With cannabis often touted as an effective treatment measure for mental illness, the question arises of whether or not it can help with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While a condition often associated with children, ADHD is also a struggle for many adults, with one report claiming its prevalence is around 4.4% among people ages 18 to 44.1¹ With such high statistics, it’s only natural that many out there seek alternative pathways that don’t involve synthetic pharmaceuticals.However, when it comes to using cannabis for ADHD, the details of this conversation become tricky. For one, there’s only so much research concerning this topic. Secondly (and more importantly), while cannabis may be able to help with specific symptoms of ADHD, it can also cause further complications.Throughout this article, we’ll examine the relationship between ADHD and cannabis. We’ll go over the current evidence surrounding this topic, along with some advice for adults seeking to use cannabis as a form of treatment.
What is ADHD?
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a mental health condition characterized by inattention and hyperactivity. These characteristics interfere with daily functions, making even simple tasks all the more difficult. ²Three patterns characterize ADHD symptoms:
A person with ADHD may struggle with just one pattern type, a collection of two, or all three. To get a clearer idea of how each type affects a person – and, subsequently, the effects cannabis will have on each type – we’re going to take a look at them separately.
When a person finds it difficult to maintain focus, remain organized, and keep on track for a specific task. Symptoms that occur for people of this type include:
Appearing not to listen when spoken to
Avoiding tasks that require continued mental effort
Difficulty in following instructions
Difficulty sustaining attention (i.e. during a conversation)
Easily distracted•Forgetful in daily activities
Often losing things required for tasks (i.e. school supplies)
Overlooking or missing details
Hyperactivity and Impulsivity
While technically different pattern types of ADHD, hyperactivity, and impulsivity have plenty of overlapping characteristics. To better define each individually:
Hyperactivity is when a person is constantly moving around, noticeably in situations that are inappropriate, such as when speaking.
Impulsivity is when a person acts without thought and has difficulty with their self-control. A notable attribute of this pattern type is the person’s desire for immediate rewards and difficulty in delaying gratification.
People of either hyperactive or impulsive pattern types will showcase the following symptoms:
Constantly in motion
Difficulty waiting for one’s turn
Fidgeting and squirming
Inability to sit down for prolonged periods
Quick to speaking (i.e. answering before a question is finished)
Running, dashing, or climbing at inappropriate times
Unable to quietly engage in a hobby
Can You Use Cannabis for ADHD?
With titles like hyperactivity, it may appear as though cannabis can help to “chill out” some of the complications caused by ADHD. However, the relationship between the condition and marijuana is much more complicated.To begin, cannabis use among people with ADHD is quite common. One report revealed that those diagnosed with ADHD are three times more likely to consume cannabis.³ Another report found about one-third of adolescents with ADHD also use cannabis.
However, these consumption rates don’t indicate the therapeutic effects cannabis has on people with ADHD. In fact, the conclusion was that people with ADHD are more likely to develop a cannabis use disorder.One of the reasons for this may be related to how cannabis affects the brain. More specifically, cannabis’s effects on areas of the brain are already affected by ADHD.
Research has observed that people with ADHD already have a brain development delay.5 This leads to slower maturation of the frontal lobe, an area heavily affected by the psychoactive substance in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).Such effects may lead to short-term improvement in ADHD symptoms. More specifically, people with ADHD who consume cannabis may find it easier to focus, sleep, or allow thought patterns to come at a slower pace.
However, since these effects are short-term, it’s difficult for medical professionals to understand the long-term effects cannabis has on those with ADHD. Namely, because there’s currently no evidence for this, and due to this lack of evidence, it’s speculated cannabis may be doing more harm than good.
Evidence That Cannabis May Be Harmful for ADHD
When we consume THC, it inhibits our neuronal connections. In turn, this slows down signaling processes in the brain.6Furthermore, THC will influence the brain’s dendrite structure.7 This is important for control processes, learning, and overall brain health – all of which are already inhibited by ADHD.8With that in mind, both short-term and long-term cannabis use may cause the following complications in those with ADHD:
Memory (notably in individuals under 25)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)Admittedly, cannabis can assist in some of these disorders. Therefore, people with comorbid conditions may feel some relief when using cannabis.However, cannabis also holds the potential to worsen these conditions. Leading some people with ADHD to also experience paranoia, panic, and mood disorders.10Cannabis and ADHD MedicationSince most people with ADHD are on some form of medication, it’s also worth briefly discussing the interactions between these pharmaceuticals and cannabis.
To begin, it’s worth noting that the purpose of ADHD medication is to improve attention by aiding in the performance of brain chemicals. The two chemicals directly targeted are dopamine and norepinephrine.¹¹Since THC also affects these chemicals, it may inhibit the medication’s ability to aid someone with ADHD.Still, ADHD medication comes with a handful of unwanted side effects. The most common being:¹²
High blood pressure
Loss of appetite
Stimulated heart rate
Admittedly, cannabis may help improve some of these side effects, as discussed above, and will be seen in the studies below. Still, if cannabis inhibits the effects of ADHD medication, it becomes difficult to measure how much it’s helping. The lack of research on this topic further hinders this discussion.
What Does the Research Say?
As mentioned, research concerning cannabis and ADHD is limited. Still, we have a few studies that we can consider for this discussion:
In a 2016 research report, a number of online forums were analyzed concerning self-reports of people with ADHD using cannabis. It found that 25% found cannabis to have some therapeutic effect. ¹³- From this report, it was also found that 8% reported negative effects, 5% saw both positive and negative effects, and 2% saw no effects from marijuana consumption.
In a 2022 study, 3 patients with ADHD added cannabis to their treatment regimen, and the results of this were recorded. The study found that cannabis could improve symptoms and quality of life, allow patients to keep emotions in check, and ease job performance. 14
A 2021 study concerning 1,738 students in an online survey concluded that cannabis relieved side effects experienced by ADHD medication.15It’s also worth noting that cannabidiol (CBD) has been promoted to relieve ADHD symptoms. However, as of now, no large-scale clinical studies are looking into CBD and ADHD symptoms.
Bottomline: Cannabis Likely Isn’t Effective for ADHD
While there’s certainly evidence to suggest cannabis can help with some aspects of ADHD, it’s likely not an effective substance for long-term treatment. With all the research we’ve discussed, cannabis appears to have more negative effects than positive ones.Still, this isn’t to suggest people with ADHD should avoid cannabis altogether. When consumed recreationally and in smaller quantities, cannabis likely won’t significantly affect the individual.When cannabis use is long-term and chronic, people with ADHD will likely experience more consequences than positives.With that said, if you plan on using cannabis for ADHD, it’s highly recommended you consult a doctor before doing so. They will better understand your situation and how cannabis may or may not benefit you.