Marijuana and OCD: Will it help or hurt? Ask Dr Reilly Kayser
•8 min read
This August, we published a blog post about the effects of marijuana and CBD on OCD symptoms. We receive a lot of questions on this topic, and to address them thoroughly we’re bringing a number of perspectives to this blog.
Today’s post comes from Dr. Reilly Kayser, MD. Dr. Kayser is a psychiatrist and clinical research fellow in the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, which is affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center. His research focuses on the use of new treatments for OCD, and he’s currently focusing on the role of the endocannabinoid system in OCD and anxiety disorders.
Now we’ll leave things to Dr. Kayser.
Q: How do you feel about substances / cannabis?
Dr. Kayser: Marijuana, or cannabis, is illegal in most of the United States but is nonetheless one of the most commonly used substances. As our political and cultural landscape has changed, cannabis use appears to be on the rise. For example, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 12% of adults in the US reported having used cannabis in the past week—a rate nearly matching the 15% who say they’d smoked cigarettes. Similarly, a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that, between 2008 and 2018, the number of adults who reported using cannabis on a daily basis increased by 4.8 million.
These trends suggest that cannabis’ presence in our society is growing. Americans increasingly appear to find cannabis use socially acceptable, with the General Social Survey finding that a record 61% support cannabis legalization. An expanding number of states are introducing legislation to increase access to medical and recreational cannabis.
Shifting attitudes toward cannabis among American consumers have also been reflected in an explosion in the marketing of cannabis products as potential treatments for all sorts of different conditions, including mental health problems like anxiety and OCD. The bottom line: with so much information about cannabis out there, and so many different claims about what it can do, it can be difficult to figure out what to believe.
Q: How does cannabis interact with OCD or other mental illnesses? Does smoking weed make OCD worse and make obsessions more real?
Dr. Kayser: Given that cannabis use is more and more common among Americans in general, it’s probably no surprise that many people with OCD symptoms have tried it as well. In fact, a large residential treatment facility for OCD recently reported that around 30% of adults with OCD who sought treatment in their program said they had used cannabis at least once. But although we know that many people do use cannabis, how it interacts with symptoms of OCD and other mental illnesses is less clear.
One thing that most researchers agree on is that cannabis is not without risks. For example, cannabis is known to affect the developing brain, and may cause problems later in life for those who are exposed to it at an early age. Similarly, using cannabis has been associated with increased rates of psychotic symptoms. While in this case no causal link has been found— meaning that it hasn’t been proven that cannabis use causes psychosis directly—it also hasn’t been established that cannabis is not capable of causing psychosis in some individuals. So, in general, it is safest for those who fall into high-risk groups (such as children, adolescents, and anyone with a personal or family history of psychosis) to abstain from using cannabis.
Far less is known about how cannabis interacts with anxiety and OCD symptoms. Most of what we do know comes from studies in animals—aside from a few very small studies looking at social anxiety, almost no human trials have looked into this question. We do know that the effects of cannabis (and products derived from cannabis) depend on a variety of factors, including a person’s genetic background, gender, frequency of use, amount used, and expectations about what they will experience.
Someone who has never used cannabis might be more likely to experience anxiety after using, compared to someone who has tried it many times in the past. Similarly, using cannabis with very high concentrations of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in the marijuana plant) probably increases the chance that a person will experience anxiety and other adverse effects. There is some evidence that those with certain OCD symptoms, particularly obsessions, may be more likely to use cannabis, possibly as a means of coping with their symptoms. However, there are still more questions than answers regarding how exactly cannabis use affects OCD and anxiety symptoms.
This is an active area of research for us at the Center for OCD Research at Columbia University/New York State Psychiatric Institute. We became interested in this question in part because we were hearing vastly different stories from our patients: some told us that cannabis helped to control obsessions, compulsions, or anxiety; others told us that it did nothing; and still others described the ways it worsened their symptoms.
