The pros and cons of Ritalin and the viability of weed for treating ADHD

In New Zealand, the vast majority of current attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) treatment options are centered around stimulant-based medicines such as Ritalin. While this medication is fairly effective at treating many of the symptoms associated with ADHD, the potential side effects are unpleasant at best, and downright debilitating at worst.

Is cannabis a feasible alternative?

There’s a lot of overlap when it comes to weed use and ADHD, but whether this relationship is causal or correlative has always been a matter of some debate. Now, with a growing body of anecdotal and preclinical evidence that suggests medical cannabis may be of benefit to those living with the disorder, the scene is finally set for empirical research into how marijuana interacts with ADHD.

Understanding ADHD in New Zealand

ADHD is a complex mental health disorder that affects about 5 per cent of children, according to the New Zealand ADHD Association. Those living with the disorder may experience a range of different symptoms (depending on the specific type of ADHD they have, as well as other biological and external factors), including:

● Difficulty paying attention
● Inability to follow instructions
● Tendency to get easily distracted
● Lack of patience
● Avoidance of challenging tasks
● Continually interrupting conversations

While the exact cause of ADHD is unknown, it’s generally accepted that the disorder is at least somewhat hereditary. A review of current literature, published in Molecular Psychiatry, noted that there is a 57 per cent chance that a child with ADHD has a parent who also has the disorder. The notion that ADHD is largely genetic is further supported by adoption and twin studies, which show ADHD in child relatives predicts ADHD in adult relatives, irrespective of their environment.

Using weed to treat the symptoms of ADHD

Let’s kick this section off by saying that there is no empirical evidence that definitively says marijuana is effective at treating ADHD. Moreover, thanks to the lack of regulation in New Zealand’s weed industry, it’s all but impossible to know with any certainty what strain of cannabis you have, its cannabinoid levels, possible contaminants and so on. If you have ADHD, we strongly advise you to adhere to your doctor’s recommendations and take your medication as prescribed.

With that being said, there is some promising research being conducted into the potential of weed as ADHD medication, though results are still far from conclusive.

For example, one study published in Neurology found that “the endocannabinoid [anandamide] reduces the activity of the [dopamine] transporter,4 and might therefore be implicated in the dysfunction of [dopamine] uptake mechanisms involved in ADHD pathophysiology.” The endocannabinoid system is essentially a group of receptors hardwired to only accept cannabinoids, and is particularly sensitive to THC and CBD – two cannabinoids typically found in high concentrations in most strains of medical marijuana.

Another study, published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, identified that synthetic cannabinoids which bind to the CB1 receptor (just as THC does) were effective at regulating the impulsive behaviour of a group of spontaneously hypertensive rats, but had no effect on rats without the impulsive trait.

Everyday people using cannabis to treat ADHD

As touched on, there are very few clinical studies on how cannabis interacts with ADHD. There is, however, an abundance of anecdotal evidence. In recent years, a growing number of people around the world have flocked to ADHD- and weed-centric online communities to share their experiences of using marijuana to treat the symptoms of ADHD. Researchers from Duke University analysed 401 of these posts, randomly selected from 258 forums across the web, and identified that 25 per cent of the posts found cannabis to be helpful for treating ADHD; 8 per cent reported that it made the symptoms worse; and 2 per cent stated that it had no effect.

To date, the overwhelming majority of medicinal marijuana research has been focused on how it alleviates physical symptoms such as chronic pain and nausea. However, we are beginning to see more studies into how weed could be used for psychological disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety and ADHD.

In regards to the latter, methylphenidate medication such as Ritalin remains the most effective form of treatment, but given the stimulant’s potential side effects it’s only natural that patients are interested in exploring alternatives. More research is needed before we can determine whether marijuana could be the Ritalin replacement that many are hoping for.