Because the study is observational, it can’t say in which direction this association runs — if depressed people are more likely to turn to pot, or if marijuana use fuels depression.
“I think it’s probably both of these things at the same time,” Aoun said. “Marijuana could be causing depressive symptoms. Also, people who are depressed who are looking for treatment are seeking out options to help reduce the impact or burden of their depressive symptoms. When traditional treatment options are insufficient, they are turning to marijuana.”
THC, the chemical in pot that causes intoxication, has been shown to increase levels of dopamine in the brain, Wetter said. Dopamine is a “feel good” neurotransmitter that directly stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain.
That might make a depressed person feel better temporarily, but it’s really masking feelings that will return, Aoun said.
“Drugs don’t introduce new feelings that you don’t have in you,” Aoun said. “They just allow for disinhibition. If you’re depressed and you smoke marijuana, it’s not going to cure your depression.”
What’s more, these dopamine rushes alter your brain chemistry in ways that can exacerbate your depression.
“It requires more use in order to feel good,” Wetter said. “When you don’t have that, you will start to feel the symptoms of more increased depression. You experience the crash, if you will.”
Eleven states have adopted laws permitting recreational marijuana use, but Aoun said he’s more concerned about the 34 states that have passed laws allowing medical marijuana.
“When states are pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana without credible evidence, you’re sending so many wrong messages,” Aoun said.
Not enough medical research has been done to firmly establish marijuana’s health benefits, but legalization has nonetheless made pot into a seemingly legitimate alternative for folks struggling with a mood disorder, Aoun said.
He compared pot to insulin, a treatment for diabetes tested in large-scale research studies before it became available to patients.
“With marijuana, it’s been a completely different story where these decisions are really driven primarily by companies with a significant financial interest in promoting marijuana use,” Aoun said.