Between 2003 and 2011, diagnoses of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) cases increased by 42%. Some experts speculate that unmonitored hours of screen time and access to smart devices virtually since birth have played a role in this jump.
Regardless of the reason for the spike in ADHD cases, the symptoms can be disruptive, at best, to those who cope with them. Aggression, irritability, impulsive behavior, forgetfulness, anxiety, and depression are just a few of the symptoms that children and adults with ADHD may have to manage.
Ritalin is the most commonly prescribed drug for children with ADHD, but many of its side effects, such as anxiety and restlessness, are identical to the symptoms of the disorder. This treatment dilemma has led some individuals with ADHD to seek non-traditional options.
ADHD is not a qualifying condition for treatment with medical marijuana, but that hasn't stopped people from using cannabis to ease their symptoms. Is there evidence that cannabis can help manage the symptoms of ADHD?
At present, there are very few studies that demonstrate whether cannabis is effective in treating ADHD. Most of the research conducted on this topic has emerged since 2017; in 2016 and earlier, there had only been analyses of online forum discussions regarding ADHD and cannabis. Research may now be trending towards a true understanding of how cannabis could benefit individuals with ADHD.
Researchers for a 2017 study published in the Journal of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology administered a cannabinoid medicine called Sativex oromucosal spray to 30 adults with ADHD. Though some adverse effects were reported, including muscle spasms, researchers concluded that adults with ADHD may experience a reduction in symptoms through the use of cannabinoids.
However, a 2019 study published in Molecular Psychiatry raised the issue of how ADHD has been linked to an increased risk for substance abuse. Researchers pinpointed a causal relationship between ADHD and lifetime cannabis use, which raises red flags.
Despite a lack of solid information about the benefits of cannabis for ADHD, and the disorder's troubling association with substance dependency, some people are gaining relief from marijuana.
In a 2016 scientific analysis titled "I Use Weed for My ADHD" published in PLOS One, researchers combed through online discussion forums to glean how ADHD sufferers are self-medicating with cannabis. Researchers found that 25% of online posters indicated that cannabis was therapeutic for their ADHD, while only 8% believed cannabis to be harmful, and 2% perceived no effect.
The authors of the study concluded: “Despite that there are no clinical recommendations or systematic research supporting the beneficial effects of cannabis use for ADHD, online discussions indicate that cannabis is considered therapeutic for ADHD — this is the first study to identify such a trend.”
The authors of a 2016 study concluded: “Despite that there are no clinical recommendations or systematic research supporting the beneficial effects of cannabis use for ADHD, online discussions indicate that cannabis is considered therapeutic for ADHD — this is the first study to identify such a trend.”
How do medical professionals view this potential development in cannabis use for ADHD?
What the Experts Say
Clinicians who issue medical marijuana cards are not permitted to prescribe cannabis as a treatment for ADHD. Some may not choose to prescribe the drug even if they could. In a 2015 article for Psychology Today, Larry Maucieri, Ph.D., described how one of his psychotherapy patients, a young man with ADHD, was using marijuana. The results of his use had mixed effects on the patient who admitted he was less motivated but also claimed to be sleeping better and focusing more easily.
Maucieri wrote: “The fact is the relationship between ADHD and marijuana use is probably just too varied and personalized to find clearly definable groups who use and who don't use. At least anecdotally, many patients with ADHD mention its positive impact on focus as part of the draw in using it.”
The author goes on to clarify how marijuana is not nearly as addictive as cocaine or heroin, yet the risk of dependency is still present. This risk needs to be taken especially seriously for individuals with ADHD who already have an elevated likelihood of abusing any type of substance.
The Bottom Line
It is too early to understand the fine-tuned details of how cannabis interacts with ADHD and more formal scientific studies are imperative.