Study: Cannabis Use Benefits ADHD Symptoms in Adults, According to Self-Reports
Adults with ADHD who use cannabis say the substance improves symptoms, medication side effects, and executive dysfunction, according to the findings of a self-reported study.
October 21, 2021
Many adults with ADHD who use cannabis report positive effects on symptoms and other benefits, according a new study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders1 that underscores the extent to which individuals with ADHD self-medicate with cannabis.
The study asked 1,738 adults aged 18 to 55 to complete an online survey about ADHD symptoms, cannabis use, and the perceived effects of cannabis on symptoms, medication side effects, and executive dysfunction. Most participants (87%) did not have an ADHD diagnosis, but roughly 25% of the sample met or surpassed the threshold for mildly symptomatic ADHD and reported experiencing ADHD-like symptoms.
Roughly three-quarters of participants with ADHD were also classified as cannabis users, and more than half of these participants explicitly reported that they have used cannabis to manage ADHD symptoms. In addition, about 17% reported that they had been prescribed ADHD medication.
The study found that about 92% of participants with ADHD who have used cannabis to manage symptoms report that acute cannabis use improves their symptoms overall. Of this group, about 80% report that cannabis improves hyperactivity; 46% report improvement in impulsivity; 88% say it improves restlessness; and 76% report improvement in mental frustration.
The same group also indicated that chronic cannabis use improves (35%) or has no effect (37%) on their overall ADHD symptoms; 14% said it worsens their ADHD symptoms.
Among participants who were prescribed ADHD medication, most report that cannabis improves rather than worsens medication side effects like stomach aches (21% vs. 4%); loss of appetite (82% vs. 2%); headaches (38% vs. 10%); and mood (53% vs 11%).
Cannabis use frequency emerged as moderator of the associations between symptom severity and executive dysfunction. While findings mostly show positive, direct correlation between ADHD scores (symptom severity) and executive dysfunction, the strength of this relationship became somewhat smaller as cannabis use frequency increased, suggesting that more frequent use may mitigate some ADHD-related executive dysfunction. This finding surprised the authors, given the negative effects that cannabis use can have on executive functioning.
The study also showed significant correlations between symptoms of ADHD and frequency of cannabis use, as well as symptoms of cannabis use disorder (CUD), as determined by a self-reported scale. These findings align with prior literature linking ADHD with risk of cannabis use and CUD.
The findings, according to the authors, can provide clinicians with a better understanding of their cannabis-using patients with ADHD and the perceived benefits of the substance.
The authors listed the study’s retrospective self-reporting methods as a limitation, as these types of reports depend on memory (in itself potentially impacted by chronic cannabis use) and thus vary in accuracy. The subjective nature of the study could also mean that symptom improvement may be difficult to objectively verify.
The authors also suggest that cannabis might work to reduce the distress associated with ADHD symptoms, but not directly impact the symptoms. This theory is in line with previous research on cannabis for ADHD self-medicating; as cannabis doesn’t address the root issues underlying symptoms, users may feel compelled to use the drug more frequently, which increases the risk of developing cannabis use disorder (CUD).
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1 Stueber, A., & Cuttler, C. (2021). Self-Reported Effects of Cannabis on ADHD Symptoms, ADHD Medication Side Effects, and ADHD-Related Executive Dysfunction. Journal of Attention Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1177/10870547211050949