Can you really treat depression and anxiety with cannabis?
By Andrew Ward
Anxiety and depression are all too common in the world. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million American adults, or 18.1 percent of the population, are affected each year. As such, people suffering from an anxiety disorder are more likely to go to a hospital at a rate of three to five times more than others. A variety of factors can lead to the development of such a case. This includes genetics, personality, and life events.
Despite just about every person being susceptible to the condition, only 36.9 percent of anxiety disorders receive treatment.
That figure may be a bit lower than the actual number of people receiving self-medicated treatment. In recent years, cannabis has represented a favorite, mostly non-addictive option for those medicating, with or without a medical card. That said, “mostly” should be highlighted in the last sentence as cannabis use is not a surefire, across the board solution for people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders.
Despite studies on the subject existing, the issue is like most others in cannabis, where it currently lacks enough data for conclusive findings. Over the years, clinical support for cannabis use to treat anxiety and depression has wavered depending on the study.
The Center for Disease Control‘s information unsurprisingly walks the government line. It states that marijuana can lead to an array of adverse effects from disorientation to suicide. Though, in the latter’s case, the CDC does note that a link between its use and grave self-harm is not established.
Most published studies are likely to mention that cannabis and mood disorders are both incredibly complex. Dr. Susan A. Stoner (yes, really), discussed the complexity of the two in a June 2017 study, noting just some of the vast factors involving the two.
“The endocannabinoid system appears to play an important role in responses to stress and anxiety. The two primary active ingredients of marijuana, THC and CBD, appear to have differing effects with regard to anxiety. Pure THC appears to decrease anxiety at lower doses and increase anxiety at higher doses. On the other hand, pure CBD appears to decrease anxiety at all doses that have been tested. There appears to be tolerance to these effects over a short period of time with regular use.”
Mike Robinson is the founder of the Global Cannabinoid Research Center in Santa Barbara, CA. His experience with the subject runs two-fold. “I’m not just a patient, I’m also a published researcher so I likely have an edge over the average consumer on what to use.” The former director of communications for the American Academy of Cannabinoid Medicine has a California medical card and uses both CBD and THC to manage his day. “No pharmaceutical medication has ever helped me like cannabis and extracts do. Without it I’d likely be unable to do much as it’s replaced literally dozens of pills taken daily,” explained Robinson in an email.
Dr. Stoner’s findings and several others suggest that cannabis use works in the short-term but can lead to increased substance abuse and increased depression. However, many patients, both state-approved and self-medicating, stand by its long-term use.
Brad Zale has dealt with anxiety since he was 10, and depression since 15. This included having daily panic attacks and feeling depressed for weeks at a time. He has a Florida medical card and uses cannabis to help him recognize irrational thoughts and relax. He reports still experiencing depression but not for long periods. “I am more optimistic but realistic about situations.”
Zale is like many who have turned to cannabis as their sole medication. He began using marijuana in October 2016 and claimed to have gotten off of nine drugs. “I was taking a variety of pills for anxiety, depression, pain, and ulcerative colitis-related issues. Since then, I have only taken cold medicine and maybe the occasional Benadryl.”
Melissa Gumley uses marijuana to address anxiety and depression she’s dealt with her entire life. These issues coincide with ADHD and manic depressiveness. Previously, she had spent years on Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse and was prescribed mood stabilizers and anti-anxiety medications that left her with horrible side effects. Today, she uses cannabis to feel what she calls “even,” where she doesn’t experience “radical ups and downs but a nice middle ground that’s consistent.”
But cannabis wasn’t always an option she wanted to explore. Beginning at 15 in recreational settings led Gumley to have several adverse experiences. She went back and forth on using cannabis medicinally but changed her mind over time. The availability of more information helped prompt her decision. “When the west coast started legalizing and the quality improved and information was widely being spread, I got back into it. I started researching the benefits of cannabis from a medical standpoint. I was unhappy with prescription meds and decided it couldn’t hurt to try,” she wrote in an email.
Others found themselves using cannabis after a traumatic experience, sometimes without even realizing it was medicinal. That was the case for freelance cannabis writer Max Ballou, who began using every day after they were raped in college. Ballou wrote how cannabis helped them cope after their attack. Unlike the findings presented by some studies, Ballou credits marijuana for not using other drugs.
They also incorporate regular mental health check ups with their primary physician into their treatment regimen. “For me, having mental health support goes hand in hand with any holistic wellness regimen. Without someone to talk to about what was causing my suffering, which was a psychological wound, I’m not sure cannabis on its own would be enough to heal.”
Amy Hildebrand is a recent college graduate on the front lines of the subject thanks to her personal experiences and work in the cannabis space. That includes serving as chair of the board for this year with Students for Sensible Drug Policy as well as 4Front Ventures.
While cannabis and other drugs can play a part in treating a person’s condition, it can lead to some troubling outcomes. Hildebrand, a significant consumer since 15, explained how large consumption has led her to think she was depressed at times.
Today, she continues to use cannabis each day in Illinois, where she is not a medical patient. As such, her cannabis may not always serve its purpose. “I don’t have control over the product that I’m using. So sometimes it helps. Maybe it’s got a certain terpene in it or it leans more towards an indica or whatever it is that works for my anxiety. But there are other times when I’m now able to realize, ‘Hey, this is an acute effect of the weed you just smoked manifesting and increasing anxiety.’”
Depression and anxiety disorders are some of the most commonly linked conditions to medical cannabis use. While its efficacy remains debated, anecdotal findings suggest many have found some relief from its use. That said, results are mixed and can vary, especially when a person is without a medical card or access to legal avenues where information is much more clear and available.