Marijuana and ADHD: The 2019 Facts


  • ADHD affects up to 9% of children and 5% of adults
  • ADHD is commonly treated with stimulants, such as Ritalin and Vyvanse
  • Marijuana works similarly by raising dopamine levels in the brain
  • Studies suggest medical marijuana may be an effective alternative
  • Some doctors have already begun prescribing marijuana to patients with ADHD
ADHD affects 5% of adults but is mostly diagnosed in children – Irritability, anxiety, depression, insomnia and mood swings. These problems may seem like just a part of everyday life for some people, but they also happen to be symptoms of a condition known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

While ADHD remains a controversial topic in today’s society, scientific research continues to show that ADHD is a very real disorder that can lead to a number of health and social problems when left untreated. Interestingly, research also shows that many patients with ADHD have a tendency to self-medicate through a variety of harmful substances and behaviors.

Is marijuana just another one of these substances? Perhaps not, according to research which suggests medical marijuana might actually be effective in treating this common disorder.

What is ADHD?

ADHD (also known as ADD) is a behavioral disorder that is estimated to affect 6-9% of school children and 5% of adults. ADHD encompasses a wide range of symptoms, which lead to impairments in daily functioning. A large portion of ADHD patients also seem to suffer from other neurological disorders, including bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.

Interestingly, studies show that up to 85% of adolescents with a substance abuse problem suffer from an underlying mental condition and that ADHD patients seems to suffer from substance problems the most. People with ADHD are sometimes referred to as having an ‘addictive personality’ because of this.

The tendency for addiction in ADHD patients can easily be explained by research that finds low dopamine levels to be the underlying cause of this disorder. While stimulant medications – such as Ritalin and Vyvanse – act to directly increase levels of dopamine within the brain, research has shown that most recreational drugs can increase dopamine levels as well, including alcohol, tobacco, cocaine and marijuana.

On the other hand, marijuana has a relatively slight effect on dopamine, which is a probable explanation for its low potential for addiction – studies show that only 1 in 10 marijuana users will eventually develop a dependency.

How Can Marijuana Help?

Research on the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of ADHD is very limited. However, a number of health professionals have recently come out in support for the use of marijuana as a treatment for this disorder, claiming that it is safer and less addictive than traditional stimulant medications.

Doctors who have prescribed cannabis as a non-conventional treatment, such as California paediatrician Dr. Claudia Jensen, have found that it can indeed help patients with managing symptoms of ADHD.

“They don’t have to get stoned – it’s dose-related. But they do get the benefit of being able to focus, pay attention, not be impulsive, not be angry, be peaceful and relaxed and pay attention in school, which helps them get better grades.” – Dr. Claudia Jensen

Interesting enough, while marijuana is known to cause loss of focus and increased impulsivity in recreational users, those with ADHD seem to experience the opposite effect. Unfortunately, a lack of clinical studies prevents most doctors from considering marijuana as a treatment option.

Watch Dr. Claudia Jensen’s interview with MSNBC:

What’s The Evidence?

While studies have yet to be conducted on human subjects with ADHD, a number of preclinical studies provide evidence of marijuana’s potential as a treatment for this disorder.

The strongest evidence comes from research which shows that the endocannabinoid system can influence dopamine levels in the brain and that this interaction might actually be altered in patients with ADHD. Specifically, a study published in 2009 found that anandamide levels – one of the cannabinoids that are naturally found in humans – were higher in patients with ADHD.

This seems to indicate that the human body may naturally produce more endocannabinoids in an attempt to counter the symptoms of ADHD, leading researchers to believe that the endocannabinoid system could be effectively targeted in the treatment of this disorder.

Likewise, researchers have long been aware that marijuana acts to temporarily increase dopamine. Compounds in marijuana seem to do this by interacting with dopamine binding sites, which are found on various neurons in the brain. Commonly prescribed stimulants, such as Ritalin and Vyvanse, work in a similar way to increase dopamine.

Besides raising dopamine levels, studies show that cannabinoid receptors are found in higher densities in areas of the brain that are linked to symptoms of ADHD, specifically the amygdala and hippocampus regions. These regions of the brain are known to play a role in emotional regulation and memory as well as bipolar, anxiety and depression disorders.

In fact, there is strong evidence that compounds in marijuana, including THC and CBD, have anti-anxiety and anti-depressant properties, which suggests marijuana may help with the symptoms of anxiety and depression that ADHD patients often suffer from.

What This Means For Your Health

While research on medical marijuana and ADHD is still in its early stages, the fact remains that patients with ADHD have a higher tendency to abuse drugs, marijuana included. Furthermore, there are a number of doctors who have already begun to prescribe medical marijuana as a treatment for this disorder, suggesting that preclinical studies provide enough evidence to satisfy the minds of at least some health professionals.

It’s also interesting to note that prescription ADHD medications have been met with controversy ever since they were introduced to the market, due to their numerous side-effects as well as studies that demonstrate long-term use to be ineffective. In fact, a study published in 2012 by Dr. Katya Rubia and her team of researchers found that the brain can adapt to regular use of stimulants by increasing the rate of dopamine elimination, which explains why patients frequently require higher doses as their treatment progresses.

“There is currently no evidence for the long-term effectiveness of stimulant medication. In fact, there is evidence that the effect of medication diminishes over time and we know from clinicians that medication doses often need to be increased over time to be as effective as they were initially.” – Dr. Katya Rubia

The fact that children are the most likely to be diagnosed with ADHD is perhaps the largest concern for parents and doctors alike regarding the use of stimulant medications. The brain experiences rapid development before adulthood and is highly susceptible to alterations during this time. While studies have identified the specific alterations that result from the use of stimulant medications, evidence of marijuana’s effects on the developing brain are less pronounced.

For this reason, doctors are sometimes willing to prescribe medical marijuana for ADHD as a safer alternative to conventional forms of therapy.

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