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Can Marijuana Replace Adderall for ADHD?

Table of Contents

What is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder?

According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6.1 million children, or 9.4% of the child population, have had an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis during their lifetimes. Among the various age groups, 388,000 children aged 2-5 years old, 4 million children in the range of 6 to 11 years old, and 3 million of those aged 12-17 have been diagnosed with the condition.1 ADHD, along with anxiety, is one of the top mental health issues seen in school. Professional treatment can help address symptoms of ADHD.

Symptoms of ADHD

As the name might imply, children with ADHD have difficulty with attention and may also struggle with impulsivity and hyperactivity. Specific symptoms include having trouble following instructions and finishing work, appearing not to listen when spoken to, losing important belongings, and being easily distracted and forgetful. Symptoms of impulsivity may involve talking excessively, having difficulty waiting for a turn to speak, and getting up from a seat at school when it is not appropriate to do so.

Current Treatment with Adderall

ADHD is often treated with the medication Adderall, but there are alternative treatments available. One such treatment option is medical marijuana, and research is beginning to explore this as a possible treatment option for ADHD. Discover more about standard Adderall treatment for ADHD, as well as the potential for marijuana to be useful in treating this disorder.

Adderall and ADHD

How Adderall Works

Adderall is a stimulant medication, and it works by increasing levels of two brain chemicals called norepinephrine and dopamine.  These chemicals both help with attention and focus in an area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is thought of as the executive control center, and it helps to plan and organize one’s behavior. When norepinephrine is elevated in this brain region, it can help people focus on important information in the environment. When dopamine levels are high enough, it’s easier to ignore distractions in the environment that prevent focus on important tasks, like chores or schoolwork.2 In this way, Adderall treats the symptoms of ADHD.

Side Effects of Adderall

Adderall is known to be highly effective for treating ADHD, as 80% of people respond well to stimulant medications, but that does not mean it is without side effects. Some common negative effects of Adderall include the following:

Feeling nervous

Suffering from a headache

Gastrointestinal symptoms like constipation, diarrhea, or nausea

Weight loss

In extreme cases, severe side effects may appear, such as dizziness, difficulty speaking, tics, frenzied behavior, agitation, breathing difficulties, itching, seizures, depression, teeth grinding, hallucinations, paranoia, rapid heartbeat, or confusion.3

Medical Marijuana and ADHD

Medical marijuana for ADHD has become a possibility with increased research and interest in its use for treating health conditions. There is some preliminary science that suggests that it could be useful for treating ADHD symptoms. According to a researcher from the University of Washington, a study carried out in the United Kingdom found that a medical marijuana spray called Sativex resulted in small improvements in hyperactivity and impulsivity. There was also a slight improvement in attention and emotional issues among people taking Sativex for ADHD. While the improvements were relatively small, they were similar to what has been seen with stimulant medications. This suggests that perhaps, medical marijuana can replace Adderall for ADHD in some cases, but more research is needed.4

Anecdotal Evidence

Beyond scientific studies, there is anecdotal evidence that medical marijuana could replace Adderall for ADHD. For example, many people in online forums have reported that marijuana improves their ADHD symptoms. While this is promising, it is noted that self-reports that marijuana improves symptoms are not the same as controlled, scientific studies.4

Additional Medical Marijuana Research to Treat ADHD

In addition to self-reports and preliminary scientific studies, there are case studies that have indicated that medical marijuana can one day replace Adderall for treating ADHD.

