Despite being the world’s most popular recreationally-used drug, cannabis is still illegal in most countries and remains misunderstood in many minds.
Even though medical testing continues to find a host of new therapeutic applications for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), anti-cannabis propaganda from decades ago has shaped attitudes about this wonderful and versatile plant, resulting in a long-lasting stigma around cannabis and those who use it, to this day.
This article looks at common misconceptions about cannabis and sets the record straight.
Table of contents
Does Cannabis Use Lead to Crime?
The 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness bears a huge brunt of the blame for this misconception (as well as a few others). In Reefer Madness, a group of adolescent high school students are lured into trying marijuana by a gang of drug pushers, with tragic consequences. Among the themes visited by the film, schizophrenia, manslaughter, conspiracy to murder and attempted rape are all dramatically pinned on marijuana use.
The statistics simply don’t bear this out; cannabis users tend to be less aggressive under the effects of cannabis and, as such, have a lower tendency for criminal misdeeds – unless you count raiding the fridge as a crime. The most likely criminal charges for marijuana use are possession and cultivation in parts of the world where the drug remains illegal, so technically, yes, but no.
Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug?
This remains one of the most common arguments against legalization – the notion that cannabis use will lead you to try harder, more dangerous substances. The theory dates back to the 1930s (funnily enough, around the time of Reefer Madness) when then-head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, included the claim in his campaign against cannabis. In 1944, a commission set up by then-Mayor of New York, Fiorella La Guardia, released a study which showed no correlation between cannabis use and a switch to harder drugs. Anslinger responded by suing LaGuardia, and all members of his commission then stopped all cannabis research between 1944 and 1945.
In 1975, American sociologist Denise Kandel released a report that concluded “Marijuana is a crucial step on the way to other illicit drugs” after illustrating how high school students who drank alcohol or smoked tobacco graduated to trying cannabis within 5-6 months – putting the cart before the horse. Fast forward to 1984, and American psychiatrist Robert Dupont would release a book titled “Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs: A Guide For the Family.” Dupont would claim “anyone taking cannabis will almost certainly switch to hard drugs” in his book.
Herein lies the problem; debunking this myth successfully can be tricky as some statistics are manipulated to bear out the “Gateway Drug” claim, and some credentialed figures have backed up the claim of increased risk – but both Kandel and DuPont reached their conclusions based on users of harder who drugs who had also used cannabis. That picture doesn’t tell the whole story, nor does it establish causality between cannabis and hard drug use. Many hard drug users started out with cannabis, but not all cannabis users graduate to harder drugs or other substance use/substance abuse.
To further debunk the Gateway theory, the World Health Organization noted that around 2.5% of the world’s population uses cannabis, compared to 0.2% using cocaine or opiates.
If anything, one could make a successful counter-argument for cannabis – that it’s a gateway out of addiction rather than into it. Given its efficacy in relieving pain, cannabis is a natural alternative to addictive prescription drugs, opioids and benzodiazepines.
Is Cannabis More Damaging to the Lungs than Cigarettes?
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this, I’d be writing this article from my yacht in the Bahamas instead of from my house, in my pyjamas. The way it’s usually put to me is that joints are unfiltered, so you’re inhaling 100% of the smoke deep into your lungs, thereby doing more damage. I’ve even heard it said that one joint is the equivalent of three cigarettes.
If you mix your weed with tobacco, then yes, the lack of filter does increase the potential for damaging health effects. So use a filter. Or don’t use tobacco. Or use a pipe, or a bong, try vaping, or take edibles, or use oils/concentrates. There’s more than one way to ingest cannabis, but there are multiple ways to make it safer, even if smoking is your preferred delivery route.
A study carried out by UCSF illustrates the difference in lung health between tobacco smoke and smoking cannabis, showing a significantly higher level of deterioration in airflow (breathing out) by tobacco smokers when compared to cannabis smokers.
Are Cannabis Smokers Lazy/Unmotivated?
A myth about the effects of marijuana still perpetuated to this day in TV, movies and society in general. Truth be told, it’s still a prevalent stereotype in some stoner circles, too. Named amotivational syndrome by psychologists back in the 1960s, the idea is that people who use cannabis perform poorly in school, lack motivation, and are inclined towards lower intelligence, poor mental health, and decreased productivity.
The fact is, that large numbers of cannabis users have plenty of get-up and go. From lawyers to scientists, academics and athletes, and owners of businesses small and large, the demographic of people using cannabis nowadays are so large that it’s not hard to debunk this one. Sure, there are plenty of pot-heads out there, too. Still, the only lazy thing here is this stereotype between responsible use, medical use, and strains that provide uplifting/motivational effects. Cannabis users are savvier than ever before, and will often research strains and terpene profiles before selecting the one that most closely fits their needs. Not all cannabis causes couch-lock, you know.
Studies are beginning to back this up, too. A recent study conducted at the University of Memphis found that students who smoked cannabis were more likely to expend effort to obtain reward. Add that to the 2019 study by the University of Colorado that nearly five out of six participants reported using marijuana one hour before exercising. Those who did spend longer working out than those who didn’t use cannabis.
Is Cannabis Addictive?
