There’s plenty of evidence that we have reached a new mental health crisis, especially with current global social issues. People are more desperate than ever to find a solution to the crushing feelings of anxiety, depression, and a wealth of other mental health issues. On top of traditional resources like therapy and medication, some people are turning to a new treatment option: medical marijuana.
There is significant evidence to indicate that marijuana can be used in multiple forms to treat generalized anxiety, depression, and other mood-affecting mental health issues. Its unique chemical structure makes it a better choice for treating mental health than more severe prescription medications.
To really understand how marijuana can be used to help improve mental health, you need to understand what it is and how it works on the chemical level.
A Brief Overview of Medical Marijuana
The first recorded uses of marijuana date back to Asia in about 500 BC, where it was cultivated as a kind of herbal medicine. It was extremely popular because the plant was fast-growing and easy to use, as it was quickly discovered that burning the dried leaves had an effect on the mind and body.
The Asian users of marijuana appreciated the plant’s psychoactive properties as both culturally significant and as healthcare; it was used by shamans and religious leaders in ceremonies and healing practices and was specifically bred for potency. They may not how known in as much detail how it worked, but they knew that it did work.
Marijuana is still relatively new to the Western medical field, though. While versions of cannabis extracts were sold across Europe in the 1800s as a treatment for pain, the first usable synthetic version of the drug was only brought to the pharmacology field in 1964. Before that, it was extremely difficult to isolate the psychoactive ingredients in the plant. This is because most psychoactive agents are alkaloids, or use nitrogen to function, while the ones in cannabis don’t.
The Chemical Drivers of Marijuana
Marijuana contains more than 400 different chemicals, most of which scientists haven’t identified the exact functions of. The two kinds we do know the most about, though, are delta 9 tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as THC, and cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD. There are roughly 66 compounds classified as cannabinoids currently known to exist in the cannabis plant.
Looking at the two main compounds structurally, THC and CBD are pretty much the same. They’re made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and are soluble in alcohol and lipids. They’re generally acidic and can be changed by being heated. The difference is in how they’re accepted by the receptors in your brain.
THC is the main source of marijuana’s mind-altering properties. Essentially, it’s what causes a “high.” It’s considered an anti-inflammatory agent, as well as an anticonvulsant and muscle relaxant, given that it calms the nervous system by blocking the uptake of certain signals in the brain. It’s considered a sedative.
As mentioned before, cannabinoids don’t need nitrogen to function, meaning that for a long time, scientists weren’t sure where to look for these ingredients. Research suggests that these psychoactive ingredients are chemically closer to those in peyote, a type of cactus, than they are to alcohol. Cannabinoids are the part of the plant that relax the body most effectively.
The Kinds of Medical Marijuana
There are four main types of medical marijuana currently in use around the world, as defined by the Psychiatric Times.
- Herbal cannabis, or “classic” marijuana, is the flowering top of the cannabis plant that can be dried, rolled, and smoked as you would a cigarette.
- Extracts are the refined oils and waxes that come from the cannabis plant. These can be smoked or vaporized, although they are commonly developed into oral sprays or drops.
- Edibles are a derivative of the cannabis plant designed specifically to be ingested orally, usually in the form of a baked good, candy, or pill.
- Topical cannabis is generally formulated into a cream or lotion, and is designed to be absorbed into the skin.
Herbal cannabis is probably what you think of when you hear “marijuana.” It’s the portrayal most often used in media and is the most widely used version of the drug in an unregulated sense.
While there have been problems with herbal cannabis causing more heightened anxiety, a recent clinical trial showed that the use of an extract or edible can greatly reduce issues with severe anxiety, although the psychoactive traits of an edible makes it a less-than ideal choice when it comes to symptom reduction. This means that, when prescribed cannabis by a doctor, you’re most likely to get an extract.
Topical cannabis, though technically considered medicinal, isn’t generally assigned by prescription. This is the kind of cannabis you’re likely to find in skincare and beauty products. It doesn’t produce any kind of high and, as far as research has shown, doesn’t appear to have much of an effect on mental health.
