If you’re suffering from depression, anxiety, or PTSD, a new study suggests that marijuana could help. But is it worth the risk?
It’s been more than four decades since researchers first discovered cannabis’ effects on mood. However, there has been growing interest in using medical marijuana as an alternative treatment for specific health conditions — including anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.
And while some studies have shown promise, others haven’t. So what does the latest research say about whether pot can be used medicinally? We spoke with Dr. Brian Zatorre, a Brock University in Ontario professor, who coauthored one such study. He says weed might not work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it out.
“We are always cautious,” he says. “But I think the most important thing is to keep trying different things until something works.”
In June 2017, The New England Journal of Medicine published its clinical trial results testing how well CBD helps alleviate symptoms associated with two forms of severe epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.
It found that patients taking high doses of CBD experienced better seizure control than those receiving placebo pills. In addition to showing promising benefits, this was also one of only a few double-blinded, randomized trials that included people under age 18, which made them eligible for the medicinal use of marijuana.
While other drugs may take months or even years before they receive FDA approval, researchers hope their findings will lead to fast action by regulators.
This was just one small part of a larger project, known as Cannabis Research Initiative Phase II (CRIP2), funded by the Canadian government. CRIP2 aims to test the effectiveness of various strains of marijuana against several mental disorders. Researchers selected six participants over 55 diagnosed with a generalized social anxiety disorder (SAD).
They were given either dronabinol, synthetic THC, or nothing, then asked to smoke as much pot as they wanted over eight weeks. Afterward, they took standardized tests designed to measure changes in self-reported anxiety levels. All had tried numerous treatments without success, yet none said they would refuse future medication if needed.
One month later, all three groups reported feeling less anxious overall, even though no significant differences between groups emerged after careful analysis. However, when researchers analyzed data collected during the experiment, they did find trends suggesting that subjects felt slightly less socially anxious while smoking marijuana throughout the day.
These individuals didn’t report any noticeable side effects like hallucinations or dizziness. Even more encouragingly, the cannabis group improved sleep quality and appetite, whereas the nonusers saw little change in either area.
As for why these positive results occurred, Zatorre believes it could have to do with how long each subject smoked. While users got higher doses than usual, the amount per session wasn’t enough to cause lasting psychological problems.
Unlike recreational users who often ingest a lot of delta 9-THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis, therapeutic users typically consume low amounts of it because it causes adverse reactions. This means their bodies don’t develop tolerance to it, so they experience minimal dependency issues.
Another factor may be that, unlike THC, cannabidiol (around 40 percent of dried plant matter) won’t get you stoned, according to Zatorre. That means you’ll feel relaxed but still able to function normally. However, the potential upsides aren’t perfect.
Is Marijuana Safe To Smoke?
Despite being widely touted as a wonder drug, marijuana isn’t entirely safe. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it can make you paranoid, increase your heart rate, cause impaired coordination, slow down breathing, and potentially trigger psychotic episodes. Some people suffer from short-term memory loss afterward, too.
You should never drive or operate machinery if you’ve consumed pot, especially if you already struggle with poor decision-making skills. If you become overly excited, you could do dangerous things like eating way too many baked goods or accidentally getting into a fight.
Some experts recommend avoiding alcohol and weed, especially if you drink heavily. Since both depress your respiratory system, combining them could prove deadly.
And although rare, there have been reports of children dying due to accidental ingestion of edibles laced with pesticides. So if you treat yourself to a spliff, dispose of it properly to avoid having a child eat it.
Aside from potential risks, Zatorre thinks marijuana deserves further investigation as a viable option for treating mental illnesses. Although his team’s phase one clinical trial proved successful, he admits that more evidence is required before doctors can fully endorse it. Nevertheless, he hopes their findings inspire pharmaceutical companies to conduct similar experiments with varying dosages of cannabinoids.
For his part, Zatorre has studied marijuana extensively for nearly 20 years, publishing papers on everything from cognitive functions to addiction medicine. His current focus is learning how cannabis affects brain development.
According to Zatorre, researchers focus on developing therapies based on the theory that chronic inflammation plays a role in the onset of psychiatric diseases. Marijuana contains anti-inflammatory elements, meaning consuming it may reduce the production of harmful chemicals linked to neuroinflammation. However, scientists must learn more before incorporating it into regular patient care.
What Are the Side Effects Of Using Pot For Anxiety And Depression Relief?
Although marijuana shows excellent promise as a possible therapy, it hasn’t come through yet. One reason may lie within our genetic makeup. People vary greatly in how they metabolize THC; some produce far more metabolites than others.
A person whose body has fewer of these compounds may need more substantial concentrations of THC to get high. On top of this, genetics plays a significant factor, too. Specific genes determine precisely how quickly someone absorbs THC. For instance, those who inherit variations of the CNR1 gene require significantly lower doses to achieve euphoria.
Other factors, however, can alter how well a substance treats specific ailments. Smoking tobacco, for example, raises blood pressure and constricts airways, limiting oxygen intake. Both of these effects tend to worsen anxiety and panic attacks. Other substances, like antidepressants or benzodiazepines, counteract these negative consequences. Cannabinoids seem to do the same.
Another problem is that sometimes it takes time for us to notice improvement. With conventional medications, once you start seeing relief, your doctor can tell you how long to stay on them. But with marijuana, you usually have to give it a week or two to see if it brings positive results.
Once you stop using it, you lose whatever benefit you gain. Therefore, patients may want to consider quitting cold turkey rather than gradually reducing the dosage, lest they go back to square one.
Zatorre acknowledges that marijuana poses unique challenges and cautions patients to consult their healthcare providers before experimenting. As with anything else, you should weigh the pros and cons carefully before incorporating them into your lifestyle.
With mounting support and legalization efforts underway worldwide, expect further breakthroughs shortly.
Smoking pot can affect your lungs, cardiovascular system, and immune system, among other systems. To minimize damage to sensitive tissues, inhale slowly and deeply through your nose instead of your mouth. Avoid lying flat immediately following inhalations to prevent suffocation and chest compression.
Don’t hold your breath or hyperventilate, which increases carbon dioxide levels. Instead, practice diaphragmatic breathing exercises to improve circulation throughout your torso. Finally, exhaling forcefully through pursed lips is a natural filter that prevents excess CO2 from entering your bloodstream.