Marijuana: Gateway Drug to Neurofeedback

by Siegfried Othmer | November 23rd, 2009

Now California is one of thirteen states that has allowed a place for medical marijuana (and fourteen states have simply decriminalized the possession of marijuana for personal use categorically). But officialdom locally remains nervous.It has happened a number of times now that a high-powered executive or other successful professional has come to our Woodland Hills office for neurofeedback training for one issue or another, or simply for optimum performance training, and confided that they depend on marijuana to get them through. The usual outcome is that their marijuana utilization will drop off as their brains achieve a better state of self-regulation. Anxiety falls off; tension is released; sleep improves; pain subsides; stress tolerance increases. These are not trivial matters. They are in fact collectively life-altering.

Alternatively, we may only get to hear about the marijuana use after it has ceased, often to the amazement of the clients themselves. They may either have had no intention of giving it up, or they might simply have seen marijuana as indispensable to their well-being. The surprise on their part is matched by the surprise on ours, namely to see just how ready these people are to jettison the marijuana once their system no longer benefits from it particularly. By and large we are not dealing with recreational use here.

Now California is one of thirteen states that has allowed a place for medical marijuana (and fourteen states have simply decriminalized the possession of marijuana for personal use categorically). But officialdom locally remains nervous. Marijuana dispensaries have popped up like weeds through broken concrete all over the state, and obviously the market being served rather informally here is much larger than anyone’s idea of medical need. They are, of course, correct. Without question, there exist cases in which marijuana is solving a problem for people that apparently cannot be solved any other way using pharmacology. This may involve seizure susceptibility, nausea, or pain, including rather intractable nerve pain. In some cases, marijuana is even literally keeping people alive. Most of the market of the dispensaries, however, clearly falls outside of this narrow domain.

The question to be asked is whether this really presents a problem to our society. We already know from our own work that a large domain of dysfunction falls into the category of “Disorders of Disregulation.” These more subtle dysfunctions may represent a serious interference with quality of life and of professional effectiveness, but they fall short of any clean medical diagnosis. Doctors have dismissed such people for years with the labels “The Worried Well,” hypochondria, or malingering. When presented with such problems, doctors will simply humor these patients in various ways until they show up with something that can actually be treated.

Many of these people have discovered for themselves that there is a remedy for their condition called marijuana, and it is simply pointless to label these people criminals. That will not serve as an effective deterrent when one’s health and functionality are at stake. On the other hand, it is not easy to adapt the laws to accommodate this more inclusive “utilitarian” resort to marijuana.

We propose two answers to this dilemma. The first is for the government to adopt an attitude of benign neglect with regard to this issue. This is already well-established public policy when it comes to white collar crime, financial scandals, educating our children, maintaining public libraries, and dealing with traffic congestion, which all should rate higher priorities. The second is to offer an alternative to marijuana that actually solves the problem as opposed to driving it underground once again: That alternative is neurofeedback.

Every person convicted of the use of marijuana should be offered neurofeedback training instead of incarceration. If they are fined, the fine should be applied toward the cost of neurofeedback training. Additionally, neurofeedback could be offered within the prison system to anyone who is there because of a drug usage offense. This would vastly reduce recidivism. The individuals would be better off; the criminal justice system would not be over-burdened; the State would benefit financially.

The vast majority of marijuana users are never apprehended, obviously, so it would be even better if neurofeedback were promoted at all marijuana dispensaries. Marijuana sales could be taxed in order to under-write the neurofeedback training for any user who wanted to take advantage.

What would be the downside? The concern is obviously the feared “moral decay” of our next generation of youngsters who apprehend that the society has become casual about drug use. Of course our youngsters have apprehended this already. Some 20% of college students utilize stimulants or anti-depressants without the benefit of medical sanction. In the case of marijuana, the medical option is likely the worse choice. The vast majority of marijuana use is undoubtedly targeting the amelioration of anxiety conditions. As it happens, anxiolytics are all highly addictive, while marijuana is not. What sense does it make to offer a highly addictive substance to replace the rather benign marijuana? And what sense does it make to stigmatize marijuana users at the same time that drug companies are doing their best to stuff its active ingredient into a pill?

Every smoker of cigarettes who switches to marijuana is better off than before. Every consumer of alcohol who switches to marijuana is better off than before. These two lethal substances are legal not because the society wants them to be, but because there is really no effective alternative to legalization. The same holds true for marijuana, which represents a much lower societal risk.

The recent movie “Milk” brought back the memory of George Moscone, the progressive mayor of San Francisco, who was one of the first public figures at that level to call for the decriminalization of marijuana. That was forty years ago. It’s time to take that step, and we would not be alone in doing so. If the society is serious about minimizing marijuana utilization, it can make help to make neurofeedback available as a better alternative.

It is estimated that Mexican drug cartels get about 70% of their income from the US marijuana market. In response, the Mexican government has decriminalized the possession of small amounts of any drug. They are not alone. A number of other countries have decriminalized drugs as well, including Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, as well as some German states and Swiss cantons (Imagine, the land of John Calvin!). Argentina and other South American countries are headed in the same direction. The answer to the unwinnable war on drugs is to drain the swamp of criminality, with decriminalization as the first step, followed by practical options for treatment as the second. Portugal has been tracking the results of its permissive drug policy for some years. They have not seen increased utilization, but they have seen an increase in demand for treatment, which is just what one would hope for.

