While there’s no scientific consensus on the total number of people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it seems to have become much more prevalent in recent years — in 2018, a study in JAMA Pediatrics found that over 10 percent of U.S. children and teens were diagnosed with the condition in 2016, up from just over 6 percent in 1997. The issue isn’t limited to young people, as the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that at least 4.4 percent of American adults are also living with the condition. The real number could potentially be much higher, as only around 20 percent of adults with ADHD seek treatment for it.
The use of medication to manage ADHD symptoms is more common among children and teens — over 69 percent of those with the condition are taking medication for it, according to the NIMH — but the currently available solutions have left much to be desired for many patients. As a result, a growing number of people have become curious about the potential of cannabis and its compounds as an alternative treatment method. However, while a number of states with medical cannabis programs have permitted the plant’s use for autism spectrum disorders (which share a number of key characteristics with ADHD), none have expressly approved it for treating the latter.
This is because there’s little scientific proof that cannabis (or its derivatives, like non-intoxicating cannabidiol, better known as CBD) are effective at managing the symptoms of ADHD. While some research has indicated it could potentially be useful for relieving certain aspects of the condition, like anxiety or depression, there are still too many unknown variables at play for researchers to determine whether the plant could be a viable treatment.
As Dr. Scott Shannon, a holistic medical professional in Colorado, told VICE, “ADHD is a basket of problems. Saying you can’t pay attention is like saying [to a mechanic], ‘My car isn’t going forward.’ There are many things that could [be] wrong.”
There are two main forms of ADHD, which are commonly described as the inattentive type (characterized by difficulty in maintaining focus or finishing tasks) and the hyperactive-impulsive type (characterized by traits like physical fidgeting, excessive talking, and impulsivity). Some people with ADHD show symptoms of only one type, though it’s not uncommon for both to be expressed in different situations.
In addition to behavioral therapy (which the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends, especially for patients under 6 years old), the most common treatments for ADHD are pharmaceutical stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin. These medications are intended to recalibrate the brain’s levels of dopamine — in 2009, a study from researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) showed that lower levels of this neurotransmitter “may underlie core symptoms of inattention and impulsivity” in ADHD patients.
But many of the conventional stimulants used to treat ADHD have been linked with sometimes significant side effects (including anxiety, irritability, and insomnia), which has spurred interest in cannabis as a possible alternative. A 2016 study published in the journal PLOS One, which examined a number of online forum discussions among ADHD patients, found that 25 percent of posts remarked positively on cannabis’ therapeutic potential for the condition, compared with just 8 percent that expressed negative viewpoints.
However, there’s very little scientific research to support the idea that ADHD could be treated effectively with cannabis. Proponents sometimes point to a 2018 study from Finnish researchers that found cannabinoid-based therapies could be effective for relieving ADHD symptoms, especially “among hyperactive-impulsive subtypes,” while omitting that the paper in question was a case study of a single patient.
Other, larger studies have not been especially promising up to this point. In 2017, a randomized study of 30 adults by British researchers failed to find proof that cannabis-based medications were more effective than placebos, as “results did not meet significance following correction for multiple [tests and] so are inconclusive.” That same year, a study published in the journal NeuroImage: Critical found that while “cannabis does not appear to exacerbate ADHD-related [problems],” it doesn’t appear to have a beneficial effect either.
When it comes to cannabis derivatives like CBD, even advocates like Dr. Mitch Earleywine, an advisory board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and a professor of psychology at SUNY-Albany, are highly skeptical. As he told the patient advocacy outlet ADDitude, “there is no published data, let alone randomized clinical trials, [that] support the use of CBD for ADHD.”
While future research might cast a more favorable light on using cannabis and its derivatives as an alternative treatment for ADHD, right now there’s simply not enough scientific evidence to back up the anecdotal reports.