Can Weed Help Treat ADHD?
“I felt like someone turned on a light switch in my head,” Joseph Lazarus says of his first time smoking weed. It was a classic scene from American adolescence: He snuck out into woods near his home in York, Pennsylvania, with an older schoolmate who liked to blaze. For Lazarus, the experience was profound: “I heard the birds chirping for [what seemed like] the first time,” he says. The leaves seemed greener. He felt the wind tickle his skin. “I was one with the forest, a wooded forest. I was so calm.” He was 13.
It was one of the first times Lazarus felt normal. At age six, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and prescribed the usual stimulants. They didn’t help. “I couldn’t concentrate or retain information,” he says. “I had a hard time with grammar. I couldn’t remember the rules.” He was restless, unable to focus in class and easily bored at home for his entire childhood. He says emotional trauma played a role; he had to process his parents’ divorce at about the same age he was diagnosed. “I felt like there was a stick of dynamite in me ready to go off,” he says.
But his thought pattern after smoking up? “It was like if you are on a four-lane highway with cars coming from everywhere and then you are on a country road.” Lazarus, now a 33-year-old home remodeler and still living in York, has been self-medicating with cannabis since that day in the woods. At the time, the dramatic change in his mannerisms caused a guidance counselor to start a process that got him sent to an institution for troubled teens. But he says weed has been the only treatment that has stabilized him. (Vaping is his current method of choice.) “I’m using a tape measurer and making calculations and plans every day,” he says. “I don’t think that would be possible without cannabis.”
Evidence that cannabis helps with ADHD is emerging and scant, but signs indicate that people are using it to treat their symptoms, anyway. A 2016 Duke University study of 268 ADHD-related internet threads, for instance, found that 25 percent included a post from someone indicating that it was therapeutic for ADHD. (Only eight percent of the threads included a post saying it was harmful, five percent that it was a mix of therapeutic and harmful, and two percent that it had no effect on ADHD symptoms.)
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Other studies also show promise for cannabis-based medicine, if not recreational weed. Last year, researchers at King׳s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience completed a randomized, placebo-controlled experimental study of a cannabinoid medication on adults with ADHD. Subjects who used Sativex Oromucosal Spray—which is an extract of cannabis, and therefore different from recreational weed—experienced some relief in their hyperactivity/impulsivity symptoms. They also reported more inhibition and better attention depth when compared to the group that took a placebo.
Ruth Cooper, the lead author who completed the study as part of her dissertation, says she was motivated by the knowledge that many psychiatrists and psychologists—including her advisor and co-author—recommend cannabis for ADHD. They prefer cannabis to medications often because of the more tolerable side effects, Cooper says. “There’s some research on it, but not very much,” she adds.
Cooper says her study of 30 subjects is small, but promising. “I think in the future if more evidence could be shown that it has greater effects in larger trials, it would become a common treatment,” she says. In the meantime, some physicians aren’t waiting for more scientific input. David Bearman, a private practice physician and certified cannabinoid medicine specialist, has been prescribing medical marijuana in California for 40 years, he says, and working around the laws in place. Bearman says young people and parents often contact him about cannabis-based treatments for ADHD. They complain that drugs like Ritalin increase the restlessness and nervousness that was problematic in the first place.
The effect on students with ADHD who are struggling, he says, tends to be dramatic. “Most of my patients’ [grades] went from Cs and Ds to Bs,” Bearman says. “One credited cannabis with getting his PhD.” Bearman posits—as many other researchers have—that ADHD might be the result of a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Nerve signals might be slowed or stagnated, leading to a loss of attention and generally slower thought process. THC causes the brain to produce more dopamine, which means more of it becomes available for the essential tasks of memory and attention.
Celeste Thirlwell, a physician and sleep specialist at Apollo Cannabis Clinics in Toronto, says that the inflammation of the nervous system is a common cause of ADHD, and cannabis is a natural anti-inflammatory agent. Without deep sleep, “the nervous system is not being properly entrenched,” Thirlwell says. “It’s not being turned off properly, so you have problems with memory.”
