Currently, the consensus on whether cannabis may be used to treat autism is mixed. While some papers show signs of its potential, scientists say more robust research is needed to be conclusive on either end.
Cannabis’ active ingredients work by binding to cannabinoid receptors on neurons throughout the body. While tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) activates CB1 and CB2 receptors, cannabidiol (CBD) seems to block them. The effects of cannabinoids depend on the location of the cannabinoid receptors they interact with.
For example, activation of CB1 receptors in the brain can increase or decrease neuron excitability, whereas activation of CB2 receptors in the digestive tract can decrease inflammation. Due to a lack of research, however, how exactly cannabis interacts with autism is not fully known.
Regardless, one study from 2018 looked at how 188 patients with autism reacted to medical cannabis between 2015 and 2017. Most patients used cannabis oil containing 30% CBD and 1.5% THC. Symptoms, global patient assessment, and side effects were measured at six months of treatment with surveys.
In the end, the researchers found that after six months of treatment, 30% of patients saw significant improvement, 53.7% moderate improvement with 15% having slight or no change. Meanwhile, those reporting good quality of life doubled from 31.3% prior to the study to 66.8% afterward.
A study conducted in 2019 of medicinal cannabis use among teenagers and children found similar results. Following cannabis treatment with a 20-to-1 ratio of CBD to THC, researchers found that anxiety and communication improved in 39% and 47% of patients. A minority of patients, however, had sleep disturbances (14%, irritability (9%), and a loss of appetite (9%).
Although promising, due to limitations including study sample size and lack of placebo and randomized controls, researchers remain hesitant on espousing the benefits of cannabis for autism too soon. In a recent review of cannabis literature, however, they do say that after further research has been conducted, medical cannabis may one day provide the urgent support needed to address the core symptoms of autism and improve quality of life.