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?