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?
Experts Weigh In: Marijuana and ADHD
Marijuana and ADHD—it’s a topic that can be both controversial and confusing for parents. Can marijuana help kids with ADHD (also known as ADD), or does it make symptoms worse? What about cannabis-related products like CBD oil?
Read what three experts have to say about marijuana and ADHD.
Can marijuana help with ADHD?
Elizabeth Harstad, pediatrician: There’s no evidence that using marijuana can help with ADHD symptoms. In fact, studies show it can worsen executive function and working memory . These are areas where kids with ADHD struggle. Neither medical marijuana, nor street marijuana, which is usually stronger and may contain other chemicals, should be used to treat ADHD.
It’s also important to know that marijuana may counter the benefits of ADHD medication. And kids using marijuana are less likely to keep up with their medication.
Stephanie Sarkis, licensed and board-certified mental health counselor: Studies have found marijuana decreases executive function when you have ADHD. It can cause you to have a harder time focusing. It can impact your ability to get started on tasks or manage time. Even short-term use has this effect.
What I do see is that more of my teen and adult patients with ADHD and anxiety use marijuana. They report it helps reduce their anxiety. However, based on assessments, their executive function performance has also decreased.
The effect on anxiety is mixed, as well. Using marijuana seems to reduce anxiety for some. But it can result in more anxiety, including paranoia, for others.
Thomas Brown, clinical psychologist: There is no scientific evidence that ADHD symptoms can be relieved by using marijuana. And there is evidence that it can make symptoms worse. That’s particularly true for younger teens and if marijuana use is frequent. Frequent use also can lead to not caring enough about things that are important to care about, like schoolwork, for example.
What is cannabidiol (CBD) oil, and can it help with ADHD?
Thomas Brown: Cannabis is the plant that marijuana comes from. One product from the same plant is cannabidiol (CBD) oil. It doesn’t have THC, which is the psychoactive chemical in marijuana that makes you feel “high.” Using CBD oil is different than smoking marijuana.
There’s no evidence that CBD oil can help with ADHD. Ongoing research is testing whether CBD may help to improve some other disorders. However, right now there isn’t enough evidence to show that it’s safe or effective.
It is important to be clear that CBD oil is not the same as hashish oil. The latter has very high THC content. It is usually heated and smoked in a process called “dabbing.” Hashish oil is extremely addictive and harmful to health.
Elizabeth Harstad: There is no good medical evidence showing that CBD oil should be used to treat ADHD, and it may be harmful.
Stephanie Sarkis: Some people report that CBD seems to help with their ADHD. However, this appears to be caused, in part, by the placebo effect. The mind has a lot of power over the body. If you think something might work well for you, there is a pretty good chance that it will.
It’s kind of like when your mom put a menthol rub like Vicks on your chest when you had a cold. There are no inherent healing properties to it, but it sure made you feel better. That’s the placebo effect at work.
What should I do if I suspect my child is smoking marijuana?
Thomas Brown: Parents should be aware that marijuana is used by significant numbers of middle and high school students. So it can be helpful to have a conversation about it with your child—even a young teen.
Talk about what your child is hearing about “weed” from other kids and how to respond to any opportunities to use it. Help your child understand that having or consuming marijuana by smoking or in “edibles” is against the law for minors, even in states where it may be legal for adults.
If you know your child is using marijuana, don’t ignore it. Approach your child and explain that it can worsen ADHD symptoms. Talk about how it can cancel out the benefits of ADHD medication. And discuss how frequent use can lower motivation and the ability to do well in school. If the problem persists, consult your pediatrician or a mental health professional to get some help.
Stephanie Sarkis: If you suspect that your child is smoking marijuana, it’s important to be up-front and ask. Honest, open communication works wonders. Find a time to talk to your kid when you both are not rushed and are really able to talk.
It’s also important to be compassionate. When kids and adults have brain-based issues like ADHD, depression and anxiety, they may look for a way to self-medicate. Your child may be smoking marijuana to try to fix what he knows isn’t working well.
In my practice, I give my teen and adult patients executive function tests. When they see how much marijuana decreases their executive function performance compared to before use, they’re often surprised. It helps them understand the impact.
Elizabeth Harstad: One thing to know is that the marijuana people used 10 or 20 years ago is very different from what’s available now. It’s much more potent today.
The risks here are very real. People with ADHD are 2.5 times more likely to develop a substance abuse problem. That may be with alcohol, marijuana or another drug. If kids start using marijuana at a young age, it’s even more likely. If you know or suspect your child is using marijuana, it’s important to intervene.
More Things You Can Do
You can also read about what to do if your teen stops talking to you. And consider joining one of our secure, online community groups, where you can connect with other parents of kids with ADHD.
About the Author
About the Author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
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Experts Weigh In: Marijuana and ADHD Marijuana and ADHD—it’s a topic that can be both controversial and confusing for parents. Can marijuana help kids with ADHD (also known as ADD), or does it