ADHD seems to be a touchy subject among many doctors, as it remains one of the most controversial yet most common diagnoses in today’s society. It’s interesting to note that, although ADHD is believed to affect 5% of the adult population, it is most often diagnosed in school-age children, leading many to question whether ADHD is an actual disorder or merely a convenient way of dealing with more troublesome kids.
While the days of Ritalin are long over, – there’s a new designer drug called Vyvanse – medical opinions continue to be divided on this disorder. Although most doctors agree that ADHD is a real condition, the alarming rise in diagnoses over the years leads experts to suggest that the definition of this disorder is being too loosely applied in practice.
According to a recent story in the New York Times (1), nearly one in five high school boys and 11 percent of school-age children across the United States have been officially diagnosed with ADHD. That’s a 16 percent increase since 2007 and a 41 percent rise over the past decade.
Stimulants vs. Cocaine: What’s The Difference?
Along with the debate on how to identify children who suffer from this disorder, many parents are wary of the long-term effects of stimulant medications.
ADHD is most commonly treated with amphetamine-derived formulations, which are nearly identical in molecular structure to the street drugs known as cocaine and meth. Maybe “almost” isn’t entirely accurate, since pure methamphetamine is actually approved by the FDA for the treatment of ADHD – they just prefer to call it Desoxyn.
And while studies (2) have found that the brain can adapt to these medications – thereby requiring patients to regularly increase their dosages – there seems to be very little alternative as far as ADHD treatments go. But as is the case for many disorders, both patients and doctors alike seem to be overlooking a world-renowned plant that is currently approved for medical use in 18 states and the District of Columbia.
How Marijuana Can Help
Using marijuana to treat ADHD might seem counterintuitive, as marijuana is known to decrease its user’s attention span and overall motivation to get things done – a phenomenon admiringly known as “couch lock.” Even still, there is a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that marijuana can be useful in the treatment of this disorder, along with support from a growing body of medical marijuana research.
Before getting into how marijuana can help with ADHD, it’s important to understand just what symptoms embody this vague and often subjective disorder. Interestingly, ADHD seems to affect children in a very different way than adults. For instance, children with ADHD seem to exhibit hyperactivity, disruptive behavior, social problems and, ultimately, problems in their academic endeavors. On the other hand, adults seem to be more strongly affected by the mood-related symptoms of ADHD, which include anxiety, depression and OCD. Furthermore, the hyperactivity that is all-too-common in children seems to be almost completely reversed in adult sufferers, who seem to struggle more with an overall lack of motivation. Finally, both adults and children seem to have a higher incidence of sleep disorders, including insomnia, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
Considering all of this, the symptom profile of ADHD certainly seems to support the use of medical marijuana. For instance, marijuana is known to have a calming effect on its user, which could reduce the hyperactivity exhibited by ADHD children as well as the anxiety experienced by adult sufferers. Furthermore, studies have found marijuana to be an effective treatment for depression (3), OCD (4) and a variety of sleep disorders, including insomnia (5) and sleep apnea (6).
Scientific research on the endocannabinoid system – the body’s natural cannabinoid system – provides even more support for the use of medical marijuana as a treatment of ADHD. In fact, studies (7) have found that patients with ADHD have higher levels of the endocannabinoid known as anandamide. Although anandamide is naturally produced by the human body, it has remarkably similar effects as the THC found in marijuana, as both of these cannabinoids seem to bind to the same cannabinoid receptors. Anandamide is known to be released on demand by the body in response to a variety of stress factors, suggesting that the body may activate the endocannabinoid system as a protective response to the onset of ADHD-related symptoms.
Finally, studies have identified a link (8) between activity of the endocannabinoid system and the release of dopamine. A lack of dopamine is believed to be one of the primary underlying factors in ADHD. This is the primary reason why stimulants are such an effective and commonly prescribed treatment, as stimulants mainly act to increase dopamine levels.
What Doctors Are Saying
It’s quite obvious that the majority of the medical community remains opposed to the use of medical marijuana for the treatment of ADHD, among many others. On the other hand, perspectives on marijuana are rapidly changing and doctors are beginning to voice their support for this alternative medicine.
One of these doctors is the late Dr. Claudia Jensen, who sadly passed away in 2007 after a battle with breast cancer. However, she leaves us with a convincing testimony of the effectiveness of medical marijuana in treating ADHD, based on her clinical experiences as a pediatrician and her passionate work as an instructor at the University of Southern California.
In an interview with MSNBC, Dr. Jensen concisely summarized why marijuana may be a safe and effective alternative to traditional stimulants.
“They don’t have to get stoned – it’s dose-related. But they do get the benefit of being able to focus, pay attention, not be impulsive, not be angry, be peaceful and relaxed and pay attention in school, which helps them get better grades.” – Dr. Claudia Jensen
Indeed, it seems like only a matter of time until the medical community as a whole will come to recognize the tremendous benefits of prescribing medical marijuana for patients with ADHD. Until then, we can only rely on the testimony of brave spokespeople such as Dr. Jensen to guide us in this field of alternative medicine.
About the Author
Kent Mao runs the excellent website TruthOnPot.com, an online resource for medical marijuana facts, information and research. TruthOnPot.com actively engages in the online discussion of marijuana research and policy. You can learn more by visiting www.truthonpot.com