Thirwell recommends her patients vape with a sativa strain to ease the inflammation and get an attention-renewing night of sleep. Not all medical professionals, however, are quite so bullish on using cannabis to treat attention deficit disorder: “ADHD is a basket of problems,” says Scott Shannon, a physician and holistic medical practitioner in Fort Collins, Colorado. “Saying you can’t pay attention is like saying [to a mechanic], ‘My car isn’t going forward.’ There are many things that could [be] wrong.”
Shannon, however, has recommended hemp-derived CBD, the non-psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant, for ADHD symptoms and other complaints related to restlessness in his patients. (He would prefer to avoid the psychoactive effects of THC.) But he cautions people not to overthink the effect. “We know that engaging the endocannabinoid system has a calming effect,” he says, “so naturally, CBD is useful for that over-arousal.”
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"I felt like someone turned on a light switch in my head."
The Damaging Effects of Cannabis on the ADHD Brain
Cannabis use has grown in popularity among people with ADHD, some of whom report that marijuana helps them manage symptoms of anxiety, rejection sensitive dysphoria, and poor sleep without a prescription medication. What many teens and adults do not realize is that cannabis consumption is associated with dangerous risks — like cannabis use disorder — that disproportionately affect ADHD brains.
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Cannabis is used by a startling number of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies show that more than half of daily and non-daily cannabis users have ADHD 1 , and about one-third of adolescents with ADHD report cannabis use 2 . People with ADHD are also three times as likely as their neurotypical peers to have ever used marijuana. 3
As with other popular substances, cannabis is commonly abused. In fact, the risk of developing cannabis use disorder (CUD), a problematic pattern of cannabis use linked to clinically significant impairment, is twice as high in people with ADHD 3 . Contrary to popular belief, individuals can be mentally and chemically dependent on and addicted to cannabis. Contemporary marijuana has concentrations of THC higher than historically reported, which exacerbates this. What’s more, the adverse effects of cannabis are especially amplified in people with ADHD.
What are the Negative Effects of Cannabis?
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of cannabis’ active compounds, inhibits neuronal connections and effectively slows the brain’s signaling process. THC also affects the brain’s dendrite architecture, which controls processing, learning, and the overall health of the brain. Science has not yet fully determined whether THC’s effects are reversible; some parts of the brain show healthy neuronal growth after cannabis use stops, but other parts do not.
Short-term and long-term cannabis use also impairs:
- Motivation (hampering effect)
- Memory, especially in people under 25, by altering the function of the hippocampus and orbitolfrontal cortex, where much of memory is processed
- Performance on complicated task performance with many executive steps. Studies have shown, for example, that driving ability, even while not under the influence, can be impaired in regular marijuana users
Cannabis use may also lead to the following health-related impairments:
- Chronic bronchitis
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome (characterized by severe bouts of vomiting and dehydration)
- Elevated resting heart rate
Cannabis use may exacerbate disorders like paranoia, panic, and mood disorder. Studies have also found that increased cannabis consumption can uniquely contribute to elevating suicide risk, even when controlling for underlying mental health disorders, like mood disorder or anxiety 4 5 . Individuals who begin regular cannabis use also exhibit more suicidal ideation, even when controlling for pre-existing mood disorders, studies show. 6 7
What is Cannabis Use Disorder (CUD)?
Cannabis is addictive — 9 percent of people who use cannabis regularly will become dependent on it 8 . This figure rises to 17 percent in those who start using cannabis in adolescence. 9
CUD can develop after extended cannabis use. It is diagnosed when at least two of the following occur within a 12-month period:
- Taking cannabis in larger amounts over longer periods of time
- Difficulty quitting cannabis use
- Strong desires or cravings to use cannabis
- Lots of time spent trying to obtain, use, or recover from cannabis
- Problems with work, school, or home because of interference from cannabis use
- Social or interpersonal problems due to cannabis use
- Activities given up or reduced because of cannabis use
- Recurrent cannabis use in physically hazardous situations, such as driving
- Physical or psychological problems caused or exacerbated by cannabis use
- Tolerance to cannabis
- Withdrawal from cannabis
How Does Cannabis Affect the ADHD Brain?
Cannabis use impairs areas and functions of the brain that are also uniquely impaired by ADHD.
