking treatment for cannabis use disorders showed an estimated ADHD prevalence of between 34 and 46 percent.
Overall, research seems to indicate that, although marijuana seems to alleviate certain short-term effects of ADHD, it may present a heightened risk of dependence and might even make ADHD worse.
Is medical marijuana available for ADHD?
People who use marijuana as a treatment for ADHD often self-medicate, which means a doctor does not prescribe or recommend the marijuana they take.
The evidence for medical professionals to recommend or prescribe marijuana as an active treatment for ADHD is not compelling enough at present.
ADHD is a behavioral condition that makes concentration difficult. Stimulant medication is the standard treatment, but some people use medical marijuana as it eases symptoms without the adverse side effects. Studies show this might impact long-term health. MNT consider the benefits and risks of medical marijuana.