Legalizing medical marijuana in jurisdictions around the world has spurred a research boom. Long-held stigmas wiped out generations of opportunities for exploring the physical and mental health effects of the cannabis plant.
Today, the U.S. has seen 37 states plus the District of Columbia legalize medical marijuana, with nearly half of all states legalizing recreational marijuana. An estimated 3.6 million legal medical cannabis patients exist, which is expected to grow exponentially.
But where does this leave mental health? In short, the potential of medical marijuana is limitless because so little long-term research exists.
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Recreational vs. Medical Marijuana for Mental Health
Medical cannabis for mental health is something that has excited scientists for years. In the U.S., one of the most extensive research projects exploring the issue is the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) organization.
Since 2014, MIND has been studying the impact of cannabis and cannabinoids on cognitive performance, mental health, brain structure, and function. Founder Dr. Staci Gruber clarifies that recreational and medical marijuana populations vary drastically.
In particular, Dr. Gruber mentions that recreational users often want to change their mental states, whereas medical marijuana patients aren’t interested in getting high. Instead, they want to improve their mental health.
It’s an essential distinction scientists must make because their intents are different. Someone looking to apply for a medical marijuana card in West Virginia will have varying goals and expectations compared to a recreational smoker in California.
Early Insights Into Mental Health and Medical Cannabis
MIND has already conducted several peer-reviewed studies on patients using medical weed to treat various medical issues, including anxiety and depression.
These studies have discovered early correlations between medical cannabis and reduced anxiety-related symptoms. Participants also reported reduced use of conventional pharmaceuticals, including antidepressants, opioids, and mood stabilizers.
Does this mean that medical weed inconclusively improves mental health?
Not necessarily. The buzz around the mental health benefits of not just medical weed but cannabinoids, in general, has found itself way ahead of the actual science, according to a major study into the mental health benefits of cannabinoids.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that medical marijuana offers no benefits for mental health. It’s just an indication of where the science is at. It will take years, and even decades, to uncover the full story of marijuana’s impact on the mind.
Combatting the Opioid Epidemic
It’s no secret that modern America suffers from a mental health crisis. Approximately one in five Americans experience a mental illness in any given year, with one in 25 living with severe mental health disorders, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Today, an estimated 13% of Americans take prescribed antidepressants. It’s a shockingly high number, not accounting for other pharmaceuticals.
Addiction is a significant risk that can destroy a person’s quality of life and lead to long-term adverse health effects. And that’s where medical cannabis comes in.
The potential for a total shakeup of how the medical industry approaches and treats mental health is immense. Pharmaceutical companies stand to lose billions if the potential for medical weed is eventually realized.
Barriers still exist to research, however. Studies are scant, with most medical weed studies focusing on the physical benefits of cannabis. Another issue is that marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, hampering ongoing research.
Where the Science Stands on Medical Weed for Mental Health Treatments
With all this in mind, what’s the current state of play for cannabis and mental illness? Let’s jump into how medical cannabis could potentially treat anxiety and depression, the two most common mental health disorders.
Medical Cannabis and Anxiety
Most studies focusing on treating anxiety disorders rely on self-reported results rather than understanding how medical weed influences a patient’s brain.
One study reported short-term reductions in anxiety and stress. However, that same study reported that it didn’t appear to have lasting effects. Also, there are some suspicions that relying on medical weed solely to treat anxiety could exacerbate the problem over time.
Medical Cannabis and Depression
Like with anxiety, few studies exist on cannabis use and depression. One of the most authoritative studies focused on a single cannabinoid CBD.
A 2014 review of studies concluded that CBD could support depression treatment by binding to 5-HT1A receptors in the brain. These receptors are a type of serotonin receptor known as the happiness drug.
With low levels of serotonin being associated with anxiety and depression, CBD could be a viable treatment option for depression.
Medical cannabis is still a relatively new option for millions of Americans suffering from mental illness. The problem is generations of prohibition have meant scientists starting from ground zero, with most “evidence” coming from anecdotes.
Early studies have shown tremendous promise in supporting people dealing with various mental disorders. Until more studies prove these links and medical cannabis becomes more widely available, weed as the go-to option for anxiety and depression is still potentially decades away.
Do you think medical cannabis could be an avenue for mental health treatment?