Reducing Side Effects of Ritalin

A 2019 edition of Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids, evaluated the effects of medical marijuana on a man with ADHD who had experienced too many side effects with Ritalin. The man took two types of medical marijuana, both of which contained the active ingredient THC, and the results of the case study showed that he experienced an improvement in ADHD symptoms. For instance, he developed better frustration tolerance and saw a reduction in angry outbursts, boredom, and concentration problems. The man found that when he vaporized it, his symptoms improved quickly, within ten to fifteen minutes.5

Improved Sleep and Concentration

A German study also found that medical marijuana could improve sleep and concentration along with decreasing impulsive behaviors among adults with ADHD. After the study, 73% of patients preferred to use only marijuana to treat their condition. On the other hand, 27% continued to use marijuana, but preferred to combine it with stimulant medications.5

The author of this study has discussed other case reports, such as a person with ADHD stating that medical marijuana results in a state of being “hyper-concentrated” and allows him to focus well enough to write a 2,000-word essay over the course of an afternoon. In addition, research from California shows that many young men with ADHD report that they prefer inhaling marijuana to using stimulants for treating ADHD symptoms like poor concentration.5

Illegally Grown Marijuana for Self-Medication

Other research suggests that people may grow marijuana illegally to seek relief for ADHD symptoms. In fact, 15% of illegal cannabis growers in a Scandinavian study reported that they were growing the crop to treat ADHD. A second study, which interviewed marijuana in Norway, found that treatment of ADHD was the top medical reason for using the substance.5

Studies Supporting Medical Marijuana Replacing Adderall for ADHD

Strength of Studies Supporting Medical Marijuana Replacing Adderall

There is a growing body of research showing that marijuana can replace Adderall for ADHD. A limited number of controlled scientific study’s have  shown that it can be effective for ADHD symptoms. Controlled experimental studies are the strongest form of evidence available for supporting the use of specific medications to treat ADHD or other conditions.

Another strength of studies exploring the use of medical marijuana for ADHD is that so many patients report improvements with marijuana use. Ultimately, people living with ADHD should be able to use treatments that allow them to enjoy life and function to the best of their ability. Based upon case studies and self-reports from people with ADHD who use marijuana, it does seem that many of them find relief from troubling symptoms like lack of concentration or emotional difficulties.

Weakness of Studies Exploring Medical Marijuana for ADHD

Self-Reporting Issues

While studies with medical marijuana have found obvious strengths for treating ADHD, there are some noteworthy weaknesses in the research. While many patients have reported that they can focus better when using medical marijuana, these self-reports cannot take the place of controlled scientific research.

Placebo Effect

Patients who use marijuana to treat ADHD symptoms may be experiencing a placebo effect. In simpler terms, they might psychologically feel better simply because they know they are taking something to treat their condition. In that case, medical marijuana may not affect; patients may have just convinced themselves that it does benefit them.

Limited Number of Studies

Another weakness is that only one truly controlled study has explored marijuana’s use for ADHD. While scientific research is certainly a strength, there needs to be additional research that confirms the benefits. At this time, there is not sufficient scientific evidence to allow medical experts to definitively conclude that medical marijuana can replace Adderall for ADHD treatment.

How Marijuana Legalization Affects Studies

Federal Roadblocks

More research is needed to determine if marijuana truly can treat ADHD as effectively as Adderall, and legalization may be necessary to make this possible. Currently, it is difficult to conduct research because the Federal government continues to label marijuana as a Schedule I substance, which, by definition, has no presently recognized medical use. For scientists to conduct studies, they must get the drug from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which can delay the process.6

Scientists who have studied medical marijuana have reported numerous barriers to carrying out their research, with the Federal government tending to approve studies that focus on the risks rather than benefits of marijuana.

Legalization Making New Studies Easier

More recently, however, with more and more states legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, the government may be beginning to recognize that it can have potential benefits. With continued legalization and more relaxed regulations from the government, researchers can conduct more studies to determine if it can replace Adderall for ADHD. Continued research will fill in the gaps and provide additional information about the effects of medical marijuana on patients with ADHD.

Pros and Cons of Medical Marijuana for ADHD

Additional research may be necessary, but scientists do know enough about medical marijuana to determine some pros and cons of its use for treating ADHD.

