California was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical purposes in 1996, having come a long way since marijuana was placed as a Schedule 1 drug in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Since then, there have been many debates surrounding the medical benefits of marijuana.

While many states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes, the FDA has only approved the use of medical marijuana for two rare forms of epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox Gastaut syndrome. With regards to mental health, some states have approved medical marijuana in the treatment of PTSD. While research into medical marijuana and its effect on PTSD is underdeveloped, clinical trials and anecdotal evidence from PTSD sufferers demonstrate the positive impact of the drug on their symptoms. This may be due to the fact that cannabis can reduce activity in the amygdala, the brains “fight or flight” center. There is also some evidence that demonstrates the plant’s cannabinoids could play a role in extinguishing traumatic memories.

Advocates for the drug claim it has therapeutic benefits for a variety of mental health conditions, including insomnia, depression, anxiety, stress, and schizophrenia. An internet search on the topic will lead you to believe that medical marijuana is a “cure all”; a natural remedy that has endless benefits. However, when you take a closer look at the information available, one thing becomes clear: there is just not enough research to draw any substantial conclusions regarding the benefit of medical marijuana for mental health. 

Research on medical marijuana extremely limited in the United States. This is due to the fact that it is still not legal on a federal level. From 1968 until now, researchers have only been allowed to use cannabis from one source for research, a facility at the University of Mississippi. However, as of May of 2021, the DEA stated its plan approve more growers, which will allow for more widespread research to be conducted.

Until then, here’s what we know when it comes to marijuana as it pertains to mental health. The main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, THC, stimulates the part of your brain that responds to pleasure. This results in production of the dopamine, a neurotransmitter that results in relaxation and euphoria. Subjective experiences and limited research indicate marijuana may have a positive effect on anxiety and insomnia. However, not everyone’s experience with marijuana is the same. Some users experience increased anxiety, fear, panic, or paranoia. Using marijuana also has the potential to increase the likelihood of clinical depression, or worsen the symptoms of any mental health challenges you already have.

Due to the above risks and lack of evidence of the benefits, self-medicating with marijuana to manage your mental health symptoms is not advisible. However, whatever you chose to do, the most important thing is to talk openly with your doctor, psychiatrist, and/or therapist about your usage and how it impacts your mental health. If you believe medical marijuana to be of benefit for your mental health, ideally it would be prescribed and regulated by a doctor. Due to current laws in the state in which you reside, this may not be an option. In the meantime in addition to being honest with your providers, be sure to explore alternative techniques to manage your symptoms, including mindfulness, psychiatric medications, meditation, herbs/supplements, and exercise.

- Alexandria Baxter, LMSW

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