BY KASANDRA BRABAW
When Peter Barsoom was 21, he was diagnosed with ADD. He was prescribed both Ritalin and Adderall to manage his symptoms, but it wasn’t until he tried self-medicating with cannabis that he really felt like he found the best treatment for him.
With ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), people often feel unfocused, agitated, and impulsive. It can be difficult to accomplish tasks at work or school, and that often leads to increased stress and anxiety, says David Sitt, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist who works with adults who have ADHD. “Having ADD is challenging,” Dr. Sitt says. “My feeling about my patients is that when they come home from work, they’re medicating that anxiety [with cannabis].”
Some people find that cannabis helps dampen those symptoms, according to a study that examined messages in an online forum about medical marijuana use for ADHD. Of the 55 threads examined in that study, 25% of the threads contained messages stating that cannabis use was therapeutic for ADHD, while 8% found it harmful.
Barsoom is among those who finds cannabis helpful as a means of quelling his ADD, because it calmed his symptoms and made him feel better than traditional medications. He now owns an edibles company, 1906, and has developed a low-THC formula dubbed Genius that’s intended to help people focus, based on his own experiences using cannabis to medicate. “Unlike the common prescription drugs for attentional focus, Genius will not make you agitated, ‘speedy,’ or jittery, and it has no unpleasant hangover effects," he says.
For Barsoom, trying cannabis was an alternative to traditional medications that made him feel ‘off’. “After spending more than two decades medicated, I was desperately interested in finding non-habit forming alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals,” he says.
Yet, not everyone who uses marijuana to treat their ADD and ADHD stops taking Adderall or Ritalin. Some use it in conjunction with their normal medications. Regardless, it’s clear even from anecdotal evidence that marijuana doesn’t help everyone who has ADD or ADHD. Dr. Sitt says he has some clients who really seem to benefit from medical marijuana, but he also has some he wishes wouldn’t use it because it only worsens their symptoms.
“The danger is that it’s all guesswork until you throw it through a clinical trial and compare it to a placebo,” he says. And, as with many other medical conditions, the research on cannabis and attention disorders just isn’t there yet. Early research viewed the plant as an illegal drug (because it was, at the time) and thus delved into the topic with a critical eye. “Early evidence shows cannabis causing potential deficits in planning and decision making, speed, accuracy, and increased impulsive behavior,” Dr. Sitt says. Since those are already problematic functions for people who have ADD and ADHD, there was concern that using cannabis could compound those challenges.
And, according to the conversations studied on the “cannabis for ADHD” forums, the plant does create more problems for some people. Remember, 8% of the threads included posters’ negative experiences using marijuana for ADD and ADHD (and 2% said it had no effect whatsoever).
Yet, there could be a lot we don’t know about those individuals’ experiences. Perhaps they got too high, or were using the wrong strain. When Barsoom set out to create an edible that could help people focus, he used only 2.5mg of THC, because it was enough to jumpstart focus and creativity but not enough to get anyone high. Plus, Dr. Sitt theorizes that the specific strain could have something to do with how people feel using cannabis for ADD and ADHD. “Anecdotally, especially if you’re hyperactive, you’re agitated and on edge, your mind is always racing and on the go,” Dr. Sutt explains. “Some clients report that smoking calms them down and relaxes them, especially with Indica strains, and some people say using Sativas actually makes them more hyper and agitated. It really depends on the person and the use.”
Still, there isn’t any hard scientific evidence to confirm that either dose or strain matters. As for the overall question, “does cannabis help for ADD or ADHD,” Dr. Sitt says there’s not enough research to give an answer. He hopes for a day when the research does exist, but we’re not there yet; though, as anecdotal insights illustrate, cannabis does, indeed, seem to help some people that grapple with attention disorders.