Using Marijuana to Treat Depression

Cannabis plant
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With states across the nation passing laws allowing for the medical use of marijuana, much debate has ensued over which conditions should qualify patients for approved use. Depression is one such condition that has been discussed, and the research is mixed. Depression and marijuana use often exist side-by-side in patients, but teasing apart which came first is a chicken-and-egg problem researcher have yet to solve.

Can Marijuana Help Treat Depression?

A February 2015 study by researchers at the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions found that chemical compounds in the brain known as endocannabinoids, which are linked to feelings of overall well-being, activate the same receptors as THC, the active compound in marijuana.

In testing on rats, the researchers found that the production of endocannabinoids was lower in states of chronic stress than under normal conditions. They concluded that the chemicals in cannabis may be a useful treatment in restoring normal endocannabinoid function and alleviating symptoms of depression.

Drawbacks of Treating Depression With Marijuana

Although there is preliminary evidence that marijuana may have antidepressant properties, many argue there are also some important drawbacks to its usage. There is a well-known phenomenon called "amotivational syndrome" in which chronic cannabis users become apathetic, socially withdrawn, and perform at a level of everyday functioning well below their capacity prior to their marijuana use. Although the depressed person may feel relief from their symptoms, this may be an illusion of well-being if the person loses motivation and productivity. Furthermore, if the drug is smoked, it can be far more harmful to the respiratory system than tobacco use because of the fact that it is not filtered.

Depression and Marijuana Use May Have Same Root Cause

Most health care researchers and practitioners accept the theory that genetic, environmental or other factors are the root cause of depression. Some believe that these same causes can lead to marijuana use, for example, to relieve symptoms of depression. For example, participants in a 1997 pilot study reported that one of the reasons they continued to smoke marijuana was that they felt it relieved their symptoms of depression and anxiety. Another study found that marijuana use did not seem to exacerbate depression, but rather was another symptom of the condition.

Some research indicates that marijuana users (especially regular or heavy users) are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who don't use the drug. But research has failed to conclude that there is a causation relationship at play: It doesn't seem as though depression directly results from marijuana use. In some patients with a predisposition to other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia psychosis, and bipolar depression, marijuana use may serve as a trigger for the disease's expression. There also is some evidence that teenagers who attempt suicide may be more likely to have used marijuana than those who have not made an attempt.

As with marijuana use and depression, more research is needed to better understand these associations. As states continue to pass medical marijuana laws and refine the criteria for eligibility, more research will likely go further toward exploring the relationship between depression and marijuana use.

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Article Sources

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