Research on the consequences and effectiveness of using marijuana to treat children, teens, and young adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder continues to evolve.
However, the results are mixed and do not advocate the use of the drug for this condition on a medical basis.
Medical marijuana is still illegal in many states, and research has not proved its suitability for treating attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This article looks at the scientific research and other evidence for and against the potential use of marijuana as a treatment for symptoms of ADHD.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects around 6–9 percent of children and young adults, and about 5 percent of adults, globally.
A person with ADHD might find it hard to focus on tasks, frequently fidget, show signs of restless behavior, and they may be unable to stay still or quiet at appropriate times.
ADHD can lead to people having relationship problems or difficulties with academic work at school and college despite having normal or superior intellectual abilities.
Treatment for ADHD usually involves doctors prescribing stimulant medications, such as Ritalin or Adderall.
These medications are believed to help correct the levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. However, they may have unpleasant side effects.
To avoid these adverse effects, some people with ADHD use marijuana as a treatment option. This is because marijuana is believed to have the same impact on dopamine levels as prescription medications.
However, there remain many unanswered questions about how useful it is, and its safety, especially for children and young people.
Supporters of marijuana often claim it is a safe drug and has no risks of addiction. But opponents call it a "gateway drug," potentially leading to the use of other drugs, and they claim it is more dangerous than some realize.
Marijuana is one of the most commonly used recreational drugs in the U.S. and is popular among younger adults. Most people smoke or eat the plant to produce a "high."
In recent years, marijuana has made news as an alternative treatment for a variety of health conditions, including pain and mental health problems.
Despite these facts, questions and doubts remain.
A study of 268 separate online discussion threads reported that 25 percent of people said they believed that marijuana had a positive role to play in ADHD symptom management. The study points out, however, that research proving a connection between marijuana the management of ADHD is limited.
Some schools of thought suggest that ADHD migt stem from a lack of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain.
As a neurotransmitter, dopamine is a chemical that transmits signals between nerve cells in the brain. Dopamine is believed to affect thought processes, including memory and attention.
Substances in recreational drugs, such as marijuana, lead to the production of more dopamine in the reward center of the brain.
The brain's reward center gives an individual a pleasant sensation when they use marijuana and other drugs. However, this cycle of recreational drug use and increased dopamine can lead to the development of dependence.
Nature journal published a study in 2017 that discusses the dopamine-releasing action of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an active chemical component in marijuana, and the source of its pleasure sensation. The researchers advised that THC boosts short-term dopamine levels but may dull the system that releases dopamine long-term.
This varying effect suggests that even if marijuana provides short-term symptom relief, better focus, or sedation for people with ADHD, longer-term use may result in more harm than good.
However, in the journal Brain, an imaging study by researchers at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom disputed the connection between ADHD and dopamine. They, instead, related ADHD to the structure of the gray matter in the brain.
One trial from 2017 tested a cannabinoid medication on people with ADHD. While the participant number was small and the findings were not statistically significant, the results did show small improvements in ADHD symptoms. The results also suggested that adults who take cannabinoids for ADHD experience the side effects less than children.
A further review of available clinical evidence on marijuana cited a case that — although not involving ADHD — showed that a child with autistic spectrum disorder had improved hyperactivity levels after receiving a cannabidiol treatment.
However, other research shows a relationship between marijuana dependence and ADHD.
One study of 99 people seeking treatment for cannabis use disorders showed an estimated ADHD prevalence of between 34 and 46 percent.
Overall, research seems to indicate that, although marijuana seems to alleviate certain short-term effects of ADHD, it may present a heightened risk of dependence and might even make ADHD worse.
Is medical marijuana available for ADHD?
People who use marijuana as a treatment for ADHD often self-medicate, which means a doctor does not prescribe or recommend the marijuana they take.
The evidence for medical professionals to recommend or prescribe marijuana as an active treatment for ADHD is not compelling enough at present.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warn that some research suggests there are long-term, negative effects of using marijuana, especially on the brain during early development. These effects include:
- slowing cognitive development in children and adolescents
- increasing risk of depression, anxiety, psychosis, and other mood disorders
- loss of IQ points, although others have disputed these findings
- attention, learning, memory, and other brain function problems
Concerned parties have also reported that substance use disorders often occur with ADHD.
Because of these concerns and potential harm, people with ADHD should be cautious about taking marijuana, mainly as doctors are unable to advise on safe doses.
The current situation suggests more research is needed to prove that marijuana is a safe and effective treatment for ADHD.
Can children with ADHD be treated with medical marijuana?
Mounting evidence suggests that the potential side effects from using marijuana are worse in children and that these adverse effects may outweigh any potential benefits.
The brain of a child is still developing, and using marijuana may alter normal neurological development, leading to harmful cognitive and other effects.
Children and teens that use marijuana may also be more likely to develop dependency.
According to the NIDA, those who start using marijuana before they are 18 years old are four to seven times more likely than others to develop a problem with the drug.
Marijuana use can also lead people to develop addictions to other, more harmful substances.
One 2016 study showed that across a 3-year period, development of alcohol use dependence was more likely among cannabis users than those who were not users.
Some people defend the use of marijuana in children with ADHD, based on anecdotal evidence from their personal experience. They may have observed a child or adolescent responding well, with a reduction of ADHD symptoms.
But more evidence is needed to prove that marijuana is safe for children and adults to use.
Until then, treating children with marijuana and cannabis products continues to carry risks.
Does marijuana interact with available ADHD treatments?
Methylphenidate (MPH) is an ADHD medication that researchers tested for interactions with smoked marijuana.
The results showed that the two substances interacted significantly and can increase strain on the heart.
Currently, researchers believe that treating ADHD with marijuana can cause short-term improvements in symptoms but potentially serves to make the underlying disorder worse.
For an ongoing behavioral disorder such as ADHD, people should ensure that they understand the long-term effects of any treatment before they start it.
Should I self-medicate for ADHD by smoking marijuana?
At the present time, there is a lack of sufficient evidence to suggest that marijuana may help with ADHD symptoms.
For many years, researchers did not conduct studies involving marijuana, but now this trend is reversing. I think that, in the years to come, we will see more well-constructed studies that will provide us with significant evidence one way or the other.Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.