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Apr 21, 2022
6 min read

Marijuana and depression: does weed make you depressed?

 

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

People living with depression are twice as likely to use marijuana as those who don’t have depression. 

The link between marijuana and depression leads some to wonder: does marijuana help treat depression, or is it what causes symptoms in the first place? 

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Does marijuana cause depression?

It’s true that people who smoke weed (especially long-term, heavy cannabis users) are more likely to have been diagnosed with depression (Pacek, 2020; Dierker, 2018). Heavy use may be defined as intaking marijuana daily (Gabrys, 2019). 

However, scientific evidence suggests that marijuana doesn’t cause depression. It’s more likely that people with depression start using it (or use it more often) to treat depression symptoms (Feingold, 2021). 

Some of the things that lead to depression are the same things that may encourage people to use marijuana including (Feingold, 2017; Danielsson, 2016):

  • Social stressors, like family tension
  • Alcohol or recreational substance use
  • Past trauma 
  • Where a person grew up or went to school
  • Gender
  • Age

A person’s family history (genetic makeup) and their level of brain chemicals like serotonin also affect how they respond to weed and the risk of overuse (Feingold, 2021).

Does marijuana help with depression?

Some people with depression self-medicate with marijuana to relieve symptoms. In one survey, half of the people who took cannabis medicinally reported using it for depression (Sexton, 2016). 

The main benefit of marijuana is quick relief from feelings of depression. In one study, the vast majority (roughly 95%) who smoked whole cannabis flower experienced immediate relief from symptoms. On a scale of 0–10, they said their depression decreased by nearly four points. Most participants also reported other positive effects like feelings of peace, happiness, and relaxation (Li, 2020).

In another study, people who used marijuana said they felt significantly less depressed, anxious, and stressed. Just two puffs were enough to produce these effects. However, the same study found that longer-term marijuana use worsened depression in some participants (Cuttler, 2018).

Risks of using marijuana for depression

Cannabis is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treating depression. And while it may seem like a quick fix, there are some risks to be aware of (Sexton, 2016).

Worse depression symptoms

For some people, marijuana actually worsens depression. Heavy cannabis use has been associated with decreased pleasure (anhedonia), changes in body weight, and problems sleeping (Feingold, 2017). 

Some researchers found that when chronic users decreased their marijuana intake, they slept better and felt less anxious and depressed anxiety symptoms (Hser, 2017).

Suicidal thoughts

Marijuana may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. For example, some studies found a link between marijuana use in adolescence and an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors (Gobbi, 2019). 

Other studies found that weed only increased suicidality in men, while women were more likely to start using marijuana to cope with suicidal feelings (Shalit, 2016). Other research shows taking cannabis for therapeutic reasons does not increase suicidal thoughts. More research is needed before any definitive conclusions can be drawn (Walsh, 2017; Feingold, 2017).

Reduced motivation

Using marijuana long-term may lower motivation. In one study, roughly 1 in 5 people reported feeling less motivated after smoking cannabis (Li, 2020). This is such a common side effect that some researchers gave it the unofficial name “marijuana amotivational syndrome” (Lac, 2018). 

If you’re feeling unmotivated, you might be less likely to engage in activities that relieve depression symptoms, like exercising, getting outside, or spending time with loved ones. 

Less likely to seek professional help

Some people may be less likely to seek out help if they feel they can get fast relief from marijuana. Treatment options like antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) take longer to work, but have longer-lasting benefits than a brief high. 

In one study, marijuana users with depression saw a psychiatrist less often than those who didn’t use it––even if their mental health was worse. Participants with depression who didn’t smoke weed experienced more symptom relief and fewer thoughts of suicide than chronic cannabis users (Bahorik, 2018).

Exacerbates symptoms of mental illnesses

People with certain psychiatric disorders should avoid using marijuana due to a higher risk of side effects. In particular, marijuana may exacerbate symptoms of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (Lowe, 2019).

Risk of dependence

People with depression are more likely to develop a dependence on marijuana. One study found those who regularly used cannabis in adolescence were more likely to abuse drugs, alcohol, or nicotine in their 30s (Guttmannova, 2017).

The bottom line on marijuana and depression

Medical cannabis is not officially approved to treat depression, but many people still use it to relieve their symptoms, so it’s no surprise that researchers are eager to determine if it’s really beneficial. 

Marijuana contains substances like CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). CBD does not have mind-altering properties like THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), its psychoactive counterpart. Studies show that THC has shown some promise as a therapy for depression, but the data is inconclusive (Sexton, 2016).   

Current research also suggests that chronic marijuana use may worsen depression or suicidal thoughts in some users. It can also prevent someone from seeking out other effective treatment options. If you feel depressed, talk to a healthcare provider or mental health professional about what treatment is right for you.

If you or someone you know is experiencing thoughts or behaviors of suicide or self-harm, help is available for free. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

Or text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor

References

  1. Bahorik, A. L., Sterling, S. A., Campbell, C. I., et al. (2018). Medical and non-medical marijuana use in depression: Longitudinal associations with suicidal ideation, everyday functioning, and psychiatry service utilization. Journal of Affective Disorders, 241, 8–14. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2018.05.065. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30086434/
  2. Cuttler, C., Spradlin, A., & McLaughlin, R. J. (2018). A naturalistic examination of the perceived effects of cannabis on negative affect. Journal of Affective Disorders, 235, 198–205. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2018.04.054. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29656267/ 
  3. Danielsson, A. K., Lundin, A., Agardh, E., et al. (2016). Cannabis use, depression and anxiety: A 3-year prospective population-based study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 193, 103–108. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2015.12.045. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26773900/ 
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  5. Feingold, D., Rehm, J., & Lev-Ran, S. (2017). Cannabis use and the course and outcome of major depressive disorder: A population-based longitudinal study. Psychiatry Research, 251, 225–234. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.02.027. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28214781/ 
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  8. Gobbi, G., Atkin, T., Zytynski, T., et al. (2019). Association of cannabis use in adolescence and risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidality in young adulthood: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 76(4), 426–434. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.4500. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30758486/.
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