Why People Smoke Weed to Treat Depression
Smoking weed to feel less depressed is a well-known phenomenon—but does it actually work?
Image by Jennifer Kahn
Your typical stoner is a jolly sort. Keanu Reeves' face displays the same flat affect whether he's discovering that he knows kung fu or learning that Morpheus has been kidnapped. The high highs, the low lows—they both elicit the same "whoa." So could someone with major depressive disorder, defined by the Mayo Clinic as "a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest," use the flattening effect of weed to self-medicate?
When I told people I was writing a story about people who treat their depression with pot, I got a chorus of, "Oh yeah, I do that." Either I know a disproportionate number of self-justifying stoners, or there's something to using giggle sticks to make your depression more tolerable.
Cady* was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and ADHD—the millennial trifecta. She says she smokes at social events or before embarking on big art projects. "It makes it easier to get deeper into some activity or train of thought that isn't an anxiety," she says, "but you have to have something ready to go, otherwise you just end up going super deep on an anxiety train."
"People absolutely do treat their depression with cannabis," says Felicia Carbajal of My Health Freedom, a medical marijuana advocacy group out of California. "New, non-cannabinoid cannabis-based terpene blends are the newest rage for symptoms of depression." Terpenes are aromatic molecules that create the fragrance of lemon, black pepper, and lavender, among others. According to a 2013 High Times article, terpene variance is what makes each strain of bud unique.
"Mangos have myrcene in them, which has been shown to help with symptoms of depression," says Carbajal. "Lemons have limonene, which is also anti-depressive, but also anxiolytic. There are cannabis strains which have both, in addition to small amounts of linalool (lavender), which also has stress-relieving effects. So this natural ratio, which is unique to cannabis, can have unique anti-depressive effects when simply used as an aromatherapy inhaler."
A 2011 review of phytocannabinoid-terpenoids (light sensitive weed terpenes) in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that limonene was useful in treating depression. Linalool and myrcene were more useful in treating anxiety. But anxiety and depression can often go hand-in-hand. SSRI's are useful for both anxiety and depression. Why not weed?
Dr. Lucy Troup studies cognitive neuroscience at Colorado State University. She is wary of treating depression with cannabis because it disrupts emotion processing, specifically empathy. In a study she conducted, Troup found that marijuana affected subjects' ability to read and empathize with displays of negative emotion. "Cannabis changes how the brain responds to emotion. One could make the case that this is not a good thing," says Troup, especially "in situations where we ask people to empathize."
However, some people are very sensitive and could stand to lose some empathy if they want to function. "On the other hand, one could say that it is a good thing because it deadens possible negative emotions in some way making people less able to be influenced by the negativity," Troup adds. If one's depression stems from a feeling of not belonging, a "nobody loves me, everybody hates me" scenario, pot might be useful.
Jordan* has been making life changes all over the place: She recently got divorced and started growing houseplants and smoking other plants. "When I started smoking again, I was getting high to the point where I didn't leave my bed," she says. "But eventually, I started essentially microdosing myself just a little, to take the edge off social situations and make other people bearable to be around."
Jordan might be onto something. A 2007 study found that low doses of THC can increase serotonin levels in mice. Although there is no clinical consensus on whether or not low serotonin levels cause depression, the majority of pharmacological treatments for depression (SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) focus on increasing serotonin levels.
According to the study, low doses of THC increased serotonin, but high doses actually depleted levels and caused a worsening of depression symptoms.
"We need more funded scientific research to better understand the effects of cannabis on emotion," says Troup. "At this point, from my research, I would suggest that cannabis has the potential to disrupt emotion processing, so [self-medicating] would be something I would consider to be risky."
In other words, marijuana will do something to your emotions, but what that may be, we cannot be sure. To find out, we're probably going to have to get a lot more mice a lot more blazed.
* Names have been changed