Treating Depression With Medical Cannabis – Here’s What The Latest Studies Say

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cannabis to treat depression

Can cannabis be used to treat depression? The latest international studies seem to suggest, ‘yes’.

Depression affects an estimated 21 million adults in the United States or 8.3% of the adult population. Women and young adults tend to be more at risk with 10.3% of women suffering from major depressive episodes compared to 6.2% males while those from the 18-25 year-old age group (18.6%) have suffered from prevailing major depressive episodes.  

Unfortunately the trend is on the rise. In a recent survey conducted by Gallup, adults who have been diagnosed with depression have increased by 7% since the pandemic started in 2020. 

Depression can lead to severe impairment of one’s ability to function in their daily lives including work and interpersonal relationships. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 61% of adults above 18 years-old have sought out treatment for major depressive episodes at least once throughout the year. 

Access to alternative treatments to depression is needed

However the reality is not everyone will have access to proper treatment. Those who can afford to seek out therapy are  faced with longer wait times as mental healthcare providers struggle to provide sufficient workforce to meet demands. 

Studies have shown that patients who took antidepressants are 33% more likely to die earlier compared to patients that were not medicated, not to mention increased risk of cardiovascular conditions such as a heart attack or stroke. Which is why more and more are turning to cannabis for a less addictive and holistic approach towards their mental wellbeing. 

Multiple studies have been carried out to examine the effects of medical cannabis on various ailments ranging from chronic pain to Parkinson’s Disease to epilepsy. But there has been surprisingly little interest in its effectiveness on managing depression, at least when it comes to research conducted in the United States. 

In 2022, one of the largest studies was conducted in Canada, involving over 7,000 participants. The research published in Psychiatry Research screened participants with an average age of 50 years and provided them with medical cannabis through Harvest Medicine, an industry-leading network of specialty medical cannabis clinics that provides its patients in-person services from four clinic locations as well as through its secure telemedicine platform.

Participants of the research reported significant improvement in their anxiety and depression over a period of 12 and 18 months with larger improvements coming from those who actively sought out cannabis to manage their conditions. It also noted that participants were provided with their medical documentation and were allowed to choose their preferred medical cannabis products, suggesting that participants who willingly sought out treatment at their own discretion provided more accurate and reliable real-world data. 

But how does medical cannabis compare to traditional antidepressants? 

A study conducted in Germany observed 59 patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) and currently receiving antidepressant medication. They were treated with cannabis in flower form for 18 weeks and asked to provide their observations during monthly consultations. 

The participants aged 20-54 years old were mostly male (72.9%) reported severe reduction in depression. They were asked to rate the severity of their depression on a scale of 0-10 and after 18 weeks the mean severity of depression decreased from 6.9 to 3.8. 

The research first published in Pharmacopsychiatry in January 2024 also noted a 22% dropout rate after 18 weeks which is comparable to other clinical trials for antidepressant medication. One third of the participants also reported experiencing some side-effects, although no details were provided and none were considered to be severe. 

Finally, an Israeli study published in Biomedicines 2023 focused on medical cannabis usage among older adults. The participants were at a mean age of 79 years-old and were conducted at a specialized geriatric clinic. The participants were treated mostly for chronic non-cancer pain but also assessed their activities of daily living, chronic medication use, geriatric depression scale and any adverse effects after six months. 

The results showed that medical cannabis was effective in reducing pain, with 86.4% of respondents noting some degree of improvement. This contributed to an improvement in the quality of their daily lives, allowing them to carry out essential activities such as personal hygiene, cooking, personal finance management and being responsible for their own medications. 

Interestingly 52.9% of participants reportedly stopped using at least one chronic medication and 23.5% stopped their usage of opioid analgesics six months after receiving medical cannabis treatment. 

So what’s the verdict? Can medical cannabis be used to treat depression? 

Well based on these researches alone it does look promising. But one key takeaway is all participants from these studies actively sought out treatment and were more likely to have taken additional effort outside of medical cannabis to improve their condition. 

Each person’s mental health journey is unique and it is important to seek out treatment options from a reliable healthcare provider to minimize any adverse side effects. The good news is as consumer interest grows so too will research in this particular area and this will help us gain a better understanding of how to manage our mental health. 

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