Fraser Horton
Fraser Horton
Last Updated on August 1, 2021

The era of cannabis legalization has brought a lot of new cannabis products on the market as well as new ways to use medical cannabis as a treatment option for various conditions. The effects of marijuana have been used for treating medical conditions like chronic pain, epilepsy, insomnia, and others. Medical professionals and scientists are continuously researching how cannabis may help treat or ameliorate a lot of other health conditions apart from the ones mentioned above, one of them being ADHD.

As the cannabis market expands and weed is widely available around the US, a lot of adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are starting to self-medicate with cannabis. According to anecdotal evidence, cannabis may become a viable treatment option for ADHD and one of its subtypes, which is why self-medicating specifically for this condition is on the rise.

To find out all the relevant information on the use of marijuana in individuals with ADHD, as well as the side effects of weed compared to traditional ADHD medication, read on.

What Is ADHD?

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders in childhood which can continue into adulthood. Children with ADHD struggle with paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors, and/or excessive energy levels, while adults with ADHD may have trouble focusing their attention on one task and sitting still for longer periods of time.

Signs and Symptoms

While it’s normal for young children to be all over the place and never get tired even after playing for a few hours, kids suffering from ADHD don’t grow out of these behaviors. Common ADHD symptoms include:

  • Being socially awkward;
  • Inattention;
  • Impulsivity;
  • Hyperactivity;
  • Poor judgment.

You can find three different types of ADHD, depending on which symptoms are the most prevalent:

  • Predominantly inattentive presentation – the person is easily distracted and unable to finish a task.
  • Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive presentation – the person fidgets, talks a lot, and is unable to sit still for long periods of time. Impulsive people like these are more prone to accidents and injuries. 
  • Combined presentation – the symptoms of both types are equally present in the person. (Loflin et al, 2014)

People with ADHD may have a prevalence of low self-esteem, poor impulse control, sensation-seeking tendencies, and sleep problems, which may further lead them to cannabis use.

Laws and Research

Marijuana is still illegal at a federal level in the US, although more and more laws are passed each year that allow the use of marijuana for certain medical conditions and diseases. Marijuana use for individuals who are diagnosed with ADHD is still illegal across the US as ADHD isn’t considered a qualifying condition for a medical marijuana prescription in any state.

Does Marijuana Have Benefits for ADHD?

The effects of cannabis on ADHD patients have been thoroughly researched in numerous studies and talked about in multiple online health forums. Below, we’ll give you an overview of the most important articles, studies, and expert opinions related to ADHD and whether marijuana use can aid ADHD.

ADHD and Cannabis Use

  • Online forums and threads give anecdotal evidence that cannabis use can be therapeutic for ADHD patients. Only a small percentage of posts reported negative effects. (Mitchell et al, 2016) 
  • Dr. Jack McCue, a physician, author, and professor of medicine at the University of California, claims that the patients he’s been seeing report that marijuana use may be helpful for hyperactivity and impulsivity in patients with ADHD symptoms. Moreover, cannabis may have fewer side effects compared to other ADHD medications.
  • Dr. Elizabeth Evans, a psychiatrist and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center, described that several demographic surveys and reports have described marijuana as helpful for managing inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

CBD and ADHD

Cannabidiol is also marketed as an alternative treatment for people with ADHD. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD doesn’t give users psychoactive effects, but it relaxes them and provides anti-anxiety and antipsychotic effects instead. However, there are no large-scale clinical trials that focus on whether CBD can help with ADHD.

Limitations for Using Marijuana as a Treatment Option for ADHD

Long-term marijuana use may have effects on physical abilities, thinking abilities, overall development, and the likeliness of developing a cannabis use disorder.

Brain and Body Development

Long-term use of marijuana can lead to complications like:

A study showed that people with ADHD who use cannabis have worse verbal, memory, cognitive, and decision making skills compared to people who don’t use it. Young adults below the age of 16 are especially impacted. (Tamm et al, 2013)

ADHD and Marijuana Dependence, Cannabis Use Disorder, and Substance Use Disorder

  • People diagnosed with ADHD between 7-9 years are more likely to report cannabis use in the future. Moreover, people with ADHD are three times as likely to report cannabis use compared with people who don’t have ADHD. (Lee et al, 2011)
  • People with ADHD diagnosed as children are more likely to develop cannabis use disorder (CUD). About 46 percent of people who are seeking treatment for CUD also have ADHD. (Notzon et al, 2017)
  • People with ADHD are very likely to develop a substance use disorder and misuse other substances apart from cannabis. They’re more likely to misuse alcohol compared to individuals without either condition. (Weinberger et al, 2016; Zulauf et al, 2015)

Cannabis and ADHD Medications

The general treatment for ADHD aims to increase the amounts of specific chemicals in the brain. Since ADHD happens as a result of fewer neurotransmitters in the brain, ADHD medication is used to increase the levels. 

