Medical pot is good for a lot of things. It reduces seizures in severe epileptics, it reduces eye pressure in people with glaucoma, and it lessens the nausea and vomiting associated with cancer and radiation treatments – among many other examples.
We know this because marijuana has been with us for thousands of years and because intensive medical studies have demonstrated many of its medical properties.
Sadly, the same bounty of data doesn’t exist when it comes to mental illness. Many patients report weed helps with their depression and anxiety, while doctors believe it could be risky for people with severe disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Both sides have some scientific evidence on their sides, but it’s mostly inconclusive.
So what do we know?
For one thing, we know thousands if not millions of patients report some beneficial effect on their mental conditions. Research has been limited, but there’s no evidence marijuana causes mental illness.
Depression, one of the most common mental disorders, is more common among cannabis users than it is in the general population. But this doesn’t necessarily mean what it seems to mean. It’s highly unlikely marijuana causes depression.
That’s because the same genetic and environmental factors that cause depression may also lead people to smoke weed. People who have a tendency to smoke pot also have a tendency toward depression, but not because they toke. In fact, the reverse is possible: Depression may lead to pot use because the drug helps alleviate symptoms.
The same factors contribute to toking by people with anxiety disorders. Anxiety has a paradoxical relationship with marijuana. On the one hand, the drug can ease symptoms. On the other, it can cause paranoia and more anxiety.
Thankfully, there are ways to combat that problem. Cannabis high in CBD is less likely to cause anxiety, even if it’s also high in THC, the chemical that causes anxious symptoms in weed users.
Anxiety and depression are by far the most common forms of mental illness in America. What about other, more serious disorders? What happens when someone with schizophrenia uses pot? What about bipolar disorder? OCD? ADHD?
The evidence here isn’t exactly plentiful.
Doctors believe marijuana could aggravate the psychosis of schizophrenia, though there are too few studies to prove this. Physicians also think the drug can contribute to manic symptoms in people with bipolar disorder (aka manic-depression).
But the most recent evidence says pot doesn’t cause schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The diseases and tendency toward pot use might share the same genes, but there’s no solid cause-and-effect link between the two.
More importantly, many people with these conditions – especially bipolar disorder – report that weed lessens their mood episodes, reduces anxiety, and eases depression.
When it comes to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the findings are even hazier. Some studies suggest a non-intoxicating chemical in marijuana, known as CBD, could helps stabilize people with OCD. On the other hand, some users report pot aggravates their OCD symptoms.
The science surrounding ADHD and cannabis is similarly scarce. Some doctors believe pot could help, but others disagree. It’s just too early to say how the disease affects the marijuana use or vice versa. Until better data exists, ADHD sufferers shouldn’t rely on weed as a treatment for their condition.
Science has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to weed. The best evidence for the benefits of the drug in treating mental illness is largely unexplored, and the “bad” point of view is largely fueled by research that’s badly out of date. Still, until we know more about how mental illness and marijuana interact, it’s always wise to use the drug cautiously.