Summer is here! So is it time for a fun, frothy column to read by the pool while you sip a tropical beverage? I’m afraid not. This week’s column is about cannabis and depression.
And I’m not talking about that feeling you had after you accidentally dropped your hand-blown Game of Thrones “White Widow Walker” quadruple-chamber bong. That’s a bummer, man, but it’s not even close.
Depression is a very real and debilitating condition that has only recently begun to be treated with the seriousness it deserves. More than just a “mood,” depression can lead to behavioral and physical symptoms, including changes in sleeping and eating patterns, concentration levels, and more. Depression can also be linked to suicidal thoughts.
Suicide has been in the news frequently recently—from the sudden, shocking losses of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showing an increase of 25 percent in suicides between 1999 and 2016, with Washington State specifically increasing at a rate of 18.8 percent.
During roughly that same time period (from 1999 to 2014), antidepressant use went up by 65 percent. In 2014, nearly one in eight Americans aged 12 or older had recently used an antidepressant.
You haven’t been imagining it—the facts show that we are a not happy country.
But as medical and recreational cannabis programs have led to expanded safe access and better education in self-medication, people who have previously used antidepressants are trying out cannabis treatments. One Canadian study in 2017 showed 63 percent of patients reported using medical marijuana as a substitute for prescription drugs, such as opioids, sedatives, and antidepressants.
Trying to find a particular cannabis strain to deal with depression can be overwhelming. There are more varieties on the shelves than ever, and it’s a daunting and expensive undertaking to try out a dozen different types of flower. (For some—for me, it’s my ideal weekend.)
First off, it may be worth examining if there any other conditions for which you take prescription medications. A study published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one third of American adults take medications linked to feelings of depression as a side effect or interaction.
They found users of more than 200 common drugs—including beta blockers, painkillers (including ibuprofen), anticonvulsants, and drugs that treat acid reflux, high blood pressure, and anxiety, among others—were slightly more likely to be depressed. But significantly, those taking three or more of these types of drugs were three times as likely to be depressed than those not taking any. If you can find a suitable cannabis replacement for anything you’re already taking, you might be able to remove a potential cause of your depression.
When turning to cannabis specifically for relief from depression, start with what’s in the flower, and not what it’s named (or commonly misnamed). Look for terpenes, not just THC count. Seek strains or products with high levels of beta caryophyllene (β-caryophyllene) and limonene. Beta caryophyllene imparts a stimulating, uplifting effect, while limonene has a citrusy scent and taste, with mood-boosting properties.
An “uplifting” quality is frequently attributed to sativas, and limonene is most often found in sativa-dominant strains such as Tangie Dream, Super Lemon Haze, and Durban Poison. Beta caryophyllene has a spicy, pepperish nose, and is often found in strains like OG Kush, Skywalker OG, and Sour Diesel. (Remember that you can’t always judge a strain by its name.)
Bear in mind that strains recommended for anxiety are often dominant in terpenes that bring on the “couch-lock” effect, which may be great for relaxation, but less so for depression where motivation may already be in short supply.
CBD is often desired for its non-psychotropic effects, but for some of us, it can work best when introduced into the system with at least a 1:1 ratio of CBD to THC. In a February 2017 article for Cannabis Now, cannabis educator Sara Payan writes, “More balanced ratios (1:1 to 1:4) often are helpful for depression, while larger ratios (18:1 and higher) are exceptionally useful for anxiety and anxiety-causing disorders such as OCD... [and] large amounts of high-ratio CBD can act as a depressant.”
All of which is to say that cannabis is a tool, but it’s far from the only option, and it won’t be right for everyone. Always speak with a doctor before starting any treatment, and if you need someone to talk to, know that you aren’t alone. The Crisis Clinic of King County is a 24-hour, toll-free, telephone hotline that provides immediate, confidential assistance to people in distress in the King County area at 1-866-427-4747 or 206-461-3222.