How Marijuana Helps Mental Health
Although we’ve known about the physical benefits of marijuana for quite a long time at this point, we’re only just discovering the mental and emotional benefits of the plant. There are a few different key uses for medicinal marijuana in the mental health world.
The Causes of Mental Health Disorders
Human brains have something called an endocannabinoid system. Discovered as an independent system in the 1990s, your ECS, as it’s called for short, plays a part in controlling several functions of the body including:
Changes to this system can cause what’s known as psychosis, which means that the sufferer loses contact with reality in some way. Current research shows that medical marijuana, specifically CBD, may help block the reuptake of endocannabinoids in those with many different mental health disorders. This causes more of them to be available in the system, which means that they can function more effectively.
Another major player is endorphins. These are one of the main neurochemicals involved in boosting mood and reducing pain. It’s responsible for the “runner’s high” and the rush felt during high-stakes activities. Stimulating its production, on a biological level, encourages the brain to interpret situations as safe. On the other side of this, a lack of endorphins can make the brain feel weak or like it’s in danger.
The oldest medicinal use of marijuana is in the relief of physical pain. The drug helps with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders that are unresponsive to other kinds of treatment, as it is a muscle relaxer that is generally easier on the system than stronger classic prescription drugs.
It’s also frequently used by cancer patients to ease the nausea and appetite loss caused by chemotherapy. It’s been shown to help them eat more and keep it down due to its hunger-causing effects during a high.
Connecting Physical and Mental Health
This treatment history is where the realization that marijuana could help with mental health came from. Patients being treated for pain with marijuana reported lower rates of anxiety and depression than those who hadn’t been prescribed the drug. Through more thorough testing over time, more benefits were discovered for mental health treatment.
It’s long been known that mental and physical health are highly connected. Being physically ill can make your mental health plummet, yes, but being mentally ill can make your physical health suffer as well. This means that both aspects should be treated with respect, without sacrificing one for the other.
Many prescription drugs used to treat mental health can have debilitating physical side effects that might render their treatment ineffective. This is where medical marijuana comes in. Because it’s significantly less severe physically than stronger medications, marijuana can be an effective treatment for issues that aren’t responding to those medications.
Treating Anxiety and PTSD
Marijuana, on a basic level, induces the production of endorphins in the brain. Because those with anxiety and PTSD tend to have severe issues with endorphin production, the working theory is that using marijuana will give their systems the boost they need to overcome episodes of anxiety that cause serious dysfunction. It can also help these episodes happen less frequently, and help the brain become more adjusted to working on regular endorphin levels.
Marijuana also stimulates the production of serotonin, another mood-boosting chemical. People with anxiety, PTSD, and other mood disorders often have issues with their brains not producing enough serotonin naturally. Using this drug, they can stimulate the parts of their brain that would normally make it, and this, along with an antidepressant, can help improve their mood and overall functionality.
On top of this, the sedative effects of marijuana can help treat the physical symptoms of these disorders as well. Anxiety disorders have a long list of symptoms, including
- physical shaking
- rapid heartbeat
Many of these symptoms can cause a dangerous lack of oxygen to the brain and make it hard to move or access help if treated too slowly. Using marijuana curbs these symptoms quickly and effectively, lessening their impact on daily life.
Stabilizing Mood and Improving Sleep
Studies have shown that the use of medical marijuana reduces the need to use more conventional, and more dangerous, medicines like opioids and benzodiazepines. These medications often have serious, sometimes debilitating side effects, on top of being difficult to dose and highly addictive. While there is a small risk of addiction with marijuana, it’s definitely less severe and easier to treat quickly.
Marijuana has the benefit of not being nearly as debilitating, especially in the short term, if used correctly. Again, due to its sedative effects, marijuana can help stabilize a person’s mood during a severe depressive episode or bouts of mania. It works quickly, cutting off these dangerous episodes before they can cause much damage.
