To say that Alex struggled as a child would have been putting it mildly. Diagnosed early on with ADHD, he ran into the typical issues at school and at home that one does when they’ve got little to do with their excess of energy. In his early twenties, I worked with Alex, and he smoked weed constantly. I teased him about it just as constantly.
“You don’t want to see me when I’m not high,” was his response. And as it turns out, he was right. When he was high, he was a high-functioning (pun not intended, but funny) regular Joe. Actually, he was far from regular, and was well above average, intelligent and insightful, with a curious and focused mind.
And then one day through poor planning, Alex was without weed. The difference in his behaviour was staggering. He couldn’t stop making noise and he couldn’t sit still. He was beyond annoying, reduced to what could only be described as a blithering idiot.
Although Alex’s experience is obviously anecdotal, his experience isn’t a singular one. There is now supporting evidence that cannabis might be able to successfully treat the symptoms of ADHD. This relationship isn’t cut and dried yet, but it does shed some hope for those diagnosed and wanting to avoid traditional treatments like Ritalin and Adderall, both of which can cause challenging side effects for the patient.
Some of the science
It’s believed that ADHD might be caused by low dopamine levels in the brain. THC, it turns out, interacts with the endocannabinoid and dopaminergic systems, effectively raising available dopamine levels. The method to achieve this is different than with traditional solutions, though; THC doesn’t stimulate the production of dopamine (which can lead to dopamine burn-out), but rather blocks the action of gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GAMA). GAMA inhibits dopamine release.
Although more research is necessary, several studies provide support for the benefits of THC in treating the symptoms of ADHD. One study conducted in 2017, for instance, provides a promising stepping stone for further research. The researchers found with their small sample that adults treated with the cannabinoid medication Stativex, experienced a reduction in their ADHD symptoms, with no cognitive impairment.
While THC seems to be successful in decreasing the short-term symptoms of ADHD, there is concern that long-term usage might be more harmful than good. Another study from 2017 suggests that continued usage of cannabis to treat ADHD might actually result in suppressed dopamine production in the brain, thereby eliminating the purported benefits.
There is also the concern that children treated with cannabis for any ailment are at risk of suffering greater side-effects from the treatment. Depressed cognitive development, learning, memory and other brain functions, and an increased risk of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders, are all cited as potential concerns for children and adolescents treated with cannabis. Children and adolescents are also at greater risk of developing dependency.
Cannabis science is still in its infancy, and its usage to treat patients diagnosed with ADHD is obviously no exception. As the science is refined and our understanding of the effects of cannabis increases, there is growing hope. We might have found a more natural solution for those who suffer. It could be a case of “the lesser of evils,” in which the negatives from cannabis treatment are determined to be less so than with traditional pharmacology.
Alex today is still a daily cannabis user.
He holds a prominent position in an organization with a global scope, and is a world-class athlete. He also continues to suffer the symptoms of ADHD when he isn’t high. If I were to describe – non-scientifically – how cannabis helps Alex, I’d say that his functioning without THC is at an uncontrollably high level. He doesn’t have the tools to cope with the energy. Smoking weed slows him down to a point where he regains control and focus. At this point he can participate with the rest of us. If he has suffered side effects from a lifetime of usage, they remain to be seen.