Marijuana is sometimes used as a self-treatment by individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Advocates for marijuana as an ADHD treatment say the drug can help people with the disorder handle some of the more severe symptoms. These include agitation, irritability, and lack of restraint.

They also say that marijuana has fewer side effects than traditional ADHD medications.

Read more about what research has discovered about the use of marijuana in individuals with ADHD.

Laws and research

Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Each year, more U.S. states have passed laws allowing the sale of marijuana for medical purposes. Some states have legalized it for recreational purposes, too. Many states still outlaw any use of marijuana. At the same time, research into the effects of the drug on health conditions and diseases has increased. This includes research on marijuana use in individuals who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD.

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Online health forums are filled with comments from people saying they use marijuana to treat symptoms of ADHD.

Likewise, individuals who identify as having ADHD say they have few or no additional issues with marijuana use. But they aren’t presenting the research on adolescent use of marijuana. There are concerns for the developing brain’s learning and memory.

“Many adolescents and adults with ADHD are convinced that cannabis does help them and has fewer side effects [than ADHD medications],” says Jack McCue, MD, FACP, an author, physician, and emeritus professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “It may be that they, not their doctors, are correct.”

Dr. McCue says he’s seen patients who report classic marijuana use effects and benefits. They report intoxication (or being “high”), appetite stimulation, help with sleeping or anxiety, and pain relief, for example.

Dr. McCue says these people sometimes report effects that are often seen with typical ADHD treatments, too.

“The limited research on what patients say cannabis does for ADHD symptoms indicates that it is most helpful for hyperactivity and impulsivity. It may be less helpful for inattentiveness,” Dr. McCue says.

Research in 2016 analyzed some of these online threads or forums. Of the 286 threads the researchers reviewed, 25 percent of posts were from individuals who reported that cannabis use was therapeutic.

Only 8 percent of posts reported negative effects, 5 percent found both benefits and harmful effects, and 2 percent said using marijuana had no effect on their symptoms.

It’s important to remember that these forums and comments aren’t clinically significant. They’re also not evidence-based research. That means they shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Talk with your doctor first.

“There are descriptive accounts and demographic surveys that report that individuals with ADHD describe marijuana as being helpful in managing inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and impulsivity,” says Elizabeth Evans, MD, psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center.

However, Dr. Evans adds, “while there certainly may be individuals who experience benefit in their symptoms of ADHD, or those who are not adversely impacted by marijuana, there is not sufficient evidence that marijuana is a safe or effective substance to treat ADHD.”

Cannabidiol (CBD) is also promoted as a helpful treatment for individuals with ADHD.

CBD is found in marijuana and hemp. Unlike marijuana, CBD doesn’t contain the psychoactive element tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). That means CBD doesn’t produce a “high” the way marijuana does.

CBD is promoted by some as a possible treatment for ADHD. Dr. McCue says that’s because of “anti-anxiety, antipsychotic effects of CBD.”

However, “the lack of a potential paradoxical benefit from the stimulating effects of THC make CBD theoretically less attractive,” he says.

Dr. Evans adds, “There are no large-scale clinical trials looking at CBD for ADHD. It is not considered an evidence-based treatment for ADHD at this time.”

Individuals with ADHD might be likely to use marijuana. They’re more likely to use the drug earlier in life. They’re also more likely to develop a use disorder or misuse the drug.

Marijuana can have other drawbacks that affect physical abilities, thinking abilities, and development.

Brain and body development

Long-term use of marijuana can lead to complications. These include:

  • altered brain development
  • higher depression risk
  • decreased life satisfaction
  • chronic bronchitis

Thinking and decisions

What’s more, heavy cannabis use in people with ADHD may compound some of these complications. You may notice significant impacts on your ability to pay attention and make decisions if you use marijuana.

Brain and body functions

A 2013 study found that people with ADHD who use marijuana perform worse on verbal, memory, cognitive, decision-making, and response tests than people who don’t use the drug.

Individuals who began using cannabis regularly before they turned 16 were the most impacted.

According to a 2013 study, people diagnosed between ages 7 and 9 were significantly more likely than individuals without the disorder to report cannabis use within eight years of the original study interview.

In fact, a 2016 analysis found that people who had been diagnosed with ADHD as youths were three times as likely to report cannabis use.

Cannabis use disorder

To compound the situation, individuals with ADHD are more likely to develop cannabis use disorder (CUD). This is defined as cannabis use that leads to significant impairment during a 12-month period.

In other words, the use of cannabis affects your ability to complete day-to-day tasks, such as what’s required for work.

People who were diagnosed with ADHD as a child are 1.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with CUD. A 2016 study estimated that as many as 45 percent of people seeking treatment for CUD also have ADHD.

Substance use disorder

Cannabis isn’t the only substance people with ADHD may use or misuse.

Research shows individuals diagnosed with ADHD and CUD are 2.8 times more likely to misuse alcohol than individuals without either condition.

People diagnosed with ADHD may be more susceptible to developing a substance use disorder.

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ADHD medications aim to increase the amounts of specific chemicals in the brain.

It’s believed ADHD may be the result of too few chemicals called neurotransmitters. Drugs that can boost the level of these chemicals may ease symptoms.

These medicines, however, aren’t always enough to treat ADHD symptoms. Behavioral therapy is commonly used in addition to medication. In children, family therapy and anger management therapy may be used, too.

ADHD medicines can cause side effects. These include weight loss, sleep disturbances, and irritability. These side effects are one reason individuals with ADHD often seek out alternative treatments.

“Some patients say that cannabis works when the conventional therapies are ineffective, intolerable, or too expensive,” Dr. McCue says. “I have encountered many adults who have obtained medical marijuana ‘cards’ for symptoms that are in fact caused by undiagnosed ADHD.”

McCue adds that “recent research suggests that ADHD patients who use cannabis are less likely to need or use conventional treatment with drugs or counseling. So there is little doubt that these patients believe that cannabis helps their symptoms better than conventional therapy.”

It remains unclear how ADHD drugs might interact with marijuana, if the two are used together, Dr. Evans says.

“One concern is that active marijuana use could limit the efficacy of these drugs,” she says. “Stimulant medication is considered first-line treatment for ADHD. Stimulant medications have the potential for abuse and must be used cautiously if a patient also has a substance use disorder.”

“That said, evidence suggests that stimulant medications can be used safely and effectively in patients with substance use disorders, under monitored settings,” Dr. Evans says.

A child’s brain is still developing. Using drugs like marijuana may result in significant impacts.

Long-term marijuana use may cause altered brain development and cognitive impairment, for example.

Few studies have looked directly at the impact of marijuana use in children, however. It’s not recommended by any clinical organization. That makes research difficult. Instead, most research looks at use in young adults and when they began using the drug.

One small 2017 study looked at the effects of a cannabinoid medication on people with ADHD. Individuals who took the medicine didn’t experience significantly fewer symptoms. However, the report did suggest that children have more side effects than adults.

Marijuana use isn’t a good choice for those under 25 years of age.

“The risks appear to be much less for adults than children and adolescents, but the facts are just not there,” Dr. McCue says.

Children diagnosed with ADHD are more likely to use marijuana when they’re older. People who begin using marijuana before age 18 are more likely to develop a use disorder later in life.

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If you have ADHD and smoke or use marijuana or are considering it, it’s important you talk to your doctor.

Some traditional ADHD drugs may interact with marijuana and limit their benefit. Being honest with your doctor about your use can help you find the treatment that works best for you, while reducing side effects.

Marijuana use might be a poor choice for a developing brain.