The substance’s negative effects are most harmful to developing brains. Many studies show that usage earlier in life, particularly before the age of 25, predicts worse outcomes. One study found that heavy marijuana use in adolescence was associated with a loss of 8 IQ points, on average, in adulthood 10 . Another study found that people under age 18 are four to seven more times at risk for CUD compared to adults. 11
People with ADHD, whose brain development is delayed by slowly maturing frontal lobes, are thus more vulnerable to cannabis’ effects on neuronal connections. Some of these impairments may be irreversible.
Cannabis can also interact significantly with some ADHD medications. Research studies have shown that methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta) reacts significantly with the substance, and can cause increased strain on the heart. 12
Other studies show that the use of cannabis can decrease the effect of a stimulant medication 13 . An individual trying to treat their ADHD with stimulants is actually placing themselves at a disadvantage, since the cannabis is impacting them negatively and making the medication less effective.
The increased risk of suicide associated with cannabis use further complicates marijuana among individuals with ADHD, who already face an elevated risk for suicide compared to neurotypical individuals 14 .
What Draws People with ADHD to Cannabis?
Cannabis activates the brain’s reward system, and releases dopamine at levels higher than typically observed. In low-dopamine ADHD brains, THC thus can be very rewarding.
Many people with ADHD also claim that cannabis helps them focus, sleep, or seemingly slow the pace of their thoughts. One analysis of internet threads found that 25 percent of relevant posts described cannabis as therapeutic for ADHD, while 5 percent indicated that it is both therapeutic and harmful 15 . Despite some users reporting short-term improvement in symptoms, there is currently no evidence that suggests cannabis is medically or psychologically helpful for managing ADHD in the long-term.
Cannabis’ increased availability and legalization have increased accessibility; many cannabis products are falsely marketed as medicinal for ADHD.
Also contributing to an increased likelihood of cannabis use and CUD among individuals with ADHD is the prevalence of low self-esteem, sleep problems, poor impulse control, and sensation-seeking tendencies in this population.
How is Cannabis Use Disorder Treated in People with ADHD?
There is no approved medication to treat CUD — treatment generally means teaching patients strategies to maintain sobriety. Treatment can include talk therapies, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and participating in support groups like Marijuana Anonymous.
One small but insightful study looking at motivations to quit cannabis use in a group of adults with ADHD found that saving money was a major contributing factor 16 . The same study found that the most common strategy for maintaining abstinence was breaking social connections with people who smoke marijuana.
Treating and targeting ADHD itself in a patient that has CUD is also essential. Stimulant medication can be implemented as part of ADHD treatment, and it is not considered a violation of sobriety.
How Should a Parent Help a Teen with ADHD Who Is Using Cannabis?
It’s normal for parents to experience a range of emotions after discovering that their child is using cannabis. The initial gut reaction or emotion is understandably anger and disappointment, but it’s best to release these feelings prior to engaging in conversation. Any dialogue with teens must be done in a controlled, calm way — teens will not listen to parents who are yelling and blurting out things they will later regret.
Seeking consultation with a doctor, pediatrician, or therapist who has experience in substance abuse can help, especially for parents who are struggling with their owns feelings and reactions toward their child.
The next step is for parents to educate themselves on cannabis and how it can be appealing. Parents should try to proactively see what their child might be experiencing, and why they might have turned to the substance. When the conversation does start, parents should work deliberately not to shame their child, and instead focus on understanding their child’s experience on cannabis.
Parents should calmly ask questions like:
- “I found this and I’m concerned, but I’d like to know what the appeal of this is for you?”
- “What does this do for you?”
- “How did you feel the very first time that you did this?”
While parents are encouraged to have calm and thoughtful conversations with their teen, they should also set boundaries and consequences for substance use to remind their child that it is not acceptable. Without shaming, parents must establish rules that discourage substance use, especially in the household.
Many parents will say that they would rather have their child smoke in the house than outside with others. But this mentality doesn’t stop teens from smoking or using anywhere else. Instead, allowing at-home use communicates a sense of permission associated with substance use.
If teens say they are simply experimenting, they should know that experimentation can quickly turn into something more dangerous. Parents should inform them that teens with ADHD are at higher risk for addiction. Teens should also be aware, if they aren’t by this point, of any family history of addiction, which also has a genetic component.
Placing limits on smoking can create some backlash. Teens and young adult may be so gripped by the substance they they are willing to lie about using it to parents. Parents should approach their child if they suspect they are using, even after rules are in place, but should keep in mind that this substance, like any, can have people not always be truthful. That’s very different from thinking that their child can’t be trusted and is a liar.
