Can Marijuana Help Manage Depression?


  • Marijuana users are more often diagnosed with depression than non-users
  • Experts say that marijuana use does not cause depression, but share common underlying factors
  • Studies show that marijuana and THC have antidepressant effects
  • More than 1 in 5 medical marijuana patients in the UK use marijuana to treat depression
  • Some studies suggest that THC’s antidepressant effects may be reversed at higher dose – A link between marijuana use and depression is often suggested, as studies show that marijuana users are more likely to suffer from depression.

However, research suggests depression is not directly caused by marijuana use. Instead, experts believe that a common set of genetic and environmental factors may predispose individuals to both depression and marijuana use.

What’s more, a growing body of research suggests that marijuana may be beneficial in the treatment of depression. This is supported by patients themselves, as a survey conducted in 2005 found that 22% of medical marijuana patients in the UK indicated using marijuana for depression.

What is Depression?

Depression (also known as major depression and major depressive disorder) is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest or pleasure in normally enjoyable activities. Depression is just one of many mood disorders that affect the general population, yet commonly go unnoticed. Patients who suffer from depression are believed to have shorter life expectancies than those who don’t and up to 15% of depressed individuals will ultimately commit suicide.

Depression is thought to be caused by low levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Typical treatments for this disorder include antidepressant medications that act to increase levels of neurotransmitters as well as professional counseling. While antidepressants can be effective for patients who suffer from severe forms of depression, they seem to have little to no effect on patients with mild or moderate depression.

How Can Marijuana Help?

Besides the self-reports of patients, scientific evidence also points to the endocannabinoid system – the body’s natural cannabinoid system – as having a therapeutic role in depression.

For example, studies conducted on rodents have linked suppression of endocannabinoid activity to symptoms of major depression, while other studies have found increased endocannabinoid activity to have antidepressant-like effects. However, despite evidence that activating the endocannabinoid system can improve symptoms of depression, studies suggest that THC can have both depressant and antidepressant-like effects, depending on the dose.

Specifically, a study published in 2007 found that low doses of a synthetic form of THC (WIN 55,212-2) raised serotonin levels and produced strong antidepressant-like effects in rats, whereas high doses reversed the effects and worsened depression. However, WIN 55,212-2 is approximately 20 times more potent than THC found in marijuana.

Even still, THC has been found (under certain conditions) to exert antidepressant-like effects in patients suffering from pain associated with cancer and multiple sclerosis as well as improve mood and general well-being in healthy test subjects.

Interestingly, THC has also been shown to increase neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells – much like traditional anti-depressant medications do. Stress and depression are known to decrease neurogenesis, which can also be a side-effect of using alcohol, nicotine, opiates and cocaine.

What This Means For Your Health

Confirmation of marijuana’s potential for treating depression comes from both patient reports and scientific studies. On the other hand, evidence of THC’s seemingly opposite effects on depression are concerning and provide a good argument for choosing strains of medical marijuana that contain lower concentrations of THC.

It’s also important to note that most of the scientific evidence concerning marijuana and depression comes from preclinical studies, meaning that human testing has been very limited. While medical marijuana has not been tested in human subjects directly for the treatment of clinical depression, evidence from aforementioned studies conducted on cancer and MS patients certainly seems to support the use of medical marijuana and other marijuana-based treatments for symptoms of depression.

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