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ADHD and Weed: What’s the Draw?

Does marijuana help with ADHD?

One of my therapy patients showed up for his weekly session, but he was different this time. He was unusually late. His thoughts were scattered. His eyes were red and he was hard to follow.

I knew he had a history with marijuana and we’d been working together for a long time, so I just asked him straight out.

“Are you high?”

“Well … yeah,” (giggling like a stoned teenager).

And then we talked over the next few weeks about why he was lighting up again now after years of abstinence. For him, it was to relieve stress, numb uncomfortable feelings, enhance creativity, and improve focus. His relationship with his girlfriend was in bad shape and it helped numb out the feelings. His job paid well but the demands piled up with no relief in sight and it took the edge off. It made him more creative, he said, when he played guitar with his band. It helped him sleep better. And perhaps most interesting of all, it improved his focus.

But it wasn’t all positive. He knew that it made him less motivated. Work projects took longer to complete. It helped him avoid an overdue conversation with his girlfriend about what was really going on between them. And since he started using again, he rarely achieved orgasms anymore. He was also uncomfortable about driving to work while high in the morning.

Without going all “Reefer Madness” on his use, we figured out some ways to curb his reliance on marijuana and to address the needs that pot was helping with in other ways. He still uses occasionally, especially around music, but the self-medicating quality of his use dropped significantly.

So why marijuana?

Substance use is a common side-sick of ADHD. The most commonly used drugs with ADHD are alcohol and marijuana. The link between ADHD and weed is pretty well established not just in teens, but in adults as well. Since ADHD symptoms are often treated with stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, you might guess that folks with ADHD would be most drawn to other stimulants, like caffeine, cocaine or amphetamines. But, in fact, alcohol and marijuana seem to be bigger draws. Anecdotally, marijuana (derived from cannabis plants) has been reported to improve focus in some people with ADHD.

A few recent studies have looked at who with ADHD might be more prone to regular marijuana use, but the results don’t totally match up. Also, the studies provide generalities by looking at large groups of people, so they don’t take into account personal experiences and unique life situations like those described for the guy mentioned above.

Two 2014 studies looked at marijuana use and subtype of ADHD. One at the University of Albany found that people with ADHD who used marijuana daily were more likely to have the hyperactive and impulsive symptoms of ADHD, rather than the inattentive symptoms (see Loflin, Earleywine, DeLeo, & Hobkirk, 2014 for details). So marijuana helps manage the hyperactivity and impulse control struggles that come with that form of ADHD? Well, hold on a second.

Another 2014 study suggested that having the inattentive symptoms in adulthood or childhood, as well as the hyperactive-impulsive symptoms in childhood, were associated with higher chances of marijuana use in young adults (See Bidwell, Henry, Wilcutt, Kinnear, & Ito, 2014 for details). And still other past research found links between marijuana use and behavior problems (conduct disorder), gender or smoking cigarettes, when it came to ADHD!

The fact is the relationship between ADHD and marijuana use is probably just too varied and personalized to find clearly definable groups who use and who don’t use. At least anecdotally, many patients with ADHD mention its positive impact on focus as part of the draw in using it.

Whatever the reasons are, marijuana use is not without risk. While it certainly does not carry the addiction potential of cocaine or heroin, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that about nine percent of users will go on to develop dependence (addiction) to marijuana. Also, it causes problems with cognitive functions like short-term memory, judgment, and perception. That’s a big concern for someone trying to drive, do work, or attend school while high.

Find more about marijuana use at NIDA’s website.

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