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As the school year gets underway, many children, teens, and college students will struggle with sitting in class and paying attention. Others will look for a way, at whatever possible cost, to pull “all-nighters” and remain alert for heavy class loads. Some of these students may just be bored or overloaded with work, of course, but many of them are struggling with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity that usually becomes apparent around age 7 and often lasts into adulthood. While most families and college students reach for a pharmaceutical solution, those concerned with effects of giving these drugs to children and young adults have started seeking alternatives. One of these, perhaps surprisingly, is medical cannabis. How might cannabis help ADHD? Let’s take a look at the evidence.
The Current Situation
ADHD is on the rise—a recent CDC study says 11 percent of school-aged children have received a diagnosis. Whether the increase is due to more children having ADHD or better diagnostic criteria is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: more and more kids are taking drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that 43 percent of children treat ADHD with medication alone, and another 31 percent combine medication and behavioral therapy. That’s around 4.7 million children on these pharmaceuticals.
ADHD is usually treated with central-nervous-system stimulants (or, less commonly, nonstimulants that affect norepinephrine and/or dopamine levels) and behavioral therapy. ADHD drugs can be very effective, but they often come with undesirable side effects including stunted growth, loss of appetite, sleep problems, headaches, stomachaches, tics, and emotional extremes. And some doctors believe these meds aren’t really helping in the long run.
“Attention-deficit drugs increase concentration in the short term, which is why they work so well for college students cramming for exams. But when given to children over long periods of time, they neither improve school achievement nor reduce behavior problems,” writes L. Alan Sroufe, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development, in an op-ed for the New York Times. “To date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems, the very things we would most want to improve.”
COULD CANNABIS HELP ADHD?
While most people react to stimulants by becoming more energetic, ADHD brains have the opposite reaction—stimulants calm them down. Most ADHD drugs work by freeing up dopamine in the brain, which helps regulate behavior and focus attention. But there’s a safer substance that also increases dopamine levels: cannabis.
David Bearman, MD, a leading medical cannabis physician, explains, “Cannabis appears to treat ADD and ADHD by increasing the availability of dopamine. This then has the same effect but is a different mechanism of action than stimulants like Ritalin (methylphenidate) and Dexedrine (1) amphetamine which act by binding to the
dopamine and interfering with the metabolic breakdown of dopamine. Cannabis (THC) is an anandamide agonist that is it stimulates the anandamide (CB1) receptor sites.” Dr. Bearman hypothesizes that the anandamide—sometimes called the “bliss chemical”—slows down the rate of neurotransmission, and that stimulating anandamide receptors also stimulates Renshaw cells, which turn off some cells that provide sensory input. The overall effect would be to increase the ability to regulate behavior and reduce the overstimulation that causes ADHD brains to become distracted.
Getting the medical establishment to consider cannabis as an alternative treatment is an uphill battle. Studies consistently show that those with ADHD have higher rates of substance abuse, especially alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. Most doctors simply assume that the higher rates of marijuana use are signs of addictive behavior, not of self-treatment.
“The preponderance of studies show marijuana use is overwhelmingly prevalent with ADHD sufferers, either as a self-medication or for recreation,” explains Dr. Bearman. “While some apply preconceptions that marijuana exacerbates ADHD almost all California cannabinologists believe cannabis and cannabinoids have substantially improved the lives of ADHD sufferers, and with less negative side effects than common stimulant drug ADHD treatments.”
Dr. Bearman has reported tremendous success treating his ADHD patients with medicinal cannabis. “Almost universally ADHD patients who therapeutically used cannabis reported it helped them pay attention in lecture, focus their attention instead of thinking of several ideas almost at the same time, helped them to stay on task and do their homework.”
So far, no scientific research has been performed to determine whether and how cannabis can help ADHD. As with so many ailments that could be potentially helped with medical cannabis, it hasn’t received the serious consideration it deserves because the legal landscape makes studying cannabis so difficult.
HOW DO I TRY MEDICAL CANNABIS FOR ADHD?
If you have ADHD, or if you have a child with ADHD, you may want to explore cannabis as an alternative treatment to stimulants. ADHD is generally not a condition that’s specifically listed for treatment with medical cannabis, so if you live in a state with strict limitations, you won’t be able to get a recommendation. Find out your state’s laws here.
Your best bet if you need to travel to try it is to head to the Golden State. California’s medical marijuana law currently allows treatment of any illness “for which marijuana provides relief,” and you do not need to be a California resident to get access to medical cannabis.
Navigating the system, finding a doctor who has proper knowledge and experience, and locating the right medicine can be daunting—it was that exact plight that inspired us to found United Patients Group. If you are seeking more information and guidance on how to try this treatment, we are here for you. Set up a consultation, and we’ll guide you to the medical professionals and cannabinoid medicine producers who can help.
And, as always, we love hearing stories of patient experiences. Have you or someone you know tried cannabis for ADHD? Was it helpful? What advice would you give to someone who’s considering it? Please share your story in the comments below.