Some people report that cannabis eases symptoms of depression and anxiety. But it may not work for everyone, and research is lacking.

Over the past few years, interest in medical cannabis has soared. Now less stigmatized and more widely available, medical cannabis is being used to treat a range of health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

Both depressive disorders and anxiety disorders are common mental health conditions. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 264 million people have clinical depression, while the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that around 31% of U.S. adults will have an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.

With an increase in the medical potential of cannabis and its extracts (CBD and THC), more people are wondering whether cannabis can be used to manage these common mental health conditions.

Many people with anxiety and depression are self-medicating with cannabis. One study found that 50% of medical cannabis users use cannabis for anxiety, while 34% use it for depression.

But can cannabis actually help with anxiety or depression? Here’s what you need to know.

Language matters

We use the term “cannabis” instead of “marijuana.”

We avoid the word “marijuana” because it has racist roots and connotations. The word “marijuana” first became popular in the United States during the cannabis prohibition movement, as it appealed to the widespread xenophobia against Mexican immigrants at the time.

Considering that racial minorities are more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than their white counterparts, it’s especially important that we’re mindful about the language we use and how it can add to, or stem from, racist stereotypes.

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Cannabis refers to three kinds of plants — Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. The bud of the plant, also known as the flower, contains chemicals called cannabinoids. These cannabinoids have varying degrees of psychoactivity, which means they vary in how significantly they affect how you feel and the way you perceive things.

Over 100 cannabinoids have been identified, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The best-known and most-studied ones are cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Hemp is a low-THC version of cannabis. Biologically speaking, they’re the same species of plant, but legally speaking, a product needs to contain 0.3% of THC or less in dry weight to be considered hemp.

CBD vs. THC vs. cannabis

CBD is one of the many cannabinoids found in hemp and cannabis plants. It’s non-intoxicating, which means even though it has psychoactive properties, it can’t make you feel intoxicated or “high.” The intoxicating cannabinoid is called THC.

It’s important not to conflate cannabis, THC, and CBD. While CBD is found in cannabis, the two aren’t the same thing. CBD is only one chemical, and some effects in cannabis are produced by other cannabinoids.

Is cannabis legal?

Although hemp is now legal at a federal level, cannabis is not. Medical cannabis is only legal in a few states, and the exact laws differ from one state to the next. If you want to learn more about your state’s laws on cannabis products, you can find out here.

One study found that cannabis can reduce self-reported levels of anxiety, depression, and stress, albeit in the short term. The researchers noted that cannabis use didn’t seem to decrease anxiety or depression in the long run. In fact, they concluded that “use of cannabis to treat depression appears to exacerbate depression over time.”

There are relatively few studies that look at whether cannabis can help with anxiety. However, there’s some evidence from 2018 and 2019 that CBD could help treat anxiety, particularly social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Additionally, there’s some research suggesting that low doses of THC could help relieve anxiety. However, this needs to be studied further before we know for sure.

Plus, some research indicates that cannabis may also cause anxiety. High levels of THC are associated with increased anxiety symptoms, including racing thoughts and an increase in heart rate.

As with anxiety, there’s limited research on whether cannabis can help with depression. Most of the research on cannabis and depression focuses on CBD.

A 2014 review of studies concluded that CBD, in particular, may help with depression because it could affect the 5-HT1A receptors, which are a kind of serotonin receptor. Serotonin is often called the “happiness molecule,” as low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety and depression.

One 2019 review suggested that CBD may have an antidepressant effect, possibly because it may cause an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Low BDNF levels are associated with depression.

But what about cannabis specifically? As mentioned above, some research indicates that using cannabis for depression over a long period of time may actually worsen the condition.

A risk of using cannabis regularly is that you can become dependent on it. Contrary to popular belief, cannabis is addictive and there’s a possibility that one can develop cannabis use disorder (CUD).

One 2018 review found that those with clinical depression as well as those with bipolar disorder are more likely to develop a CUD. Another recent review found that there’s a strong correlation between people with major depression and CUD. In fact, those with CUD are three times more likely to have major depression or generalized anxiety disorder.

There are other risks associated with cannabis and mood disorders. Certain antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications can interact with cannabis, causing uncomfortable side effects.

If you want to self-medicate with cannabis, it’s best you speak to a cannabis-friendly doctor. It’s essential to disclose that you’re using cannabis to your psychiatrist, primary care physician, and any doctor who prescribes medication to you.

While many people report that cannabis helps ease anxiety and depression, there’s a lack of research on the topic.

Science-backed treatments for anxiety and depression include:

Both anxiety and depression are highly treatable. If you have — or suspect you have — an anxiety disorder or a depressive disorder, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with a therapist or your primary care physician. They’ll be able to guide you in the right direction, and together you can figure out the best treatment plan for you.