It’s also a fantastic sleep aid. This can help those who suffer with insomnia, either as its own issue or as a symptom of a larger problem. It can help regulate their sleep schedule, which in turn helps manage stress and improve coping abilities. This is, again, a safer alternative to strong sedative medications that are difficult to dose and highly addictive.
The Risks of Marijuana
As with any new treatment, though, there are a few important risks to consider before switching to marijuana as an option. The two biggest hot points for debate are the legality and safety of the drug.
The Legality of Marijuana
Marijuana has had a strained relationship with the law since the early 1900s, when it was criminalized in the states because of tensions between the United States and Mexico in the Great Depression. It was targeted even more by the Nixon administration in 1970, who, in a largely political rather than scientifically-based move, classed it alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy as a Schedule I drug.
This targeting blacklisted the drug in the public eye. Though there wasn’t significant evidence to prove it, it was marketed as a “gateway drug” to more serious addiction by the DARE program (which was shown repeatedly to be factually wrong and ineffective across the board). This shift in public opinion saw an uptick in laws restricting marijuana use even when, in the 1990s, it began to see legalization as new information about its historically-proven medical uses came to light.
Still, because of marijuana’s tenuous legal status, it’s incredibly difficult to conduct any proper scientific research on its composition and effects. You can’t research something that you can’t legally buy or own. This also makes accessing it for treatment significantly more difficult. Marijuana is still illegal at the federal level in the United States, but many states have overturned this particular ruling, and the Department of Justice has deferred to their rulings.
As of writing, some form marijuana (usually an extremely low dose CBD) is legal to use in 47 states for very specific medicinal purposes, widely available for medicinal use in 35 states, and available recreationally in only 18 states. This may sound like availability is relatively good, but keep in mind that most of these states require a very specific, multiply verified prescription for even low-level CBD.
Debating the Safety of Marijuana
As with any drug, marijuana affects everyone differently. Although the majority of people report feeling calmer and more relaxed when using marijuana (generally in herbal form), some people might be at risk of developing paranoid thoughts, especially if they have a family history of paranoia. For some, it can increase anxious symptoms, especially in those for whom complete situational control is a big issue.
There is limited information about the short-term effects of its use, which include:
- Memory loss
- Impaired executive function
- Limited information processing.
Most of this evidence, though, comes from the anecdotal experiences of recreational users, which is fine for more casual survey of how the drug works, but is not helpful in determining scientifically sound, reputable lists of risks and benefits.
On top of this, there’s a real risk of cancer if you choose to smoke it. Marijuana smoke has at least 50 percent more carcinogens than tobacco smoke, and is usually held longer in the lungs, giving them longer exposure. That being said, these compounds are generally not found in non-smoked applications of the plant.
Advocating for Marijuana Use
Those who argue for the legality of marijuana do have some decent ground to stand on, though. The drug is decriminalized in several dozen countries around the world for medicinal purposes, and is recreationally available in Uruguay, South Africa, Georgia, and Canada.
The information coming from these countries is promising; they don’t seem to be seeing any alarming spikes in medical emergencies or crime, which is a huge worry for many people who argue against legalization. These countries are also making it easier to get the clinical information we desperately need to understand marijuana better.
Medical Marijuana Can Help Make Good Mental Health Easier
Suffering with a mental health disorder can be scary. It can make the world seem like a dangerous, overwhelming place that you don’t fit into, which can make it hard to function on even a basic level.
With mental health becoming such a major and debilitating crisis in the world as it is right now, especially in the midst of the pandemic, advocates argue that having a relatively safe, easy to cultivate and manufacture, and effective treatment for mental health disorders that might otherwise cause serious harm to a person is a huge benefit.
Medical marijuana may be a better option than strong, life-altering opioids and other prescription drugs. It can help people take care of themselves when they would otherwise be stuck in a dark and painful place without much hope of getting out. As long as it is taken responsibly, marijuana can make living with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and many other conditions resistant to traditional treatment much easier.