Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, is very common, affecting nine percent of children in the United States between ages 13 and 19. It can carry on to adulthood, affecting 4.1 percent of adults over age 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Similarly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in America. Combining the two can have dangerous consequences.
A study performed by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed that while seven percent of American teenagers with an average age of 17 use marijuana, a much higher 13 percent of teenagers who also suffer from ADHD abuse the drug.
Symptoms of ADHD
ADHD is often considered a childhood disorder since symptoms usually present around age seven, and it is generally diagnosed before age 12. ADHD is characterized by Psych Central as a consistent pattern of hyperactivity, impulsivity and/or inattention that interferes with normal development and an ability to function in at least two settings (like home and school).
At least six of the following symptoms are required for an ADHD diagnosis:
- Squirming and fidgeting
- Excessive talking
- Inappropriately climbing or running around
- Trouble with quiet activities
- Issues staying seated when expected
- Trouble taking or waiting for a turn
- Constantly interrupts
- Doesn’t wait for questions to be finished before shouting out answers
- Intrudes on others activities or games often
- Issues with organization
- Doesn’t appear to be listening when spoken to
- Easily distracted
- Trouble with details
- Loses things often
- Poor follow-through
- Hard time following instructions
These symptoms must persist for at least six months and be worse than those present in other kids their age. ADHD sufferers can primarily be considered hyperactive and impulsive or suffer mostly from inattention or a combination of both. Many of these symptoms are overt, and parents or health care professionals may recognize them easily.
Signs of Marijuana Abuse
Marijuana abuse may be a little trickier to spot. Marijuana comes from the Cannabis sativa plant and refers to the seeds, stems, dried leaves and flowers of the hemp plant which contains levels of THC, a psychoactive chemical.
Marijuana is usually smoked and affects the chemistry in the brain by targeting the cannabinoid receptors, many of which are responsible for pleasure, giving users a “high” feeling.
Abusers of marijuana typically exhibit at least some of the following:
- Lack of concentration
- Lack of coordination
- Increased appetite or cravings
- Irritation or redness of the eyes
- Short-term memory loss
- Dry mouth
- Random thoughts or actions
SAHMSA reports that 7.3 percent of Americans use marijuana, a staggering 18.9 million people.
Reasons ADHD Sufferers May Turn to Marijuana
Being that ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders, and marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug, it is no surprise that there is crossover between the two. However, it is also considered that ADHD sufferers may be drawn to using marijuana. This could be in part due to their proclivity towards impulsive acts and behavior issues. It could be partly genetic as ADHD and substance abuse both may have genetic roots as well as environmental factors playing a role.
Teenagers are already at a high risk for peer pressure, impulsivity and, poor and risky decisions. Teenagers with ADHD are even more at risk. These adolescents may react to stress and stressful situations differently than their peers, making drugs and alcohol seem more appealing as well. Many seek out marijuana specifically to calm their restlessness or in an attempt to sooth their ADHD symptoms since marijuana can have a soothing or calming effect.
Ritalin, a commonly prescribed ADHD medication, for example, increases dopamine levels in the brain which in turn boosts pleasant feelings. Marijuana may be used by those suffering from ADHD as a way to self-medicate and increase pleasant feelings while dispelling some of the anxiety the disorder can bring on.
Risks of Abuse
With the conversation about legalizing marijuana for recreational usage sweeping the nation and two states having already done so, along with the rising popularity of medical marijuana, many are under the impression that it must not be addictive or very harmful. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, however, nine percent of marijuana users become addicted with the number jumping to 17 percent for those starting young, and rising up to between 25 and 50 percent for daily users.
Some of the side effects of abuse include:
- Heart and blood pressure problems
- Respiratory issues
- Vomiting or nausea
- Dry mouth
- Weakened immune system
- Decreased mental functions
These are only some of the problems an abuser of marijuana may have to contend with. Someone who also suffers from ADHD is considered to have comorbid disorder and is at risk for other side effects as well. ADHD on its own can cause forgetfulness and memory impairment. Coupling the disorder with marijuana which also has those effects can alter brain chemistry and make school and work even harder. Marijuana abuse can make ADHD symptoms worse and harder to treat.
Some researchers think that marijuana abuse, especially at a young age, can actually lead to the creation of more ADHD symptoms. Since those suffering from ADHD have trouble thinking through their decisions, it puts them at a higher risk for abusing drugs without fully realizing the consequences.
How to Help
If you or someone you know suffers from both ADHD and marijuana abuse, it is important to seek the right kind of help. While many facilities treat the individual disorder, those suffering from comorbid disorders need Dual Diagnosis treatment. This type of treatment focuses on the specialized care required to concurrently treat both disorders.
Treating the addiction separately from the ADHD is not effective, and chances of relapse are greater if both are not treated together. Dual Diagnosis care serves to understand the unique pressures and issues those with comorbid disorders face.
Group and individual therapies may be employed to help work through personal triggers so one can learn to cope in inventive and effective ways. An individualized care plan is imperative as are professionals who are exceptionally trained to help work through both ADHD and marijuana abuse issues simultaneously. Families that work together also have a high rate of success.
If you’d like more information on how Dual Diagnosis care can help you or your loved one recover from marijuana abuse issues coupled with ADHD, we can help. Call us today for more information.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton