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ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. While more research is needed, recent studies indicate that marijuana may be beneficial for helping relieve symptoms.
Overview of ADHD
More than one in 10 children in the United States will be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a figure that has grown by 42 percent over the past eight years.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, most commonly referred to as simply ADHD, is a mental disorder characterized by an ongoing pattern of inattention and impulsive behaviors. The symptoms of the disorder can appear as early as between the ages of 3 and 6 years, and they can change over time as a person ages.
While most often associated with children, ADHD can continue through adolescence and adulthood. Children with the disorder will often experience hyperactivity, the inability to control impulses, and difficulties paying attention. Adults with ADHD may have challenges with time management and organization, which can adversely impact their job performance and personal relationships.
According to the diagnostic criteria included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5, ADHD is divided into three subgroups, including:
- Inattentive type ADHD: When a person experiences symptoms of inattention and distractibility, but not hyperactivity or impulsivity.
- Hyperactive/impulsive type ADHD: When a patient displays symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, but not inattention or intractability.
- Combined type ADHD: When a patient displays characteristics associated with both inattentive and hyperactive/impulsive types of ADHD.
Medical experts are still learning about the causes of ADHD, but believe that several environmental and genetic factors can contribute to the disorder, including:
- Chemical imbalances in the brain
- Smoking cigarettes, using drugs, or consuming alcohol during pregnancy
- Exposure to environmental toxins, such as lead, when young
- Low birth weight
- Brain injuries or brain disorders
Studies suggest that ADHD may be linked to a dysfunction of a dopamine, as scientists have observed that lower levels of the dopamine to be associated with symptoms of ADHD. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a number of roles in humans, including movement, attention, behavior and cognition, learning, and mood.
A pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist typically diagnoses a person with ADHD. While there is no cure for the mental disorder, the current available treatments can reduce symptoms and improve functioning. With treatment, a person can reduce the disorder’s interference in how well they’re able to function at school, in a job, and socially.
The treatments and therapies most typically used in treating ADHD include:
- Medications like stimulants that increase the brain chemical dopamine to improve thinking and attention
- Psychotherapy to better cope with everyday problems
- Education and training methods to develop skills and attitudes to better manage the disorder
Findings: Effects of Cannabis on ADHD
While research into cannabis for ADHD is in its infancy, the handful of studies that have been completed suggest that cannabis has the potential of becoming a valuable complementary, or potentially even a primary, treatment for managing ADHD.
Several studies have also shown that cannabinoids may help regulate dopamine levels10. By increasing the availability of dopamine, the cannabinoids found in cannabis may be able to provide the “mental slowdown” needed for patients to concentrate and focus.
Researchers have also started to find that cannabis and its cannabinoids may be beneficial for managing the symptoms of ADHD, including having a positive impact on a patient’s physical performance, behavior, and mental state11. In particular, evidence suggests those with the subgroups of ADHD that involve hyperactivity may find more benefit with regular cannabis use6.
In a recent randomized, placebo-controlled trial, researchers found evidence that whole-plant cannabis extracts were associated with significant improvements in hyperactivity and impulsivity in adults with ADHD, prompting them to conclude that, “ADHD may represent a subgroup of individuals that gain cognitive enhancement and reduction of ADHD symptoms from the use of cannabinoids3.”
Another study from German scientists found that ADHD patients who were non-responsive to a traditional medication for ADHD showed improvements in concentration and sleep patterns, as well as a reduction in symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity, after taking cannabis7.
A recent analysis of online discussions suggests that patients with ADHD are finding relief with cannabis. An estimated 25 percent of individual posts randomly selected from 55 separate forum threads indicated that cannabis is therapeutic for ADHD8.
It’s important to note that a childhood diagnosis of ADHD has been linked to an increase in risk of cannabis use disorder or dependence once a patient reaches adolescence and adulthood4,9. Recently, however, scientists found that cannabis use does not exacerbate ADHD-related alterations5. Additionally, a separate study found that cannabis use helped ADHD patients who were dependent on cocaine to have greater retention rates, suggesting that cannabis may be beneficial for treating some substance abuse disorders in those with ADHD1.