Popular stimulant medications used to treat ADHD are:

  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin, Concerta);
  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine);
  • Dextroamphetamine-amphetamine (Adderall).

However, medication alone isn’t enough to treat ADHD symptoms, therefore patients may also undergo behavioral therapy or anger management therapy.

While stimulant medications can be safely and effectively used for ADHD, patients with substance use disorders should be monitored by a licensed doctor. In some cases, ADHD medicine causes side effects like weight loss, irritability, and sleep disturbances, which is why some users turn to cannabis as a stimulant for the neurotransmitters like dopamine, norepinephrine, and others. (Kollins et al, 2016; Bloomfield et al, 2017)

Can Kids With ADHD Be Treated With Medical Marijuana?

While a lot of adults with ADHD self-medicate with cannabis, children using medical marijuana as a treatment option may not be a good choice. The brains of children and young adults are still developing – therefore, consuming cannabis may alter their brain development and cause cognitive impairment. Studies even showed that the adverse effects in children are greater than the potential benefits when it comes to treating ADHD with cannabis. (Campbell et al, 2017; Cooper et al, 2017; NIDA 2018)

Risks of Treating Children That Suffer From ADHD With Medical Cannabis

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has made research regarding the long-term negative effects of cannabis use on early brain development. The effects of the research show that cannabis use in children with ADHD may cause:

  • Slower cognitive development among children and adolescents;
  • Increased risk of depression, psychosis, anxiety;
  • Problems with attention, memory, learning, and other brain function problems.

More research is needed before marijuana is considered an effective treatment for ADHD, and scientists are focusing on getting more information on the subject. 

However, the short-term and long-term consequences of cannabis use are undisputed, and they affect:

  • A person’s motivation;
  • Memory (by altering the function of the hippocampus and orbitofrontal cortex);
  • Performing complicated tasks;
  • Driving ability.

To Sum It Up

Since ADHD isn’t listed as a condition that’s eligible for medical marijuana patients on a federal level, cannabis use for managing ADHD symptoms is still considered illegal. Moreover, some of the traditional ADHD medications may interact with cannabis and limit the effects of the medications.

While a lot of online forums have anecdotal evidence on cannabis helping them with their ADHD symptoms, your best bet is to talk to a licensed doctor who can weigh in the pros and cons of cannabis therapy for ADHD.

Additional Sources

Loflin, M., Earleywine, M., De Leo, J., & Hobkirk, A. (2014). Subtypes of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and cannabis use. Substance use & misuse, 49(4), 427–434. https://doi.org/10.3109/10826084.2013.841251

Mitchell, J. T. Sweitzer, M. M., Tunno, A. M., Kollins, S. H., and McClernon, F. J. (2016, May 26). “I use weed for my ADHD”: A qualitative analysis of online forum discussions on cannabis use and ADHD. PLoS One, 11(5), e0156614 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4882033/

Tamm, L., Epstein, J. N., Lisdahl, K. M., Molina, B., Tapert, S., Hinshaw, S. P., Arnold, L. E., Velanova, K., Abikoff, H., Swanson, J. M., & MTA Neuroimaging Group (2013). Impact of ADHD and cannabis use on executive functioning in young adults. Drug and alcohol dependence, 133(2), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2013.08.001

Lee, S. S., Humphreys, K. L., Flory, K., Liu, R., & Glass, K. (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

Notzon, D. P., Pavlicova, M., Glass, A., Mariani, J. J., Mahony, A. L., Brooks, D. J., & Levin, F. R. (2017, September 30). ADHD Is highly prevalent in patients seeking treatment for cannabis use disorders. Journal of Attention Disorders, 1087054716640109 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5568505

Weinberger, A. H, Platt, J., & Goodwin, R. D. (2016, February). Is cannabis use associated with an increased risk of onset and persistence of alcohol use disorders? A three-year prospective study among adults in the United States [Abstract]. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 161, 363-367 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26875671

Zulauf, C. A., Sprich, S. E., Safren, S. A., & Wilens, T. E. (2015, April 29). The complicated relationship between attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and substance use disorders. Current Psychiatry Reports, 16(3), 436 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4414493/

Kollins, S. H., Schoenfelder, E. N., English, J. S., Holdaway, A., Van Voorhees, E., O’Brien, B. R., … Chrisman, A. K. (2016, January 1). 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://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4250392/

Bloomfield, M. A. P., Ashok, A. H., Volkow, N. D., & Howes, O. D. (2017, May 16). The effects of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol on the dopamine system. Nature, 539(7629), 369–377 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123717/

Campbell, C. T., Phillips, M. S., & Manasco, K. (2017, May–June). Cannabinoids in pediatrics. Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology, 22(3), 176–185 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5473390/

Cooper, R. E., Williams, E., Seegobin, S., Tye, C., Kuntsi, J., & Asherson, P. (2017, August). Cannabinoids in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A randomised-controlled trial [Abstract]. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 27(8), 795–808 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28576350

Is marijuana addictive? (NIDA 2018, June) https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-addictive

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