Many people use marijuana as a way to treat symptoms of mental health—whether you’re feeling down, on edge, or outright panicked. The hard truth, however, is that marijuana may actually sometimes exacerbate underlying issues. How do we know this? Again, the numbers tell convincing stories.
The first thing research tells us is that marijuana as a medicine for psychiatric conditions is incredibly common. In a study of 1,746 patients from a network of nine medical marijuana evaluation clinics in California, 37.8% of patients reported that they used marijuana to relieve anxiety, 16.9% to relieve panic attacks, and 55.1% to improve relaxation (Reinarman, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2011). Another recent study surveyed 1,429 medical marijuana users in Washington State about the conditions they used marijuana to treat, and 58.1% reported usage of the drug for anxiety (Sexton, Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, 2016).
So, the numbers seem to supper the anxiolytic—or anxiety reducing—effects of marijuana (Walsh, Clinical Psychology Review, 2017). Importantly, however, these studies also observed that symptoms of anxiety returned upon cessation of marijuana use, indicating that it’s not a great option for permanent treatment.
Here’s some more proof of why the short-lived, anxiety-reducing properties of marijuana be cause for concern.
THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, appears to decrease anxiety at lower doses and increase anxiety at higher doses. Meanwhile, CBD, the less psychoactive component of marijuana, appears to decrease anxiety at all doses that have been tested (Blessing, Neurotherapeutics, 2015). There are individual differences in responses to marijuana that are affected by many factors, including the THC:CBD ratio of the marijuana strain in question. What’s more, with regular marijuana use, you inevitably develop tolerance, which is a set up for rebound anxiety upon the discontinuation of marijuana use. This cascade of tolerance and rebound fosters drug dependence (Volkow, Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 2017). So, although using marijuana to cope with mental health issues may offer some short-term benefit, studies indicate that this effect may wane with time—before you know it, you’re left with the problems associated with marijuana use, like increased risk of other substance use disorders, without any real benefits. For what it’s worth, to date, there have been no reported randomized controlled trials to show sustained benefits of marijuana in the treatment of mental health disorders.
Bottom line: marijuana isn’t the best form of medication for a mental health disorder. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, it’s best to talk to your doctor about treatment options that have demonstrated durable benefits, including counseling, antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications. Sustainable, long-lasting options for help are out there!