Can Marijuana Help Treat Depression?

Some People May See Benefits, But It Isn't Guaranteed

Researcher Taking a Few Cannabis Buds for Scientific Experiment
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More than 30 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as well as the territories of Guam, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico legally allow for the medical use of marijuana. Much debate has ensued over which conditions should qualify patients for approved use.

While some believe marijuana can help with depression, there is not yet enough evidence to recommend using marijuana to treat depression. And using marijuana for this purpose comes with risks.

Research on the potential benefits of marijuana for depression is still in the early stages, and more in-depth evidence is needed. Depression and marijuana use often co-occur, but teasing apart their relationship with one another is a chicken-and-egg problem researchers have yet to solve.

Components of Marijuana

There are two main categories of chemicals present in marijuana, and they may have different effects on depression.

  • Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the psychoactive component of marijuana that gives the feeling of being high and is what makes the drug appealing for recreational use.
  • Cannabidiol (CBD) is the non-psychoactive component of the plant that contributes to its pharmacological actions without being involved in the high; this is the component of the drug that has been studied for the treatment of depression.

Can Marijuana Help 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 many of the active compounds 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. But it's important to note that this research was done on animals, not humans.

A 2018 study found that smoking cannabis can significantly reduce self-reported levels of depression in the short term. Yet the researchers also found that repeated use didn't lead to any long-term reduction of symptoms and may even increase depression over time in some people.

Risks of Marijuana

Although there is some evidence that marijuana may have antidepressant properties, there are also some important risks that need to be addressed when considering using the drug to treat depression.

Amotivational Syndrome

There is a well-known phenomenon called "amotivational syndrome," in which people who regularly and heavily use cannabis become apathetic, socially withdrawn, and perform at a level of everyday functioning well below their capacity prior to their marijuana use. It's possible that this could mimic or worsen symptoms of depression.

Psychiatric Disorders

Some research indicates that people who use marijuana (especially regularly or heavily) 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 causal relationship at play; it is not clear that depression directly results from marijuana use.

In some people with a predisposition to other mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, marijuana use may serve as a trigger for the disease's expression. There also is some research that shows that heavy use of marijuana in adolescence (particularly in teenage girls) can be a predictor of depression and anxiety later on in life.

Certain people are also at risk for the development of psychosis with the use of cannabis. People with substance-induced psychosis might have delusions, hallucinations, or both.

Dependence

One of the biggest concerns with using marijuana as a depression coping tool is that it can result in psychological dependence. It is estimated that about 30% of people who use marijuana will eventually become dependent on it, and the percentage rises in those who begin using marijuana before age 18.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo have been experimenting with the extract cannabidiol to determine if it could offer mood-boosting benefits without the risk of drug dependency.

Less Patience for Proven Treatments

Since the effects of marijuana are fast-acting, experts are also concerned that proven long-term behavior-based coping strategies and depression treatments, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), may seem less helpful at first and may be less likely to be pursued despite their value.

Other Treatments for Depression

While more research is needed to explore the therapeutic potential of marijuana, it is important to note that evidence-based, effective treatments for depression are available.

Each person is different. Psychotherapy and antidepressants are the first-line options when it comes to treating depression. Both may be used on their own, but can often be even more effective when they are used together.

CBT is often described as the "gold standard" in terms of treatment. This approach helps people recognize and change the negative and distorted thoughts that can contribute to depressive symptoms. Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) and also commonly prescribed.

If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, don't rely on CBD or marijuana for relief. Talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional. They can assess your symptoms, make a diagnosis, and provide treatment recommendations.

A Word From Verywell

As states continue to legalize the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes (and many for recreational use as well) and refine the criteria for eligibility, researchers will likely continue to explore the relationship between depression and marijuana use.

A much larger body of scientific research is required to prove or disprove the efficacy of medical marijuana. If you live with depression and are considering medical marijuana as a treatment option, consider first working with your doctor to weigh the pros and cons.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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