The Marginalized Are Anxious — Where’s The Weed Research To Help?

By Elizabeth King

It should come as no surprise that those exposed to bias and oppression are prone to anxiety. Those who are trans and nonbinary experience higher rates of social anxiety, and recent research has found that women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men. Studies show that women of color in particular experience high levels of anxiety and other mental health issues due to racist and sexist trauma.

Whether these high levels of anxiety are more rooted in brain chemistry or the stress of living in a world that revels in isms and phobias, the fact remains that for many who are marginalized, anxiety is common — and so is turning to medical marijuana to improve mental health.

While there is minimal research about the benefits of cannabis on mental health, I spoke with women who treat their anxiety with medical marijuana, and who told me it has been a game-changer for their well-being.

Ellie H, a 37-year-old small business owner, says that she tried Lexapro to treat her anxiety in 2009, but it didn’t work for her. “I hated it,” she says. “I lost my sex drive and felt disconnected from the world. I wasn’t anxious but I wasn’t anything; I felt like I was on auto-pilot, witnessing my life instead of living it.” But then Ellie got a prescription for medical marijuana, and her situation improved significantly.

“It calms me and allows me to be present, without the body tremors and sweats,” Ellie tells me about her cannabis prescription. “I can interact socially and stay calm when I use a hybrid strain. It takes the worst of the edge off. I use an indica strain before sleep so I can fall asleep quickly and stay asleep. I also carry cannabis tincture drops for social functions.”

Sara David started using cannabis to treat her anxiety in 2013 after suffering with anxiety since she was a child. Sara tells me over email that her psychiatrist gave her a prescription for Xanax in college, which she was on the verge of abusing after a friend died. But with marijuana, Sara says she finds it easier to let go of things outside of her control. “I become more focused on what’s in front of me and start chipping away at problems,” she tells me.

Sara says weed also helps her focus in her work as an editor. She told me that “when an assignment seems too daunting to attempt, smoking reminds me that it’s just me and my thoughts; there are no wrong answers.” Overall, Sara says marijuana has had a positive influence on her mental health that she didn’t find with pills. “I found that the prescriptions would effectively make me feel numb to anxiety, but subsequently numb to everything else,” she tells me. “Weed helps me shed constant and nagging anxiety and feel more like myself without cutting off the rest of my emotions.”

Though there is anecdotal evidence like Ellie’s and Sara’s to support the idea that marijuana can help to reduce anxiety, the medical community isn’t so sure yet. In fact, most of the existing research suggests that cannabis could be dangerous for mental health patients.

Dr. Jordan Tishler, Physician in Chief at Inhale MD Health and Wellness, tells me over email that most of what the medical community knows about mental health and cannabis are potential risks. “This is largely because such research gets government funding through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whose charter is to find harm,” Tishler says.

An expert on medical cannabis, Tishler says that “the clinically observable benefits of cannabis for anxiety (and stress reduction) are undeniable. I have many patients for whom life is unlivable due to anxiety disorders and for whom cannabis, when used appropriately, is a positive game changer.” However, it’s all about the dosage, according to Tishler. Higher doses of cannabis can provoke anxiety in patients, but Tishler says that lower dosages seem to work well in reducing anxiety.

Given that so many more women, trans, and nonbinary people than cis men are diagnosed with anxiety disorders, Tishler says more research on the benefits cannabis could have on anxiety is needed — “and addressing gender differences would be important too.”

Yet all of this is hampered by marijuana’s current classification.

As it stands, The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, alongside other drugs like heroin, LSD, and MDMA. Responding to recent petitions to reschedule marijuana, which would remove many significant research barriers, the DEA stated in August that there is currently no “accepted medical use [for marijuana], and a high potential for abuse.” However, the DEA simultaneously announced that it will increase the number of “entities [allowed] to apply to become registered with DEA so that they may grow and distribute marijuana for FDA-authorized research.”

Regarding legalization, Tishler says it’s important to make a clear distinction between legalization for medical purposes and for recreation. While recreational marijuana users are mostly looking for a high of some kind, Tishler notes that for patients, it’s about feeling normal and having the ability to “live their lives to the best of their ability. To patients, the ‘high’ is just another side effect, largely to be avoided.”

Currently, 25 states (including California and New York) and Washington D.C. have legalized marijuana for medical use, but all cannabis possession, including for medical uses, remains illegal on the federal level. This year, an additional four states — Florida, Arkansas, North Dakota, and Montana — have ballot initiatives pertaining to medical marijuana.

Though research is lacking and access to medical marijuana is limited across the country, there’s no denying that many with anxiety are getting the treatment they need with prescribed weed.

If the federal government continues to ease restrictions, enabling researchers to further explore the possible impacts of medical marijuana, more will be known about potential risks, and more importantly: the potential to better lives.

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