Relief from Symptoms

An experimental study and case reports show that marijuana can alleviate ADHD symptoms like hyperactivity, attention issues, and lack of focus. Symptom relief is the main goal of any treatment for ADHD, so these potential benefits are promising.

Reduced Side Effects

Another pro of medical marijuana use is that it comes without many of the negative side effects seen with Adderall. For example, some of the adverse effects of Adderall can be rather serious. Some people, especially those with a family history of heart problems, may experience heart attack with stimulant medications like Adderall. In addition, this medication can cause children to have problems growing or gaining weight.3 Some people even report they stop taking Adderall because of the side effects, and medical marijuana can offer a safer alternative.

There isn't Enough Information on Side Effects of Marijuana

While there certainly are pros to medical marijuana, one of them being the elimination of Adderall side effects, this does not mean that it’s entirely without adverse effects of its own. Marijuana is known to cause some negative effects on the brain, such as difficulty with attention, memory, and motor skills.

It may also cause the brain to process information more slowly, and it can lead to difficulty with solving problems and reasoning logically. While there is some preliminary evidence that marijuana can be effective for treating some ADHD symptoms, its known effects on the brain shows it’s important to proceed with caution.4

Medical marijuana may benefit some patients with ADHD, but based upon its potentially negative effects on brain functioning, it is also possible that it could make ADHD symptoms worse for some.

Addiction Treatment for Marijuana

The jury is still out on whether medical marijuana can truly replace Adderall for treating ADHD, but what is known is that some people may develop am addiction to marijuana, even if they begin using it for therapeutic purposes.

Higher Levels of THC

Currently, 22.2 million people report using marijuana within the past month, and the potential for addiction is higher now than in the past. This is because between 1995 and 2014, the levels of the active chemical THC have risen from about 4% to 12% among the marijuana that people are using.4 This means that people are experiencing a stronger high with use, which can lead to a greater risk of addiction.

Does Higher THC Equal More Addiction?

For those using marijuana recreationally or for medical purposes, an addiction may develop. Individuals seeking treatment for marijuana addiction can find services at a local drug and alcohol treatment center. Treatment for marijuana addiction may involve counseling and case management on an outpatient basis. Treatment may also utilize group therapy where individuals interact with other people living with marijuana addiction and learn how to develop healthy coping mechanisms and prevent relapse. In cases of more serious addiction, a treatment provider may refer an inpatient or residential program.

Addiction Treatment for Adderall

Adderall use can also lead to addiction. Experts have cautioned that people who use Adderall may experience changes in behavior and feel a need to take more and more of the medication to achieve the intended effects. With the onset of these symptoms or the inability to control the use of Adderall, it may be necessary to seek treatment. Treatment for Adderall abuse can involve counseling, case management, and group therapy, with inpatient or residential services offered to those with more severe addictions that require round-the-clock treatment and monitoring. Regardless of the level of need, treatment is available to help overcome Adderall addiction.

Final Thoughts

Both medical marijuana and Adderall have the potential to be addictive, but they both have potential therapeutic benefits for those living with ADHD. Adderall is an approved, established medication for treating ADHD symptoms, and the majority of those who take it see an improvement. With medical marijuana’s recent growth in popularity, some patients with ADHD are also reporting significant improvement in their ADHD symptoms with marijuana use. There is even one experimental study suggesting that medical marijuana can treat ADHD symptoms, but scientists do not know enough yet to say that medical marijuana can replace Adderall for treating ADHD.

Hopefully, with legalization and the reduction of barriers to research, scientists will be able to carry out additional studies that provide stronger evidence regarding the effectiveness of medical marijuana for patients with ADHD. Until then, some people may find relief from ADHD with medical marijuana use, especially if they have found the side effects of Adderall to be unmanageable. Those seeking treatment for ADHD or who have questions about the safety or effectiveness of medical marijuana should consult a physician or a trusted medical professional who can assess unique needs, monitor symptoms, and provide the most up-to-date information.