More than 264 million people around the world suffer from some form of depression, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). For some people, depression is a mental illness with serious psychiatric implications. For the vast majority of individuals, though, depression represents a mood disorder that may be responsive to alternative treatments, such as medical marijuana.
In this article, we'll explore the research on marijuana and depression and discuss whether medical marijuana may be a possible treatment for depression.
An overview of the research
There are scarce clinical studies on the topic of cannabis and depression involving human participants. There is, however, some emerging research that cannabis may exert a similar effect to antidepressants without significant side effects.
Further, there is some evidence that the cannabinoid CBD may assist with anxiety, a condition that is often present alongside depression. In the words of Dr. Melanie Bone, board-certified OB-GYN and cannabis specialist, "anxiety and depression go together like peanut butter and jelly."
The following studies have considered the potential therapeutic effects of cannabis on depression and/or anxiety.
Studies on cannabis and depression
Certain cannabis strains such as Strawberry Banana and Motorbreath are reputed to have mood-boosting effects. Other strains like Lemon Garlic OG and Pennywise reduce anxiety, according to some consumers. Clinical and non-clinical studies may shed some light on the anecdotal evidence.
A study conducted on mice examined the antidepressant-like effects of CBD, along with the role of the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline. In this 2018 study, which was published in the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, researchers found that CBD may relieve symptoms of depression through the action of serotonin in the central nervous system.
In addition, a 2019 literature review published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined preclinical and clinical studies that support the use of CBD in psychiatric disorders. The review did not consider depression specifically but rather schizophrenia as well as generalized social anxiety disorder (SAD), the latter of which is frequently linked to depression. The authors of the review asserted that “results from these studies are promising and suggest that CBD may have a role in the development of new therapeutic strategies in mental diseases, and they justify an in-depth commitment in this field.”
Some research, however, has demonstrated a potential relationship between heavy cannabis consumption and depression. But even these studies are largely inconclusive or show a weak association. For example, one 2020 literature review published in the American Journal of Addiction noted that cannabis use is common in people with anxiety and mood disorders. The authors of the review concluded that the lack of long-term clinical studies highlights the need for more rigorous, focused clinical trials to understand the connection between mood disorders and cannabis.
Bottom line: The biggest takeaway from the current research is that more anecdotal evidence exists than clinical evidence on the relationship between cannabis and depression.
Medical cannabis patients share their stories
Laura (name changed for privacy) is a busy working mom in Florida. Under chronic stress from her demanding dual roles as a customer service manager and parent of two young children, she visited a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist suspected a mood disorder and prescribed her an antidepressant which made Laura experience flat, dulled emotions. Other antidepressants made her feel edgy to the point of experiencing road rage.
Frustrated, Laura visited Dr. Bone seeking an alternative treatment for her ongoing depression. Dr. Bone noticed that Laura's efforts to mask her depression at home and at work were leading to increased anxiety. They discussed the cannabinoids that might help with mood disorders, specifically CBD's calming effects along with THC's uplifting and energizing effects.
Ultimately, Dr. Bone prescribed Laura a twice-daily sublingual cannabis tincture with a combination of THC and CBD that led to significant improvements. Laura reported that medical cannabis "has helped her tremendously."
Weedmaps spoke on the phone with another woman, Katelyn (name changed to protect privacy), who has been struggling with postpartum depression since giving birth to her son in March 2020.
“He was a pandemic baby,” Katelyn sighed. “Everything just hit me all at once and I didn't want to be on antidepressants, but I knew I needed help. I couldn't deal with the two hours of sleep and all the changings.”
Katelyn is a resident of a state where cannabis is legal, so obtaining medical marijuana was not a challenge. “I'm unable to breastfeed for medical reasons, so I felt that it would be safe for me to try weed.”
Rather than consult with her doctor first, Katelyn went straight to a licensed dispensary and purchased an array of smokable and edible products. “The gummies are my favorite,” she told Weedmaps. “Just thinking about chewing one makes me feel better. I can't say my depression is 100% gone, but I can actually cope, which is more than I could say back in March.”
Bottom line: Even if you live in a state where cannabis is legal, please consult with your psychiatrist or physician before consuming cannabis for depression.
What the experts say about marijuana and depression
Cannabinoids may be remarkably targeted in their ability to relieve specific depression and anxiety symptoms. "CBG, for example, may benefit those with a predominance of anxiety in their depression and CBN can add a dimension of relaxation and better sleep, which is often restorative in those depressed patients whose minds race and prevent them from getting enough quality sleep," Dr. Bone said.
Terpenes, the naturally-occurring chemical compounds that give cannabis its aroma and flavor, may also offer powerful therapeutic benefits. Dr. Bone said, "Terpenes are the secret sauce to get the most out of cannabis products. Limonene, for example, has been shown to elevate mood, and pinene helps with mental clarity and energy. These are commonly found in sativa strains and can turn a day from staying under the covers hiding from the world into a get-up and get-productive one. On the other hand, for those who wring their hands and clench muscles in their neck and back, adding a dash of caryophyllene and myrcene might take the edge off those ragged nerves."
In terms of treating anxiety apart from depression, Dr. Bone asserted, "It is well accepted that cannabis can help with anxiety. We often recommend a CBD-weighted product to bring more inner peace and calm and to lessen the gripping sensations of a panic attack. I have personally seen many medical marijuana patients decrease or even completely abandon use of benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Klonopin."
Bottom line on marijuana and depression
If you have been diagnosed with depression and are seeking treatments beyond prescription antidepressants with their often unpleasant side effects, medical marijuana could help address your symptoms. Be sure to consult with your healthcare practitioner and discuss any prior substance abuse issues before consuming cannabis as a treatment of depression, anxiety, or any other condition.