I’ve been a mental-health writer, speaker, and activist for over a decade, and in that time, I’ve discovered that for some people with mental illness, cannabis can replace antidepressants and/or anti-anxiety medications. This isn’t true for everyone, of course; different meds work differently for different people, and I’m thankful for the prescription antidepressants I continue to take. The longer I’ve worked in the field, however, the more stories I’ve heard from other patients who, like me, choose to use cannabis as part of comprehensive mental-health treatment.
When I first told my therapist in 2006 that I used cannabis, she suggested I might not get anything out of therapy unless I went to drug treatment, and I left her office feeling ashamed. Was I really a drug addict, even though I used no other substances? Were benzodiazepenes such as Xanax and Klonopin really better treatments for anxiety than smoking a joint?
Now, 13 years later, I’ve heard lots of horror stories of getting off benzos – for some, it requires rehab -- and I’m glad I never took them. After all I’ve learned, I believe cannabis is and should be a valid, stigma-free psychiatric medication.
“I use cannabis for my chronic pain and mood disorder,” says Kendra, another mental health activist, who moved from New York to California three years ago seeking access to medical marijuana. “I struggle with panic attacks and anxiety, and sometimes have racing thoughts that make my issue worse. When I use cannabis, it calms my thoughts and my body, and allows me to use my coping skills in more effective ways. It makes me a less ‘reactive’ person. Cannabis allows me to gain perspective and slow down. I’m a happier and kinder human when using cannabis, and am grateful for the help it provides for both chronic and emotional pain.”
As someone who spent a year and a half in intensive outpatient dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) for borderline personality disorder (BPD), my experience is almost identical to Kendra’s. No anti-anxiety medication has ever helped as much as feeding my cannabinoid receptors a high-CBD strain such as Harlequin or AC/DC, and the fact that I and other New York patients can’t access those strains with our medical cards means we don’t have access to equal care. Until my state (hopefully) legalizes recreational cannabis, all I can purchase at New York dispensaries are cartridges, capsules, or tinctures labeled “indica” and “sativa.” Patients here are allowed to know the THC-to-CBD ratio of our medicine, but not the strain we’re ingesting. Kendra’s access to information about her medication makes me jealous – and that’s why I will continue to fight for cannabis as a psych med.
I interviewed Victoria, another New Yorker who recently got her medical card, and she said, “My doctor hates [psych] meds too, and is trying to get me off of them slowly. I use the [high] CBD/[low] THC tincture. It’s helped me so much! I know when I’m going to get an anxiety attack, typically, so I’ll take a spray and be fine. The [psychiatric] medication I’m on, if I take it too late in the day, it will keep me up all night.”
Victoria says that one time, when she didn’t have access to her prescription medication, “I kept taking the tincture and it helped me the entire week. I didn’t have an anxiety attack at all during Christmas [break, which was] amazing.”
In a perfect world, the ability to get through the holidays without anti-anxiety medication should be all the proof anyone needs that cannabis has therapeutic value for mental disorders. The fact that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is now a qualifying condition in most medical states is a promising sign; now, clinicians must admit that cannabis treats other mental illnesses as well.
Lindy, a female veteran in New Jersey diagnosed with of both PTSD and BPD, says, “When I read up on those illnesses, it felt like reading my horoscope. I am likely to go from zero to sixty if you trigger me just right. I don’t mean to let things get to me like that; I try not to, but my brain goes into autopilot, and it knows nothing in between calm and tragic.”
This is PTSD in a nutshell: a fight-or-flight response in the face of negative stimulus. PTSD and BPD frequently overlap, and are notoriously difficult to treat with psychiatric meds; though anti-anxiety medication, mood stabilizers, and antidepressants can help alleviate symptoms, there is no pharmaceutical drug marketed specifically for either disorder. But for Lindy, who prefers calming and uplifting sativa and sativa-dominant hybrid strains such as Blue Dream, cannabis provides symptom relief without the harsh side effects of the psych meds she took before.
For people with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, cannabis may be harmful; if you’re one of those people, be open with your psychiatrist about your interest in trying cannabis, and listen to their advice. For those with PTSD, anxiety, and depression, cannabis can be a valid treatment, but be aware that a combination of medication and therapy is usually necessary in order to effectively treat mental health disorders. Above all, research your options and discuss them with a cannabis-friendly medical professional.
There’s no one treatment that works for everybody, but there is a treatment not everybody can access. In the name of advancing medical science and helping save lives, it is imperative that we claim our diagnoses and, to the extent that it’s safe to do so, be open about how we treat them. After all, safe, clean, legal medical care is a basic human right, and cannabis is medicine.