Siegfried Othmer, PhD

7 Responses to “Marijuana: Gateway Drug to Neurofeedback”

  1. Chris Lindemann says:

    Hi Siegfried,

    Thanks for your great social commentary on this pressing issue.

    If marijuana use is conceptualized as often self-medication of an underlying anxiety and/or substance dependence disorder, then one ought to see improvements with using the T3-T4 sites followed by alpha theta training as per the usual.

    What would be most interesting would be the case of a teenager or other person who did not want to quit, but was ordered to counseling, went to counseling rather than jail, was offered neurofeedback, did neurofeedback, and then remitted. Ever get that happen? I have yet to see that. But once the will to quit emerges, then things can happen.

    I currently have a patient who wants says she wants to quit marijuana, is doing T3-T4, but has seen no lowering of anxiety. It could be the blocking effect of the psychiatric medications she is taking (Wellbutrin and Clonipin).

    Any thoughts?


    • What is so interesting in our clinical experience is that a number of people gave up marijuana without ever intending to do so. The desire to stop using is certainly helpful in the recovery process, but it is apparently not necessary. We’ve seen the same thing with tobacco cigarettes and alcohol. These cases are highly significant because if a person stops using after seriously desiring to stop, it is never quite clear what role the neurofeedback played versus the sheer force of will. So it is nice to have this kind of confirmation that we are actually impinging upon the underlying neurophysiological processes involved in sustaining dependency. This is on top of the primary finding that with neurofeedback we are meeting the need which drove the person to use marijuana in the first place.

      Now with respect to your present case of anxiety that is not resolving with T3-T4, you may need to add other aspects of the protocol—-but this forum is not for specific advice on training strategies. We have not found the above medications to be an impediment to good neurofeedback training, provided they are actually helpful to the person. That is to say, the training is most effective when the person is in the best-controlled state of which he or she is capable. If the medication helps the person in that regard, it is then not a detriment to training efficiency.

  2. Cathy says:

    As the parent of a teen who has used lots of marijuana and had lots of problems from it I can tell you that marijuana can cause harm and is addicting. My son has an anxiety disorder and ADHD. He is on medication for those and has tried neurofeedback but I guess he is still trying to self-medicate but marijuana is not the answer for him. He had to drop out of a regular high school to go to an alternative high school (He has an IQ greater than 130.). He stole from us and he lies to us. I am very tired of people talking how harmless marijuana is because in our life it has been devastating.

    • Marijuana is not harmless, let me hasten to agree. In some individuals, it can clearly lead to dependency. However, marijuana risk cannot be discussed without reference to the person using it, simply because there is so much individual variation. Clearly for most people, marijuana does not meet the criteria of an addictive substance. However, that does not mean it is harmless.
      The above posting was intended to make the case for neurofeedback in preference to the use of marijuana. Now you have already tried neurofeedback with your son, but you should know first that there are a number of different neurofeedback approaches, and second that there has been considerable evolution in methods over the last few years. Our advice to those who have not been helped with neurofeedback is to move on to other training methods. We expect a high level of success with both ADHD and anxiety conditions.
      If substance abuse issues are involved, then the case for doing neurofeedback strengthens further, because research has shown that neurofeedback adds significantly to the success of standard therapies. My impression is that our success rate with marijuana is greater than with any other drug with abuse potential.

  3. Marijuana can indeed be destabilizing as well as stabilizing for brain function. And the long-term effects are more likely to be detrimental even if the short-term effects are favorable. The same is true for many medications for mental health conditions. Even if they are helpful over the short-term, they may not constitute a long-term solution, and ultimately the brain may even suffer from years of medication. Our society at large can take a step forward by acknowledging that marijuana is often not only helpful but critical in the short-term. Over the longer term, we offer neurofeedback as an alternative. The above link recommends a cognitive behavioral approach (CBT) to marijuana-induced anxiety and panic attacks. Both of these are resolvable more fundamentally with brain-training using neurofeedback. This does not discount the usefulness of CBT in managing these conditions. The neurofeedback training, however, gets at the physiological core of these issues so that panic disorder simply disappears.

  4. Biofeedback has been a recognized remedy for anxiety for forty years, and now EEG feedback (neurofeedback) is even more effective. It is also more effective for panic disorder. Even if your boyfriend hasn’t had a panic attack in some months, the vulnerability is still there. EEG feedback can help to buffer the physiology against the triggering of a panic attack. Panic can be like a near-death experience, so it is worth going to some trouble to avoid a recurrence.

  5. Nicole Lascurain says:

    Hi Siegfried,

    First off, I came across your site and wanted to say thanks for providing a great health resource to the community.

    I thought you might find this marijuana infographic interesting, as it allows readers to pick the side effect they want to learn more about:

    Naturally, I’d be delighted if you share this embeddable graphic on , and/or share it with your followers on social. Either way, keep up the great work Siegfried!

    All the best,

    Nicole Lascurain | Assistant Marketing Manager
    p: 415-281-3100 | e:

    660 Third Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 | @Healthline

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