Cannabis has been cultivated and utilized by humans for the entirety of our recorded history. Only as recently as the last one hundred years has it fallen out of favor and, as a result, become shrouded in mystery. Since 2012, ten states, as well as Washington, D.C., have voted to legalize cannabis, jumpstarting the plant’s comeback into mainstream culture.
Over the last few years, the market for cannabis has grown significantly. Everyday Americans, who for decades have heard only the message that marijuana is dangerous, are learning they can use the plant to treat minor pains and ailments. Not to mention chronically ill patients who are using it to mitigate symptoms and improve their quality of life. And of course, there are those who enjoy cannabis simply for its recreational benefits.
Despite acceptance of cannabis trending upward, there are still many unknowns about the plant and much research to be done. Fortunately, Washington state recently launched its first cannabis research lab, and federally-funded research seems to be ramping up. But for now, there are a few stubborn myths about cannabis that just won’t seem to go away.
Let’s take a moment to shed some light on a few of these long-standing misconceptions.
1. Cannabis is a “gateway drug.”
You were probably taught during a middle school health class that cannabis — also known as marijuana, weed, pot, dope, etc. — is a gateway drug that will lead to the use of harder, dangerous drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and even heroin.
However, there is little evidence to support this theory. While there are studies that show cannabis users are more likely to experiment with harder drugs, their results can be misleading as many count one-time users and do not take into account the underlying causes of hard drug use. According to a 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, cannabis “does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse; that is, care must be taken not to attribute cause to association.” The report goes on to say, “The most consistent predictors of serious drug use appear to be the intensity of marijuana use and co-occurring psychiatric disorders or a family history of psychopathology (including alcoholism).” Additionally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states on their website that, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other “harder” substances.”In fact, studies have actually shown cannabis can be used as an alternative to common opioid addiction treatments like methadone or buprenorphine.
So, while it is never ideal for minors to be using cannabis recreationally, it’s unlikely the occasional puff will lead to an opioid addiction. But while we’re on the topic of addiction…
2. Cannabis is not addictive.
Let’s be clear — cannabis can be habit-forming and potentially addictive, but only so much as your morning cup of coffee. Leslie L. Iverson, author of “The Science of Marijuana,” reviewed multiple international studies on cannabis and determined only 9 percent of users will develop a serious addiction. Between 10 and 30 percent of users will develop a dependency. For comparison, 23 percent of heroin users will develop a serious opioid addiction, and a heroin overdose can actually kill you. In 2016, over 29,000 people died from an opioid overdose.
Is it ever a good thing to be addicted to or form a dependence on something? Not really. But a cannabis habit is far less dangerous than many substances that are commonly overused by individuals on a daily basis.
3. You can die from a cannabis overdose.
No one in recorded history has ever died from a cannabis overdose. It’s not that you can’t die from a cannabis overdose, it’s just nearly impossible. According to David Schmader, author of “Weed: The User’s Guide,” you would have to ingest 1,500 pounds of cannabis in fifteen minutes to reach a fatal overdose.
However, you can still experience some pretty terrible symptoms from overconsumption, including anxiety, paranoia, nausea, and vomiting. The best way to avoid this is to understand proper dosing and to exercise patience when it comes to edibles specifically, as they can take up to an hour to kick in and are prone to being more potent than combusted or vaporized cannabis products.
4. It kills brain cells.
A favorite scare tactic for cannabis opponents, the myth that cannabis use leads to a decrease in brain cells or IQ has been persistent. But there is little evidence out there that suggests marijuana use could be toxic to the brain. In 2016, the Federal Drug Association reported there are no long-term effects to cognitive function from cannabis.
“The effects of chronic marijuana use do not seem to persist after more than one to three months of abstinence,” they wrote. “After three months of abstinence, any deficits observed in IQ, immediate memory, delayed memory and information-processing speeds following heavy marijuana use compared to pre-drug use scores were no longer apparent.”
In reality, the human body has an endocannabinoid system that regulates all the cannabinoid activity in the brain, nervous system, and immune system. Cannabinoids from the plant interact with these to produce different effects, which is why cannabis is regarded as a useful medicine and warrants additional research.
5. It makes you lazy.
In July 2001, Afroman released his hit song “Because I got high,” a humorous single detailing how cannabis use was negatively impacting his life. It sold over 1.5 million copies and earned a Grammy nomination. It also cemented the lazy stoner stereotype in the minds of the general public.
While there are certainly cannabis chemotypes and products out there that will make consumers more lethargic than usual, there are just as many that will stimulate and fight fatigue. Products that contain cannabinoids like THCV, which studies have shown has energizing effects, are commonly used for productivity boosts or before exercise.
Fortunately, Afroman has seen the error of his ways. He released a new, more positive version of the song in 2014, in which he uses cannabis to treat glaucoma and anxiety.
Because I got high, because I got high, because I got high”
There is still a lot to be learned when it comes to cannabis, but clarifying some of the existing misinformation is an important first step to understanding how cannabis affects us as individuals, as well as a society.