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13 Sep

Why neurodivergent individuals are self-medicating with weed

A recent poll has found that 1.8 million people within the UK are self-medicating using cannabis, a 29 per cent rise from 2019

27-year-old Eve began self-medicating with cannabis on the age of 19, shortly after receiving an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. “Autism makes it very difficult for me to precise my feelings and I even have a really low tolerance for discomfort or frustration – cannabis helps me calm myself down and feel more relaxed in my body,” she tells Dazed. “I struggle with anxiety and sensory issues too; noise, light, touch […] my ability to tolerate sensory input is a direct link to how I’m feeling on a day-to-day basis. [Also having] BPD, it’s very easy for my mind to get away from me. After I’m smoking, it slows down negative thoughts and I even have more time to rationalise with myself.” 

She’s not alone: 1.8 million people in the UK smoke weed to attempt to treat their health issues. The number of individuals using weed to self-medicate is rising too, up 29 per cent since 2019, with Brits spending roughly £3.57 billion a 12 months on cannabis for health reasons. It is smart: cannabis helps people improve attention, emotion regulation, concentration and executive functioning, while also reducing anxiety and sleep problems — all of that are quite common symptoms in neurodiverse.

“Cannabis has its roots in medicine,” says Verena von Pfetten, the co-founder of Gossamer, a cannabis lifestyle brand based within the US. “Certainly one of the ways we’ve seen the plant and all its iterations, including CBD, be de-stigmatized over the previous few years is by connecting it to health and wellness.” Americans are definitely way more open to it than ever before, having spent more on legal cannabis in 2022 than on chocolate or beer. 16 per cent say they smoke marijuana, and 62 per cent would prefer to smoke weed over taking pharmaceuticals. “I really like travelling to Latest York, Los Angeles or Toronto for work, as I can legally purchase what I want,” says Tina*, a world director who has ADHD. “Within the UK, nonetheless, I’m made to feel like a criminal.”

Currently, marijuana is against the law on this side of the pond: it’s a Class B drug and the utmost penalty for possession is five years in prison. Sadly it seems current party leaders on either side of the political spectrum are hard on drugs: Home Secretary Suella Braverman has suggested the drug is reclassified to a Class A, while Labour leader Keir Starmer recently ranted in regards to the smell of cannabis “ruining lives”.

“Weed has been an ideal help for me in lots of facets of my life,” says Luna*, one other one that self-medicates with weed. “It has helped me in managing my racing and obsessive thoughts, and [helped me to cope with] my feelings of emptiness and tedium in a healthy way.” Not only does Luna suffer from ADHD symptoms, but she has also been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD). As a result of previous issues with addiction, her therapist didn’t want to present her the everyday amphetamine (Adderall or Ritalin) medication — so for Luna, weed was a welcome alternative. Although she is currently self-medicating, she adds that she can be greater than comfortable to go legit if the technique of doing so was more straightforward.

“ADHD and ASD […] remain largely undiagnosed conditions, for which it is tough to pay money for medication without formal recognition” – Jon Robson

Medical marijuana has been legal within the UK since 2018, but getting your hands on some isn’t easy. Dr Niraj Singh, a consultant psychiatrist who has been prescribing cannabis within the UK for over three years, has seen a rise in those with ASD or ADHD looking for prescriptions. As of March 2023, there are roughly 20,000 people in the UK using medical cannabis – but there ought to be so many more. 

One major issue is solely the indisputable fact that there’s an enormous backlog of individuals looking for a diagnosis for ASD or ADHD, and as people face years of waiting for a diagnosis, it is smart that they’re turning to unorthodox ways of medicating within the meantime. “Because of the web, there are rather a lot more people who find themselves aware that autism or ADHD doesn’t look a certain way,” says Eve. Since awareness of neurodivergence has grown, so too have waiting lists. “As NHS waiting lists for ADHD assessments are as much as seven years long, it’s natural that alternative sources of support have arisen,” adds Leanne Maskell, an ADHD coach, writer, and activist.

“We’re witnessing a healthcare crisis in the meanwhile on this country, with waiting lists hitting record highs and demand for specialist care soaring,” adds Jon Robson, CEO and founding father of Mamedica, one among the UK’s leading medical cannabis clinics. “ADHD and ASD, due to this fact, remain largely undiagnosed conditions for which it is tough to pay money for medication without formal recognition”.

Even when patients do have a diagnosis, it’s not really easy to get your hands on a cannabis prescription. The NHS can prescribe it, but most patients are forced to go private because of the federal government doing little or no to tell or educate doctors on the changing perceptions within the medical field. Moreover, the UK government has not put in place any structures that may actually facilitate accessibility. “Under UK law a prescription for cannabis can only be initiated by a specialist consultant on the General Medical Council (GMC) register,” explains Robson. “Patients are eligible to get a medical cannabis prescription in the event that they have tried two traditionally prescribed medications which have not worked. Once you may have proof of this, including your medical records and patient history, you will want to talk with a specialist or be referred to a specialist.” Essentially, it’s a protracted, drawn out process – so it’s easy to see why some people select to only hit up their dealer, regardless of the risks that include it. 

The issue is, when self-medicating, what you purchase is unregulated. You may think you’re smoking super lemon haze, a sativa-dominant hybrid that’s got a wealthy CBD count and moderate THC level which is good for those with neurodiverse symptoms, when in point of fact you’re smoking something with much higher levels of THC that might induce paranoia, anxiety, or psychosis. Eve now not self-medicates – she stopped once she discovered Sapphire Clinics, the UK’s first private medical cannabis clinic – and now, she gets her weed prescribed. “The foremost difference is that I do know what I’m smoking each time, I do know exactly how it would make me feel, and being autistic you possibly can imagine the comfort that provides me,” she says.

Activists, advocates and patients have fought to vary the outdated perspectives on this powerful plant. Its history is intrinsically linked to the LGBTQ+ community, who fought for cannabis access for HIV and AIDS patients all those a long time ago. We all know it could be helpful to those going through chemotherapy — recent research even suggests that THC and CBD can slow growth, reduce spread and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells (growing in lab dishes, in addition to in some animal studies). There’s a reason people have been using cannabis for its medicinal reasons for hundreds of years. There’s still a protracted strategy to go — by way of decriminalisation, legalisation, and improving access to medicinal cannabis — however the writing’s on the wall, as an increasing number of research seems to suggest that cannabis has the potential to rework the lives of neurodivergent people. 

*Names have been modified

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