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Why neurodivergent people are self-medicating with weed

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

27-year-old Eve started self-medicating with cannabis at the age of 19, shortly after receiving an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. “Autism makes it very difficult for me to express my feelings and I have a very 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. When I’m smoking, it slows down negative thoughts and I have more time to rationalise with myself.” 

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

“Cannabis has its roots in medicine,” says Verena von Pfetten, the co-founder of Gossamer, a cannabis lifestyle brand based in the US. “One of the ways we’ve seen the plant and all its iterations, including CBD, be de-stigmatized over the last few years is by connecting it to health and wellness.” Americans are certainly much 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 love travelling to New York, Los Angeles or Toronto for work, as I can legally purchase what I need,” says Tina*, a global director who has ADHD. “In the UK, however, I’m made to feel like a criminal.”

Currently, marijuana is illegal on this side of the pond: it’s a Class B drug and the maximum penalty for possession is five years in prison. Sadly it seems current party leaders on both sides 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 about the smell of cannabis “ruining lives”.

“Weed has been a great help for me in many aspects of my life,” says Luna*, another person who 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 boredom 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). Due to previous issues with addiction, her therapist did not want to give her the typical amphetamine (Adderall or Ritalin) medication — so for Luna, weed was a welcome alternative. Although she is currently self-medicating, she adds that she would be more than happy to go legit if the process of doing so was more straightforward.

“ADHD and ASD [...] remain largely undiagnosed conditions, for which it is hard to get hold of medication without formal recognition” – Jon Robson

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

One major issue is simply the fact that there’s a massive backlog of people seeking a diagnosis for ASD or ADHD, and as people face years of waiting for a diagnosis, it makes sense that they’re turning to unorthodox ways of medicating in the meantime. “Thanks to the internet, there are a lot more people who are 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 up to seven years long, it’s natural that alternative sources of support have arisen,” adds Leanne Maskell, an ADHD coach, author, and activist.

“We are witnessing a healthcare crisis at the moment in this country, with waiting lists hitting record highs and demand for specialist care soaring,” adds Jon Robson, CEO and founder of Mamedica, one of the UK’s leading medical cannabis clinics. “ADHD and ASD, therefore, remain largely undiagnosed conditions for which it is hard to get hold of medication without formal recognition”.

Even when patients do have a diagnosis, it’s not so easy to get your hands on a cannabis prescription. The NHS can prescribe it, but most patients are forced to go private due to the government doing very little to inform or educate doctors on the changing perceptions in the medical field. Additionally, the UK government has not put in place any structures that would 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 if they have tried two traditionally prescribed medications that have not worked. Once you have proof of this, including your medical records and patient history, you will need to speak with a specialist or be referred to a specialist.” Essentially, it’s a long, drawn out process – so it’s easy to see why some people choose to just hit up their dealer, in spite of the risks that come with it. 

The problem is, when self-medicating, what you buy is unregulated. You might think you’re smoking super lemon haze, a sativa-dominant hybrid that’s got a rich CBD count and moderate THC level which is ideal for those with neurodiverse symptoms, when in reality you’re smoking something with much higher levels of THC that could induce paranoia, anxiety, or psychosis. Eve no longer 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 main difference is that I know what I'm smoking every time, I know exactly how it will make me feel, and being autistic you can imagine the comfort that gives me,” she says.

Activists, advocates and patients have fought to change 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 decades ago. We know it can 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, as well as in some animal studies). There’s a reason people have been using cannabis for its medicinal reasons for centuries. There’s still a long way to go — in terms of decriminalisation, legalisation, and improving access to medicinal cannabis — but the writing’s on the wall, as more and more research seems to suggest that cannabis has the potential to transform the lives of neurodivergent people. 

*Names have been changed

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