Tired of all the debate? Let us help you debunk the most common marijuana myths.
An employee analyzes the quality of marijuana at a greenhouse near Empalme Olmos, Canelones department, Uruguay on August 23, 2018. (Photo by Miguel ROJO/ AFP/Getty Images)
Support for cannabis legalization is at an all-time high in America. More than 64 percent of Americans—both Republicans and Democrats—are now in favor of the federal government ending prohibition, according to Gallup’s 2017 numbers. There are still some folks, like West Virginia US Attorney Mike Stuart, touting reefer madness bogus like the Gateway Drug Theory. (In March, he vowed to ‘AGGRESSIVELY’ (in all caps) enforce federal marijuana laws.) But for the most part, people opposing legalization have more nuanced arguments that deserve, well, nuanced rebuttals. Let’s go through the leading marijuana myths, one by one.
Elected officials who oppose federal legalization often say marijuana shouldn’t be legalized until there’s more research into its medical potential and safety. Here’s the problem with that argument. Marijuana is already legal—in 30 states and the District of Columbia. That means in more than half of the country millions upon millions of Americans—some of whom have serious medical conditions—are going to dispensaries, choosing products they think will be a good fit, and consuming them with little guidance from doctors who, for the most part, feel ill-equipped to advise them.
You could argue that that proves state legalization should be rolled back, but firstly—that ain’t gonna happen—secondly, if in some unlikely universe it did, that would just send patients back to the black market, and thirdly, that still doesn’t fix our biggest problem: a lack of research. You see, this whole “lack of research” argument is a circular one. Cannabis’ classification by the Federal Government in the most highly restricted category of drugs, Schedule I, has created so many barriers to research that it’s nearly impossible to conduct. So elected officials say we need more research before ending prohibition, but prohibition prevents that research from happening. Hmm…
We’d like to be able to definitively say that marijuana legalization does not increase traffic accidents, but unfortunately, at this time, no one knows for sure as the data is conflicting. A study, conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in 2016, found that vehicle collisions slightly increased in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon after they legalized recreational marijuana. Traffic fatalities, however, did not increase in Washington or Colorado, during that time.
One significant limitation to this data is that it can’t determine which accidents were caused by marijuana impairment. This is, in part, because there’s no reliable device, like the breathalyzer for alcohol, which can determine if someone is too high to drive. As the Reason Institute, an American libertarian think tank, pointed out after reviewing the available research this year: “There are few convincing conclusions to be drawn concerning the risk of traffic accident fatalities from marijuana legalization.”
So the most reasonable rebuttal to concerns about high driving is not that you can’t be too high to drive cause c’monnnn, folks. It’s that even if you can, it hasn’t been a big problem in states which have legalized. We do know, however, that substances which are currently legal pose much more of a risk than cannabis. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 28 percent of all traffic-related deaths were a result of alcohol-impaired driving in 2016. According to the Reason Institute, some studies even suggest that medical marijuana could lead to a reduction in traffic fatalities by replacing alcohol.
There’s limited data on this, too, but so far teen use has not increased significantly in states which have legalized. In Washington state, a survey of 8th and 10th graders found that marijuana use increased by 2 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. In Colorado state, there was actually a decline in cannabis use among teens after legalization.
Prohibitionists not only express concern that legalization makes cannabis more accessible, but that it makes young people think consuming it is ok. In Washington, the percentage of 8th and 10th graders who believed marijuana posed a “great or moderate risk” did fall following legalization. In Colorado, where there was already a significant medical market and cannabis advertising prior to recreational legalization, it did not.
Here’s our rebuttal: does marijuana pose a “great” or “moderate” risk relative to other substances that are already legal? What about substances that aren’t—but which remain popular for recreational purposes among America’s youth—like MDMA and cocaine?
And while we might not know yet how shifting attitudes change use, here’s what we do know: lying to teens about the risks of substances doesn’t work. The original curriculum for DARE—the drug prevention program which told teens cannabis is a gateway drug—proved that. It’s now widely considered a failure by people on both ends of the drug reform spectrum, because when you exaggerate to teens, they stop trusting you.
Cannabis legalization might make cannabis more available to teens, because it’s more available, in general, in the state. Or it might make it less accessible, because rather than it primarily being sold on the black market, it’ll be sold in regulated dispensaries that check ID. Regardless, legalization gives parents and teachers the opportunity to start having open conversations with their kids about the risks. (Here’s Herb’s guide on how to talk to teens about cannabis.)
As noted by researchers in a study published in 2008, “evidence for an association between cannabis and lung cancer is limited and conflicting.” Cannabis smoke actually has more carcinogens than tobacco smoke, but THC, the component in cannabis that makes users “high,” has also been found to have cancer-fighting properties.
A 2015 analysis which looked at data from all the largest studies found that they mostly found no association between cannabis use and lung cancer. A study in New Zealand found an increase in lung cancer incidence, but that was among very heavy marijuana users and, as most of the research points out, marijuana users tend to smoke much less frequently than tobacco smokers.
Perhaps most importantly, though, is that millions of Americans will use cannabis with or without legalization. In states where cannabis is legal, however, a growing number of cannabis users are opting for alternative methods to smoking like edibles, vaping, oils, patches, and topicals. In fact, cannabis entrepreneurs at the forefront of the industry are largely predicting products like drinkables, vapes, and even medicines with distinct combinations of cannabinoids are the future of cannabis—not dry herb.
Just like with teens and sex, we have to take a realistic approach here. People have been using cannabis for thousands of years—and they’re not stopping anytime soon. We can either provide Americans with methods of consumption we know are clean and safe—or let them fend for themselves on the black market.
A recent article in The Atlantic reignited an important conversation about what’s called “cannabis use disorder.” One study, published in 2015, found that the number of marijuana consumers who developed a dependence on their use doubled between 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, an alarming increase.
We’re not denying that some people develop an unhealthy dependence on cannabis. Just read Reddit to hear countless stories about the very real withdrawal symptoms: a loss of appetite, insomnia, and irritability, to name a few. Several experts argue in The Atlantic that it’s vital we don’t neglect to acknowledge the risks of cannabis because we’re so intent on legalizing it.
The point is well taken, but here are a few others. Cannabis is wayyyy less addictive than alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine, substances that are not only normalized but often glorified in our society. Cannabis use disorder, while real, is arguably diagnosed too readily, skewing stats like the ones above. (A person only needs to meet two criteria on a list of behavioral symptoms, many of which are fairly normal, in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic Manual to qualify.) And while cannabis does have addictive potential, it also has the potential to replace opioids—which are causing an unprecedented number of overdose deaths in America at the moment—and prescription pills—which can come with a host of severe side effects from constipation to dizziness.
Not everyone should smoke cannabis, all the time, and it’s not a panacea, but can someone honestly argue that the risks outweigh the benefits? And even if they did, is prohibition actually stopping people from using cannabis or is it just preventing the regulation of it?