The Woodstock crowd smoked pot in bell bottoms; Peter, Paul, and Mary puffed the magic dragon. Whether its alias is Mary Jane, weed, or chronic, marijuana comes from a plant scientifically known as cannibas sativa. Its main active ingredient is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC for short. In many people, the drug produces a relaxing effect, but it’s still unclear whether weed can actually reduce anxiety.

Light It Up and Take a Puff — Why It Matters

Unfortunately, trying to understand the science of marijuana is not as calming as smoking it. Marijuana reduces stress by acting on the endocannabinoid system, the part of the brain that regulates pain, memory, and appetite. The brain busts out the Bob Marley when the THC interacts with a neurotransmitter called anandamide, producing a relaxed feeling. Small amounts of marijuana can also beat stress by lowering blood pressure and causing sleepiness.

Besides stress relief, other effects of marijuana use include distorted perception (seriously dude, where ismy car?) and impaired coordination. Research on the effects of consistent marijuana use isn’t conclusive, but long-term risks may include cognitive problems and even addiction.

And while Jay and Silent Bob are pretty upstanding characters, it’s illegal to use marijuana recreationally in the USA. Medical marijuana’s another story: In sixteen states and Washington, D.C., doctors can prescribe marijuana for pain relief, insomnia, and other treatments. (Satisfying the need to eat an entire pie is not among them— yet.) But when it comes to using marijuana to reduce anxiety, the issue gets complicated.

A Dime For Your Thoughts — The Answer/Debate

Anxiety is one of the most common conditions among medical marijuana patientsWho are medical marijuana patients? Population characteristics from nine California assessment clinics. Reinarman, C., Nunberg, H., Lanthier, F., et al.Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2011;43(2):128-35.. And recent research suggests waiting ’til 4/20 won’t cut it— cannabinoids work best to reduce symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder within 24 hours of a traumatic event. It’s worth noting, though, these findings don’t necessarily apply to all forms of marijuana. The experiment involved rats, not humans, and researchers used injections of synthetic marijuana (though the rodents would have looked a lot funnier with joints between their paws).

But it’s hard to say for sure that marijuana’s a certifiable chill pillCannabis and anxiety: a critical review of the evidence. Crippa, J.A, Zuardi, A.W., Martín-Santos, R. Department of Neurosciences and Behavior, Division of Psychiatry, Ribeirão Preto School of Medicine, University of São Paulo (USP-RP) and INCT Translational Medicine, Brazil. Human psychopharmacology 2009;24(7):515-23.. Studies have found people with anxiety issues are more likely to develop a marijuana dependence, since they often anticipate the drug’s relaxing effects. For some, two joints in times of peace, war, and worry can be a quick fix for social anxiety, which can also lead to problems with marijuana abuseMarijuana-related problems and social anxiety: The role of marijuana behaviors in social situations. Buckner, J.D., Heimberg, R.G., Matthews, R.A. Psychology of addictive behaviors 2011.. And it won’t work the same for everyone— studies suggest marijuana may actually create more anxiety in people with panic disorders.

In the future, people who suffer from depression and anxiety may be able to avoid run-ins with the po-po. Studies suggest the endocannabinoid system plays an important role in anxiety and mood disorders, and researchers may develop therapeutic drugs similar to THC without the same negative side effectsThe endocannabinoid system as a target for novel anxiolytic and antidepressant drugs. Gaetani, S., Dipasquale, P., Romano, A. Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy. International Review of Neurobiology 2009;85:57-72.. In general, it’s a good idea to speak to a mental health professional for advice on treating anxiety issues. And in the words of Afroman, I was gonna’ end this article with something witty, but then I got…

The Takeaway

The relationship between weed and anxiety may be more complicated than it appears— don’t assume lighting up a joint will solve any problem!

Do you think doctors should be able to prescribe marijuana for anxiety relief? Tell us in the comments below!