A new study claims that THC and CBD do not improve depressive disorders, even questioning their effectiveness in alleviating the symptoms of depression and anxiety. The research concluded that the quality of evidence linking THC to reduced anxiety was low, regardless of whether consumers used THC alone or with CBD. Does this new evidence mean that cannabis for anxiety is all a fluke?

According to researchers, THC consumption actually increased the risk of suffering unwanted side effects and withdrawal symptoms — and researchers also concluded that there was “little evidence for the effectiveness of pharmaceutical CBD or medicinal cannabis for the treatment” of the examined mental health disorders. 

While the research reveals some unique insights, there’s certainly a lesson that the industry should learn from the study’s findings: cannabis researchers need to stop focusing so heavily on single cannabinoids like THC and CBD isolates and shift the dialogue towards full-spectrum cannabis blends for anxiety and depressive disorders.

In multiple areas of the study, there is a lack of depth. There’s no evidence to suggest researchers considered different dosages, yet other studies on THC and anxiety have shown THC’s potential to provide relief at low doses and increase anxiety at higher ones. The study is also limited by its use of just three preparations of cannabis: THC isolate, CBD isolate, and a THC-CBD blend. These are the only three cannabis compounds approved by the FDA for clinical trials, so it makes sense that the researchers focused on them. But the two cannabinoids don’t adequately reflect the wide variety of cannabis blends that may also hold merit as effective treatments for anxiety.

To better understand the need to study the whole cannabis plant, researchers can look at clinical trials that analyzed cannabis’ effectiveness as a cancer treatment. Preclinical research not only shows that cannabinoids “trigger antitumor responses in different models of cancer,” but studies also suggest that a botanical drug preparation made from the whole cannabis plant extract causes more cancerous cells to die than pure THC.

Cannabis researchers cannot forget. The cannabis plant has over 100 cannabinoids and other compounds, each one possessing unique characteristics and possible therapeutic benefits. Studies have pointed to the potential for these compounds to work synergistically and produce significant benefits when combined, and researchers commonly identify this process as the entourage effect. However, when researchers study cannabis for anxiety or depressive conditions, the entourage effect is entirely overlooked.

researcher doing a study on cannabis for anxiety

Why Can’t Researchers Paint a More Complete Picture On Cannabis For Anxiety?

Unfortunately, diving deeper into the cannabis plant is not as easy as it sounds. The FDA has only approved CBD isolate, THC isolate, and CBD-THC blends, hindering cannabis researchers’ efforts to study anything else. In some respects this is good. Isolating a variable and analyzing the way it affects a given outcome is still a laudable scientific practice that provides useful information. But the concept severely limits the ability to understand the cannabis plant in its entirety and whether cannabis can act as a treatment for anxiety and depressive disorders.

Another obstacle to more rigorous research is the compounds that researchers can test in a clinical trial. Currently, researchers can either test something that’s being prepared for use as a pharmaceutical or test a pharmaceutical that’s already FDA-approved to identify a new application for it. These rules are highly restrictive for researchers studying the medicinal impact of cannabis because it limits their scope of work.

How Does Faulty Language Harm the Industry?

While researchers can only study two cannabinoids and one specific blend, that doesn’t stop them from making generalizations about the entire cannabis plant, as one can see when reviewing the latest study on cannabis and anxiety. Researchers continuously isolate a variable like THC, decide that it’s the “active compound” in cannabis, and then attribute their study’s findings to the cannabis plant as a whole.

But, as mentioned above, cannabis has over 100 active cannabinoids plus terpenes and flavonoids, each with its own properties and therapeutic potential. To claim that cannabis is merely THC is both reductive and counterproductive.

Language like this causes uninformed consumers to believe that cannabis isn’t a good treatment for anxiety and depressive disorders when it is THC alone (or another cannabinoid) that’s an ineffective treatment. This point is proven when one looks at the dialogue around cannabis and anxiety. THC isolate might not be a great treatment for the condition, but there is still potential for it to be beneficial when consumed alongside other elements of the cannabis plant.

Ultimately, the problem is the way in which cannabis researchers interpret their findings. Saying that cannabis works in a certain way based upon a study that examines an isolate of a single cannabinoid is not only wrong but an inaccurate perception of cannabis.

cannabis for anxiety research

How to Present More Accurate Conclusions

Barriers to more in-depth cannabis research and occurrences of scientific studies being erroneously interpreted leaves the industry with one question: how can cannabis researchers conduct and present studies on cannabis for anxiety and depressive disorders in an accurate way? As things stand, there are three obvious avenues for improvement:

1. Reduce federal restrictions

It should be noted that many researchers are respected intellectuals who are equally mindful of the limitations of studying cannabis under such narrow parameters. But as long as cannabis is a federally controlled substance, they have little room to maneuver. The most critical step to improving cannabis research is to reschedule cannabis and make a broader range of chemical preparations available for scientists to study at a clinical level.

2. Understand the multivariate nature of cannabis

Cannabis professionals who are publishing information about the cannabis plant need to be mindful of the entourage effect and why it is important. Most people don’t have an in-depth knowledge of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) or how different it is compared to other signaling pathways in the body, yet understanding the ECS is key to comprehending how cannabis affects people’s bodies. The fundamental understanding of cannabis in the medical profession needs to improve to ensure everyone in the industry is presenting correct information.

3. Contextualize scientific conclusions

This strategy presents the case for correctly recognizing the significance of each study’s findings. If researchers decide to focus on THC isolate in their research, they shouldn’t use their results to present conclusions about the entire cannabis plant.

In addition, researchers should remember that any individual compound could have a different effect when combined with other cannabinoids or terpenes. For example, THC isolate may not work if someone has anxiety, but the synergistic effect produced by THC and other components of the cannabis plant may prove beneficial.

When it comes to accurately assessing the merits of cannabis for anxiety, researchers must wait for laws that will permit a greater depth of research. Once better regulations are in place, researchers can explore the multivariate nature of cannabis by running clinical trials on new cannabinoids in combination, not just in isolation. 

In the meantime, however, it is essential for cannabis researchers to interpret the results of existing studies accurately and not draw wrongful conclusions about the cannabis plant. After all, it probably possesses various therapeutic benefits we have yet to understand.

4. Leverage Genetics When Considering Cannabis For Anxiety

What works for one individual may not work for another. By leveraging a cannabis DNA test, which examines the genetic predispositions that impact how your body responds to cannabinoids, you can account for individual differences. For instance, if a participant was a non-responder is that because the treatment is ineffective or is it because the participant lacked an effective enzyme to break down the compound (e.g. THC and/or CBD)? Without insight to a participant’s genetics, it would be impossible to account for this variance in response at the individual level.