As of now, most of the scientific literature on the benefits of cannabis for the treatment of ADHD are animal or survey based. Studies involving human subjects are still highly needed to better understand cannabis’ potential therapeutic application for the disorder.
States That Have Approved Medical Marijuana for ADHD
No states have specifically approved medical marijuana for the treatment of ADHD. However, a number of other states allow medical marijuana to be recommended for any condition that a physician believes could benefit from cannabis.
These states include:
- California (any debilitating illness where the medical use of marijuana has been recommended by a physician)
- Connecticut (other medical conditions may be approved by the Department of Consumer Protection)
- Massachusetts (other conditions as determined in writing by a qualifying patient’s physician)
- Nevada (other conditions subject to approval)
- Oklahoma (any disease or disorder authorized by a licensed physician)
- Oregon (other conditions subject to approval)
- Rhode Island (other conditions subject to approval)
- Washington (any “terminal or debilitating condition”).
Additionally, in Washington, D.C., any condition can be approved for medical marijuana as long as a DC-licensed physician recommends the treatment.
Recent Studies on Cannabis’ Effect on ADHD
- Aharonovich, E., Garawi, F., Bisaga, A., Brooks, D., Raby, W.N., and Rubin, E. (2006). Concurrent cannabis use during treatment for comorbid ADHD and cocaine dependence: Effects on outcome. The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 32(4), 629-635. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00952990600919005.
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/index.shtml.
- Cooper, R.E., Williams, E., Seegobin, S., Tye, C., Kuntsi, J., and Asherson, P. (2017, August). Cannabinoids in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: A randomised-controlled trial. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 27(8), 795-808. Retrieved from https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0924-977X(17)30237-7.
- Hadland, S.E., Knight, J.R., and Harris, S.K. (2015, February-March). Medical marijuana: Review of the science and implications for developmental behavioral pediatric practice. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 36(2), 115-123. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318349/#.
- Kelly, C., Castellanos, F.X., Tomaselli, O., Lisdahl, K., Tamm, L., Jernigan, T., Newman, E., Epstein, J.N., Molina, B.S.G., Greenhill, L.L., Potkin, S.G., Hinshaw, S., Swanson, J.M., and MTA Neuroimaging Group. (2017). Distinct effects of childhood ADHD and cannabis use on brain functional architecture in young adults. NeuroImage: Clinical, 13, 188-200. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221315821630170X.
- Loflin, M., Earleywine, M., De Leo, J., and Hobkirk, A. (2014, March). Subtypes of attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and cannabis use. Substance Use & Misuse, 49(4), 427-34. Retrieved from: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/10826084.2013.841251?journalCode=isum20.
- Milz, E., Grotenhermen, F. Successful therapy of treatment resistant adult ADHD with cannabis: Experience from a medical practice with 30 patients. Abstract book of the Cannabinoid Conference 2015, September 17-19, Sestri Levante, Italy, page 85. Retrieved from: http://cannabisclinicians.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/SUCCESSFUL-THERAPY-OF-TREATMENT-RESISTANT-ADULT-ADHD-WITH-CANNABIS.pdf.
- Mitchell, J.T., Sweitzer, M.M., Tunno, A.M., Kollins, S.H., and McClernon, F.J. (2016) “I Use Weed for My ADHD”: A Qualitative Analysis of Online Forum Discussions on Cannabis Use and ADHD. PLoS ONE, 11(5): e0156614. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0156614.
- Patel, R.S., Patel, P., Shah, K., Kaur, M., Mansuri, Z., and Makani, R. (2018, January). Is cannabis use associated with the worst inpatient outcomes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder adolescents? Cureus, (10)1, e2033. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5841924/.
- Patel, S., Rademacher, D.J., and Hillard, C.J. (2003, September). Differential regulation of the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol within the limbic forebrain by dopamine receptor activity. The Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 306(3), 880-888.
- Strohbeck-Kuehner, P., Skopp, G., and Mattern, R. (2008). Cannabis improves symptoms of ADHD. Cannabinoids, 3(1), 1-3. Retrieved from http://cannabis-med.org/data/pdf/en_2008_01_1.pdf.
- What Is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? (n.d.). WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd.