With marijuana now legal in three U.S. states, and the new Marijuana for Medicinal Purposes Regulations now enacted in Canada, there has been a lot of hubbub about the powers of pot lately. For some people it’s a powerful medicine effective at treating (although not curing) a number of symptoms of conditions, ranging from epilepsy to cancer. But can the psychoactive components in weed treat clinical depression?
Effective For Some
For Diego Dias, the answer is yes. He’s a freelance photographer based in Ottawa, Ontario and has been smoking four grams a day to ease his symptoms of depression for five years now. Even when he was in college, he smoked daily and it enabled him to excel in his studies and graduate at the top of his class. Before starting with medical pot, he was an insomniac with zero appetite and on the verge of suicide at the worst of times.
“It helps me stay positive and keeps me motivated,” Dias tells me over the phone from his photography studio. “And, of course, with the eating and sleeping, it keeps me running properly and not spending two weeks without sleeping, and never eating. It definitely helps.”
There are hundreds of strains of marijuana out there, and for anyone taking it as medicine, this is an important factor. It takes a certain balance of THC and cannabidiol to get the optimal effect, and there are generally two different types; sativa and indica. Sativas are generally more stimulant and cerebral, and indicas are more sedative, inducing sleep and increased appetite. Dias uses a sativa in the daytime and an indica at night, but mainly uses a hybrid strain, which enables him to get the best of both worlds.
Dias did try the pharmaceutical route at first, but found that the pills only gave him side effects. He discovered that pot could be the answer after seeing the effects of smoking recreationally. After smoking, he always felt, slept, and ate better — so it occurred to him that he was actually self-medicating.
I have also experienced this same revelation in my own life. Everyone gets down in the dumps from time to time. In my own experience, there have been occasions where a joint gave me a fresh perspective and helped me cope with what I was dealing with. I was able to look at things differently and improve my mood, not just while I was under the effect of the drug, but for the next day or two as well.
Many doctors are hesitant to proscribe pot for depression because the scientific literature is still a little hazy on whether or not it’s a viable treatment. On ProCon.org, a website where MDs weigh in on medical issues, the consensus of whether or not pot can treat depression is split down the middle.
The first strong evidence of THC’s efficacy as an antidpressant was uncovered in a study done by Dr. Gabriella Gobbi at McGill University’s Neurobiological Psychiatry unit in 2008. The paper was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.
Dr. Gobbi injected rats with a synthetic version of THC called WIN55, 212-2 and then subjected them to something called the “forced swim test” which measures depression in animals. She found that at low doses, the rats exhibited less depressive symptoms. At high doses, however, the effect was the opposite. The poor rats were miserable.
The study also notes the large volume of anecdotal data collected from patients supporting the role of marijuana as an antidepressant. Many AIDS and MS patients have reported improvements in mood disorders after consuming marijuana. Dr. Gobbi has also noticed that in her work as a clinical psychiatrist, many of her patients with depression were marijuana users.
Dr. Gobbi’s study concluded that THC mimics the body’s own endo-cannabinoid receptors and combines to the CB1 receptor in the brain, preventing the depletion of serotonin, which is the neurochemical that regulates mood. It is well known that a lack of serotonin causes depression. That’s why selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Celexa and Prozac are the drug of choice for doctors proscribing patients something to handle depression. Dr. Gobbi’s experiment indicated that THC can function in the same way — at the correct dosage.
Your Results May Vary
Calculating the most effective pot dosage for any given patient is hard to pin down. “I would assume it’s a case-by-case thing, where some people see some gains and others wouldn’t,” says Dias. “I’m probably one of the only people I know that actually uses it medicinally, and consumes the quantity that I do, and is still able to function. It’s dependent on the person.”
The funny thing about weed is that everyone reacts differently to it, so what works for Diego Dias and myself might not work for everyone else. There aren’t enough studies to have a concrete answer or blanket solution targeted at each individual just yet, but with the onslaught of weed legalizations, it will only become easier to study and develop the science around how weed can help ease a slew of medical symptoms, including those of depression.