People use marijuana to treat anxiety and depression, but the science is cloudy

More and more people are turning to cannabis for relief from mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as insomnia, according to psychologists and researchers. Still, the science of cannabis as a mental health treatment is in its infancy, and there is some evidence to suggest that marijuana can make these problems worse.

Therapists say they are seeing more patients using pot instead of antidepressants like Zoloft and Paxil. Common medications prescribed for depression and anxiety disorders can cause serious side effects, including weight gain and sexual dysfunction. They also don’t work for everyone.

“A lot of people who had tried psychiatric drugs struggled with the side effects and didn’t want to recover,” says Robert Yeilding, clinical psychologist in Newport Beach, Calif. Dr Yeilding says the number of his patients using potty, in addition to therapy, has increased over the past two years.

The use of marijuana, regardless of its use, has increased in the United States over the past decade. In 2020, 11.8% of people aged 12 and older reported using the drug in the past month, according to new survey data released Monday by the Federal Administration of Addiction and Mental Health Services. Just under 7% did so in 2010. Among young adults aged 18 to 25, 23.1% reported using marijuana in the past month in 2020, up from 18.5% in 2010. The data do not distinguish between medical and recreational use.


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As of June, 18 states and the District of Columbia had legalized recreational marijuana use. In those states, people of legal age to buy weed can go to a dispensary and buy it, or soon will be able to. Many other states allow the use of medical marijuana. In these states, people usually need to see a doctor first, who will certify that they have a qualifying medical condition. Then they will receive a medical marijuana card and be allowed to purchase products from medical dispensaries.

Research has shown that anxiety, depression, and sleep problems are among the most common reasons people use medical cannabis.

Over the years, Sean Gatten has tried several antidepressants to treat his anxiety, he said. But he was gaining weight and sometimes had trouble sleeping. A drug seemed to make her anxiety worse. So he stopped the drugs. In August 2020, after his anxiety mounted, Mr Gatten, 39, decided to try marijuana for treatment. He saw a doctor and was approved for a medical marijuana card in Pennsylvania, he said. Now mainly a combination of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is largely responsible for the effect of marijuana, and cannabidiol (CBD), a substance that does not produce the kind of effect associated with THC and which can have several therapeutic effects. .

“It helps me calm down,” says Mr. Gatten, a veteran of Enola, Pa. “It relieves me and helps me focus more.”

Blacks make up a small percentage of those who profit from the burgeoning legalized pot market, according to state data. Public initiatives and private funds, like the one launched by Jay-Z, aim to stimulate minority participation. Photo: Rob Alcaraz / The Wall Street Journal

Many scientists believe that cannabis has great potential as a treatment for a variety of health problems, including psychiatric disorders. The cannabis plant contains dozens of substances called cannabinoids: THC and CBD are just the most famous. The Food and Drug Administration has approved a cannabinoid-derived drug for the treatment of certain seizure disorders and cannabis-related drugs for the treatment of weight loss in people with AIDS and nausea from cancer treatment.

Research supporting the use of cannabis for sleep and mental health, however, is nascent. Some small studies have shown that CBD relieves symptoms in people with social anxiety. And several studies looking at the use of cannabinoids for chronic pain have shown that these patients also saw a reduction in their anxiety. Researchers at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts have just completed the first phase of a clinical trial, which is being peer reviewed, of CBD for anxiety: those who received CBD saw improvement about 70% to 80% on anxiety measures, says Staci Gruber, director of McLean’s Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) program and lead author of the study.

A new study by Australian researchers involving 23 participants with chronic insomnia found that taking an oil containing THC and CBD every night for two weeks resulted in improved scores on a measure of insomnia. And an observational study recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry found that people who started using medicinal cannabis reported reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. Those who have not started using cannabis have seen no change in their symptoms.

Some studies have shown that cannabis use in people with anxiety and depression is linked to more severe symptoms. In 2019, the American Psychiatric Association released a statement stating that there is “no current scientific evidence that cannabis is in any way beneficial for the treatment of any psychiatric disorder” and noted a “strong association between cannabis use and the onset of psychiatric disorders “. “

Psychiatrists also note the danger of developing a cannabis use disorder, an addiction that can afflict over 20% of regular cannabis users, says Smita Das, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and president. from the addiction psychiatry board to the American Psychiatric Association.

“A lot of clients feel like there’s an evidence base for what they’re doing,” says Dr. Yielding, of his patients who use cannabis for their anxiety. “There are not any.”

It can be difficult for people to navigate the variety of cannabis products or which type is best for them. Cannabis products come in a variety of forms, including flowers and edibles, can be consumed while smoking, eating, or vaping, and come in a variety of strengths and combinations. Each variation can cause a different effect.

Plus, what’s on the label doesn’t always reflect what’s actually in the product, especially with cannabis purchased from unregulated dispensaries, says Ziva D. Cooper, director of UCLA Cannabis Research. Initiative. “You don’t necessarily know what you’re taking,” she says.

People who would like to try cannabis should “start small and take it slow,” says Dr. Gruber. For someone who has never used THC products before, “people might be more comfortable trying CBD,” says Dr. Cooper. “It doesn’t get you high. It will not cloud your memory. Then, if you want to try THC, start with something that has as little as 1 milligram of THC, she says.

Write to Andrea Petersen at [email protected]

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