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Research & Development Addiction, Adverse effects, Neurology & psychology

In the Zone

Possibly – if we’re willing to take a chance on self-reported data. Researchers from Washington State University explored the effects of cannabis on ADHD symptoms, ADHD medication side effects, and ADHD-related executive dysfunction (1). Notably, 12 percent of participants had an ADHD diagnosis, while the rest reported ADHD-related symptoms. Participants reported positive effects of cannabis on hyperactivity and impulsivity, and positive impacts on ADHD medication side-effects, such as difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite. 

Interestingly, the team found that more frequent use of cannabis appeared to mitigate some ADHD-related executive dysfunction. Though all these effects are self-reported, the study does at least point to an interesting direction of future research into first-line ADHD treatment options that act on the endocannabinoid system. To gain a bit more perspective, we spoke to Amanda Stueber, one of the authors of the paper.

What prompted this research?
 

Given my line of work as a graduate student conducting cannabis research in Washington State – where cannabis is legal – I have heard a lot of testimonials from people with ADHD who claim cannabis helps them manage their symptoms. I was also aware of past research examining similar testimonial claims; however, there was a gap in the literature when it came to what specific symptoms of ADHD cannabis might affect. Currently, the first-line treatment option for individuals with ADHD is stimulant medication. This medication usually has several adverse side effects, which are often associated with low adherence rates to ADHD medication. As such, I was curious to see which exact symptoms were reported to be the most affected, as well as any perceived impact of cannabis on medication side effects.

Substance abuse is common in people with ADHD. Is this an important factor to keep in mind when considering cannabis as a treatment for ADHD?
 

There is evidence to suggest that people with ADHD who use cannabis are doing so in part to self-medicate, and this is a good example of the “band-aid” model of cannabis use for mental disorders. According to this model, people self-medicating with cannabis may experience immediate relief when acutely intoxicated because the drug masks their symptoms. However, cannabis doesn’t address the core issues underlying the problems. As such, when the effects of the drug wear off, the symptoms return, meaning they need to use the drug more frequently. This, in turn, increases the risk of developing cannabis use disorder and exhibiting other aspects of problematic use. 

Were there any limitations with your study?
 

Yes. Participants in our study were recruited from the Psychology Department subject pool, which predominantly consists of young white women. The study also took place during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, where there was an increase in mental health disorder symptoms, as well as an increase in cannabis use. Additionally, participants provided their perceptions of how cannabis affects their symptoms of ADHD so there could be biases among cannabis-using participants to try to portray cannabis in a more positive manner. As such, more objective research is needed to verify the perceived effects reported in our study.

What would you say to clinicians or patients about using cannabis to treat ADHD symptoms?
 

Given some of the known detrimental effects of cannabis, like memory impairment, intoxication, and the increased risk of substance abuse in people with ADHD, I personally wouldn’t recommend cannabis as a treatment for ADHD. But I think the research points to developing novel pharmacotherapy for ADHD that acts more specifically on the endocannabinoid system.

What are your next steps?
 

We are currently expanding on the findings of this study by conducting new research with more objective measures of cognition so we can further interrogate the acute and chronic effects of cannabis on ADHD symptoms and cognition.

Image Credit : Stephen Hocking / Unsplash.com

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  1. Stueber, Cuttler, J. Atten. Disord. (2022). DOI: 10.1177/10870547211050949
About the Author
Margot Lespade

Margot Lespade, Associate Editor, The Cannabis Scientist

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