Should you use medical marijuana as a treatment for mental health issues? The answer to that question depends on which medical professional you ask.
While medical marijuana is illegal at the federal level, as of April 2023, it’s legal in 38 states, plus Washington DC, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Guam. In states where medical marijuana is legal, you must have authorization from a healthcare provider, a license from the state, and be at least 18 years old before you can purchase it legally.
Research is still ongoing about medical marijuana and mental health, so practitioners are relatively divided on the issue. Even those who believe medical marijuana works well don’t prescribe it for all mental health conditions.
Let’s further explore the benefits of marijuana use, its short and long-term effectiveness, and the pros and cons so you better decide if it is right for you.
Health Benefits of Medical Marijuana Use
Marijana can affect the mind and body in different ways. Those who support the drug’s use for medical purposes often prescribe it for various conditions that include the treatment of:
- Chronic physical pain, such as neuropathic pain caused by nerve damage
- Nausea as a side effect of chemotherapy
- Spasticity linked to multiple sclerosis
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
Doctors choose medical marijuana to treat these conditions because of its specific, researched health benefits. These benefits include pain relief, improved sleep and appetite, reduced nausea or vomiting, and calming effects.
Short-Term Effects of Marijuana
Marijuana can have positive and negative short-term effects on mental health. The effects of marijuana on a person mostly depend on their individual bodies, their mental health concerns, how much they use, how frequently they use it, and the strain of marijuana.
Positive short-term effects of marijuana use may include:
- Relaxation – Marijuana can help calm and relax the mind, which is why it’s often prescribed to people with anxiety, depression, or extreme stress.
- Pain Relief – Marijuana provides relief from pain and discomfort, which is why it’s often prescribed to people with chronic pain and mental health issues associated with seemingly constant discomfort.
- Increased Calmness – Marijuana may be used for people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, or extreme anxiety to help them calm their compulsions and engage with others.
- Improved Sleep – Marijuana can help people with insomnia or other sleep disorders by calming them enough to induce sleep.
Adverse short-term effects of marijuana may include:
- Impaired Thinking – Marijuana can interfere with performing daily activities, concentration, and decision-making. This impairment can lead to apathy or making choices incongruent with values or logic.
- Paranoia and Anxiety – In some people, marijuana may exacerbate anxiety symptoms or cause them to be paranoid. It also can worsen symptoms associated with psychotic disorders, such as hallucinations.
- Poor Coordination – A person under the influence of marijuana is impaired, so they are less coordinated and have slower physical reactions. That means they are at increased risks of accidents and shouldn’t do things like drive a car when taking the drug.
Because of the different responses to marijuana and the potential for negative effects, it’s vital to use medical marijuana under the guidance of a mental health professional.
Long-Term Effects of Marijuana
The goal of many mental health professionals and their clients is to use medication to control symptoms while working to treat the root cause. But even with the challenging work of therapy, many people need to be on medications for mental health long-term.
As with the use of any substance, marijuana can have long-term effects on the person using it. Unfortunately, the research on marijuana for mental health is so young that the long-term effects of the drug aren’t fully understood.
Some long-term effects of marijuana use may include:
- Addiction – While many people believe that marijuana isn’t an addictive substance, long-term use can result in withdrawal symptoms. Experiencing symptoms if you attempt to lessen the amount of marijuana you use or stop using it completely suggests that it is addictive.
- Cognitive Decline – Long-term marijuana use can result in reduced memory, lowered attention span, and decreased motivation.
- Respiratory Concerns – Smoking marijuana can result in lung damage and lead to respiratory problems.
Addiction and Marijuana Use Disorder
As stated above, the question of whether marijuana is addictive doesn’t yet have a definitive answer. Some research shows that those who use marijuana in high amounts or frequently can become addicted. But the numbers of people who experience addiction are small (typically less than 10%) in comparison to similar studies with other drugs.
The research that exists to date seems to show that marijuana is addictive for at least some people and marijuana use disorder is more likely to occur if a person starts using marijuana during adolescence or if they use it more frequently or in excess.
Signs of marijuana use disorder are:
- Using marijuana more frequently and/or at higher doses to feel the same high
- Attempting to quit without success
- Frequently thinking about how to access or use marijuana
- Problems at home, school, or work due to marijuana use
- Difficulty in relationships due to marijuana use
- Putting self or others at risk, like by driving while under the influence
- Continued use despite the negative effects on psyche or physical health
- Experiencing withdrawal
- Problems with memory, attention, and learning
Addiction is a serious problem. Anyone who thinks they’re developing a dependence on a drug should talk to the prescribing doctor and discuss options. That advice holds true, even when the drug is a natural substance like cannabis.
Balancing the Pros and Cons of Medical Marijuana
Researchers have spent years learning about the negative effects of marijuana because they studied it as an illegal drug. But there isn’t much research on the use of marijuana for medical purposes, especially in comparison to other medications that have been legal longer. That means there’s still a lot of catching up to do to understand the positives and negatives associated with marijuana as a medical treatment.
When balancing the pros and cons of medical marijuana use, you should seek the expertise of a qualified medical professional while also researching from reputable sources. There are limitations and side effects to any drug you may take, so it’s critical to balance the symptoms of the medical condition you’re experiencing with the risks of using any drug.
You want to trust the advice and expertise of the medical or mental health professional you work with. At the same time, it’s essential to remember that you are in charge of your care.
If you don’t feel comfortable with any drug or its side effects, express that discomfort to the professional and ask to explore other options.