Children should be reminded that they are loved and that their health is most important. Smoking marijuana doesn’t mean that parents have failed or that they’ve done a bad job with their children. There’s a terrible stigma on addiction surrounding character and morality — it’s important to remember that teens aren’t using drugs because they are bad people. Very, very good people are addicted to substances or experiment with them.
The information in this article is based on Dr. Roberto Olivardia’s two-part Marijuana and the ADHD Brain webinar series. The first part, “Marijuana and the ADHD Brain: How to Identify and Treat Cannabis Use Disorder in Teens and Young Adults” was broadcast live on February 26, 2020. “Marijuana and the ADHD Brain, Part 2” was broadcast live on March 26, 2020.
1 Loflin, M. et. al. (2014) Subtypes of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Cannabis Use, Substance Use & Misuse, 49:4, 427-434, DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2013.841251
2 Molina, B. S. et. al. (2013). Adolescent substance use in the multimodal treatment study of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (MTA) as a function of childhood ADHD, random assignment to childhood treatments, and subsequent medication. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 52(3), 250–263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2012.12.014
3 Lee, S. et. al. (2011). Prospective association of childhood attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and substance use and abuse/dependence: a meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 31(3), 328–341. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2011.01.006
4 W. Pedersen, “Does cannabis use lead to mood disorder and suicidal behaviors? A population-based longitudinal study,” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, vol. 118, no. 5, pp. 395–403, 2008.https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0447.2008.01259.x
5 Schmidt, K., Tseng, I., Phan, A., Fong, T., & Tsuang, J. (2020, Feb.). A Systematic Review: Adolescent Cannabis Use and Suicide. Addictive Disorders & Their Treatment. doi: 10.1097/ADT.0000000000000196
6 H. Chabrol, J. D. Mabila, and E. Chauchard, “Influence of cannabis use on suicidal ideations among 491 high-school students,” Encephale, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 270–273, 2008. Doi : 10.1016/j.encep.2007.04.002
7 Raja, M., & Azzoni, A. (2009). Suicidal ideation induced by episodic cannabis use. Case reports in medicine, 2009, 321456. https://doi.org/10.1155/2009/321456
8 Lopez-Quintero, C., et. al. (2011). Probability and predictors of transition from first use to dependence on nicotine, alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine: results of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). Drug and alcohol dependence, 115(1-2), 120–130. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.11.004
9 Volkow, N. D. et. al. (2014). Adverse health effects of marijuana use. The New England journal of medicine, 370(23), 2219–2227. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1402309
10 Meier, M, et. al. (2012). Cannabis use and neuropsychological decline. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (40) E2657-E2664; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1206820109
11 Winters, K. C., & Lee, C. Y. (2008). Likelihood of developing an alcohol and cannabis use disorder during youth: association with recent use and age. Drug and alcohol dependence, 92(1-3), 239–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2007.08.005
12 Kollins, S. et. al. (2015, Jan). An exploratory study of the combined effects of orally administered methylphenidate and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) on cardiovascular function, subjective effects, and performance in healthy adults. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 48(1), 96-103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsat.2014.07.014
13 Volkow, N. D., Wang, G. J., Telang, F., Fowler, J. S., Alexoff, D., Logan, J., Jayne, M., Wong, C., & Tomasi, D. (2014). Decreased dopamine brain reactivity in marijuana abusers is associated with negative emotionality and addiction severity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(30), E3149–E3156. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1411228111
14 Balazs, J., & Kereszteny, A. (2017). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and suicide: A systematic review. World journal of psychiatry, 7(1), 44–59. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v7.i1.44
15 Mitchell, J. T. et. al. (2016). “I Use Weed for My ADHD”: A Qualitative Analysis of Online Forum Discussions on Cannabis Use and ADHD. PloS one, 11(5), e0156614. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0156614
16 Chauchard, E. et. al. (2018). Cannabis Withdrawal in Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Prim Care Companion CNS Disord. 20(1). pii: 17m02203. doi: 10.4088/PCC.17m02203.
Cannabis use disorder uniquely affects people with ADHD. Learn about how marijuana impacts the ADD brain and the risks of abuse.