In addition to studying how cannabis affects OCD symptoms in the clinic, we’re currently recruiting people who have experienced OCD symptoms and have also used cannabis in the past to complete a survey about their experiences. If you think you might meet these criteria, please consider filling out the survey—it will help us answer important questions. We would love to hear from people with a range of experiences, whether they’ve had an OCD diagnosis for years or still aren’t sure if they have OCD, whether they’re regular cannabis users or have only tried it once or twice.
Q: How does CBD oil even work? I don’t like smoking weed because it has always made my anxiety worse, so what’s the difference? Could CBD help my OCD?
Dr. Kayser: The short answer to this question is that nobody knows! Interest in CBD has surged over the past few years, which has been accompanied by a great deal of marketing of CBD products for various medical conditions, including anxiety and OCD. However, even though researchers think that CBD has several different effects on the brain, very little is known about its effects on individuals with anxiety and OCD.
Unfortunately, there are many exaggerated or misleading claims about CBD that do not reflect what is actually known scientifically. In reality, there have only been a few small studies in humans. Though these have given us some hints that CBD may help with certain anxiety symptoms, the results are far from conclusive. We are even more in the dark in terms of how CBD affects obsessions and compulsions, as there have been no studies at all in patients with OCD.
So, at this point, we still cannot say whether CBD would help, harm, or have a neutral effect on OCD symptoms. It’s not all bad news, though: in addition to the survey listed above, our team is currently pursuing a study on CBD’s effects in patients with OCD. So we hope to be able to answer this question in more detail soon.
Q: What can I do for my OCD instead of smoking weed?
Dr. Kayser: Fortunately, there’s a variety of treatment options for those with OCD, including medications, psychotherapy, and device-based treatments. The main medications shown to be effective in OCD are those that work on the brain’s serotonin system—this includes SSRIs and clomipramine. These are often effective on their own, but other classes of medications can also be added, depending on a person’s symptoms.
The main form of psychotherapy for OCD is a specific form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which includes exposure and response/ritual prevention. This type of therapy, known as ERP or EX/RP, can be just as effective as medication for treating OCD symptoms. Some people may benefit even further from combining medication(s) and ERP.
Though medication and ERP are the first-line treatment options, there are a number of alternatives. These include different forms of psychotherapy like acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), mindfulness, residential treatment programs, and device-based treatments such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS, which was recently approved by the FDA for treating OCD, is a non-invasive method that uses magnetic fields to stimulate specific brain circuits known to be involved in OCD symptoms.
Overall, the good news is that many options besides cannabis may be helpful. If you’re experiencing OCD symptoms, we recommend consulting a mental health professional who can help you determine whether any of these treatments might be right for you.
Q: So how can I get the most effective therapy for OCD?
Please note that the following is written by the NOCD team. Dr. Kayser has not endorsed the NOCD Therapy treatment service.
As Dr. Kayser mentioned, the verdict is still out on the effects of marijuana and CBD on people with OCD. But, either way, the most effective treatment we currently have is ERP. Conducted by a licensed OCD therapist, it significantly decreases distress in most people. Trying to “fight” our thoughts directly is a losing battle, so ERP works by helping people recognize and resist their compulsions. And it does so without any substances.
Although this might sound simple, it involves careful planning and constant adjustment; so ERP is most effective when practiced with a therapist who has received specialized training. An OCD-trained therapist knows how to spot compulsions and tease them apart from obsessions. These observations are the building blocks of the personalized treatment programs they create. Their expertise is in teaching you how to manage your OCD and make positive changes in all areas of your life, redirecting all the energy you might otherwise have spent on OCD or trying to eliminate anxiety with drugs like marijuana.
This is the same training all of our NOCD Therapists receive. The goal of NOCD is to reduce your OCD symptoms within just a few weeks of live one-on-one video therapy. You’ll be welcomed into our supportive peer community, with 24/7 access to personalized self-management tools built by people who have been through severe OCD and successfully recovered using ERP.
ERP is most effective when the therapist conducting the treatment has experience with OCD and training in ERP. At NOCD, all therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training. Make that call and speak with the NOCD clinical team to learn more about how a licensed therapist can help.