This is a controversial one because some people can’t live without marijuana. Take their marijuana away, however, and they would replace it with another daily habit. Addiction often lies within the individual rather than the substance. Some people are addicted to alcohol, sex, video games, junk food, working out, or playing the guitar. There’s an element of truth in the idea that you’re more inclined to want to do it often if something pleases you.
A study showed that only 9% of marijuana users become addicted. 9%! That’s significantly lower than alcohol (14%) and tobacco (24%). Despite these numbers, many people, including medical professionals, still insist that cannabis is addictive. You can become dependent on marijuana, and some people do – cannabis use disorder is real – but the marijuana community is not overrun with addicts who can’t go an hour without a blunt.
Can you Overdose on Weed?
This is still a fairly commonly-held belief among a number of cannabis users, while also a bone of contention between pro and anti-cannabis thought schools. It depends on how you define an overdose, too – so let’s define an overdose as over-consumption leading to ill effects. The truth is, you can overdose on cannabis – although it’s a fairly rare occurrence. The good news is, you’ll be fine. Many strains of cannabis have high levels of THC and psychoactive properties. If you overdo it, it’s like any other substance in some respects – your body will react, and take a degree of umbrage.
The most likely symptoms of marijuana overdose include nausea, vomiting, and paranoia, although in some cases, more severe reactions such as chest pain and panic attacks have been reported. But can you overdose on cannabis and die? Not a chance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) we’re still waiting on one case of a solely cannabis-related death. Cannabinoids don’t interact with the parts of the brain responsible for breathing, so it’s practically impossible for cannabis to cause a complete shutdown.
Always use sensibly, know your tolerance and know your limits.
Is Synthetic Weed Safe?
I can’t stress this enough – no, it isn’t. Synthetic weed is not safe. Repeat – synthetic weed is not safe.
If you ever find yourself in a position where you can’t get your hands on the real deal, do not give in to temptation and buy a bag of synthetic cannabis. Do not be tempted to try it, and do not be swayed by the promises of synthetic weed being ‘X’ times stronger than real cannabis. In fact, don’t look at it, don’t mention it, and don’t think about it. A quick search online will reveal countless horror stories regaled by unfortunate souls who decided to try synthetic weed. Each one ends with a frankly disturbing list of side effects and symptoms suffered by the user.
Often referred to by the street names ‘Spice’ or ‘K2’, synthetic cannabinoids will attach themselves to receptors in the body and brain the way natural cannabinoids do – but that’s where the similarities end. These synthetic compounds act very differently and have different effects on the body. They overstimulate the receptors, and before your eyes widen at the prospect of an enhanced high, that’s not what you get here at all. Spice can cause extreme cannabinoid poisoning, resulting in intense headaches, nausea, blackouts, dangerous increase in heart rate, and renal failure, to name just a few.
Synthetic cannabinoids are toxic chemical concoctions, and they can be deadly. Natural cannabis won’t kill you, but synthetic cannabis most certainly can. Avoid synthetic weed at all costs.
If you’ve bought cannabis from an unknown source and are unsure of its content, drug testing kits are available for cannabis that test for substances like Spice, K2, and other herbal incenses.
Does Holding the Hit Longer get you Higher?
There’s a long-held belief that using cannabis can cause mental illness and damage your cognitive function and ability to remember things. There is a degree of truth to this, but it’s just a degree, and this is widely misinterpreted. Yes, smoking weed can impact your short-term memory during and shortly after the period in which you consume it – this is why you often see TV stoners at a loss as they try to remember where they put the air freshener (but interestingly, never whose turn it is on the joint). But contrary to the widely-held belief, cannabis doesn’t alter your long-term memory, nor does it lead to degenerative memory loss.
In fact, researchers at California’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies have found that cannabinol can defend brain cells against cell death commonly found in people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Besides, if smoking cannabis truly destroyed your memory, there’s no chance Willie Nelson would still be able to perform the songs he wrote back in the 1950s.
Is Cannabis a Medicine?
If you go to pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov and search the word cannabis, there are over 28,000 results. There is a greater abundance of clinical studies, research, and positive results showing cannabis to be of a medical and therapeutic benefit than at any time in history, and these studies are ongoing. Despite this, there is still a branch of medicine opposed to using cannabis to treat medical conditions. Unfortunately, this continues to hold sway with some members of the public.
From the findings above that cannabinol can defend brain cells against cell death, to the effective use of cannabis in reducing seizures in epilepsy patients, or the therapeutic option of cannabis for the treatment of cancer-related pain, the list of medical applications for this plant continues to grow by the month. As of 2022, we can point to clinical evidence of medical marijuana’s efficacy in treating or alleviating symptoms of more debilitating conditions than we have time to list in this article, yet some continue to insist this is nothing more than snake oil. Visit any number of cannabis forums or medical cannabis communities to see just how many people have experienced relief from their ailments as a result of using cannabis, cannabis compounds or cannabis extracts.
Sure, recreational use of cannabis is one thing and a great thing – but it is through the medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant and its related compounds that we hold the most hope for the future. With both the cannabis industry and the CBD industry now booming worldwide, more and more people are reviewing the evidence and making their own decisions to use cannabis for medical reasons.