October 10, 2014 | With the evidence against cannabis legalization failing again and again to materialize, opponents to reform are left to amplify whatever negatives they can find well beyond what the evidence will support. A 20-year study by Wayne Hall on the effects of marijuana came out October 6 in the journal Addiction, and it largely confirms past research on the side-effects of getting high. Certain alarmist mainstream publications took this as an opportunity to decry the dangers of weed, despite nicotine and alcohol’s greater dangers being more obvious than ever.
Though there is new research to work with, the claims we hear from people with an anti-cannabis agenda are the same ones that get dredged up every time someone needs to make the case against legalization. As always, the only way to make a case against full legalization is to claim that pot’s largely innocuous side-effects are some kind of scourge on society.
Here are five recent media lies about marijuana.
1. Pot is addictive. In drugs with high rates of addiction such as nicotine, cocaine and alcohol, we can see a clear pattern of abuse. The drug hijacks the brain’s reward system, so that a smoke, line or drink is treated with the same urgency and necessity as food and sex. On the behavioral level, there are clear signs of dependency and withdrawal. Marijuana opponents have spent decades trying to show analogous patterns in pot smokers, but the results simply aren’t there. The closest they can get is to show that some people have difficulty quitting, and show signs of anxiety, difficulty sleeping, and other disturbances when they try to quit, as was demonstrated in the Hall study. That does show a non-zero level of dependency in a minority of users, but even in these cases, marijuana has nowhere near the capacity to ruin or end lives the way alcohol and heroin can, and is less addictive than tobacco or even caffeine. As an earlier AlterNet article points out, “9 percent of people who use marijuana will develop dependence at some point in their lives, compared with 15 percent for alcohol, 17 percent for cocaine, 23 percent for heroin, and 32 percent for tobacco.”
2. Stoned people cause car crashes. It’s true that most people are worse drivers high than sober. It’s also true that very regular smokers tend to show little cognitive deficit on the road, as was demonstrated in Sanjay Gupta’s Weed documentary. Hall’s study found that high drivers were twice as likely to get into an accident than their sober counterparts. There are two major issues with this finding; one of context, and the other of presentation. The conclusion steps over a host of contextual factors, namely how high the driver is and his or her tolerance. The other issue is in how this data is presented: a twofold increase in the likelihood of an accident isn’t especially large when the odds for most people to get into a car crash are quite low. In 2012, Americans got in 1.13 fatal car crashes per 100 million miles driven (this number has drunk drivers baked in, removing them should drop the figure below 1 death per 100 million miles). The average driver can double that rate and still consider herself quite safe. Stoned driving should be discouraged, but there is no sense in thinking of it as a major public health issue.
Drunk driving, however, is an unambiguous killer. Nearly a third of deaths related to car crashes in 2012 were caused by drunk drivers, according to the CDC. When cannabis opponents bring up stoned driving, they invite, but don’t explore the comparison to drunk driving. In reality, the ills of drunk driving dwarf those of stoned driving, both in cognitive impairment and number of incidents. This is likely due to both motor effects and psychological ones: while alcohol tends to make people brash and confident, marijuana often makes people more cautious, and less likely to attempt to drive in the first place.
3. Marijuana causes brain damage. The lack of troubling physical effects of marijuana use has many opponents turning to the brain, claiming subtle yet profound maladies from regular use. However, studies have found only mild impairments for active smokers, and these tend to vanish within months of quitting. As with the failure to find solid evidence for addiction, the research shows that pot affects the brain in the short term, but has little power to cause substantial neural rewiring. There is some suggestion that pot smoking can interact with symptoms of psychosis, which the Hall study indicated, but it’s not clear how much of that is an artifact of people with certain mental aberrations being more likely to enjoy pot. The possible enhancing of certain symptoms of certain disorders in a select group of people is the last thread opponents have to hold onto after decades of hysterical “Reefer Madness” claims about how one joint can instantly turn you into a raving lunatic.
4. The gateway effect. It’s 2014, and we’re still hearing about the gateway effect. People who use hard drugs are very likely to have tried cannabis first, but the suggestion that smoking pot causes hard drug use falls to the first lesson of any statistics class: correlation is not causality. Pot, being the most popular and available illicit drug, tends to be the one that people try first. Furthermore, gateway theory advocates consistently omit alcohol from their calculations, as if there could be no connection between legal and illegal drugs. Virtually everyone who has tried any recreational drug, marijuana included, has had a drink at some point in their life. Many of them have had a cigarette or two as well. So why is the gateway label never attached to alcohol? Because the people still making noise about the gateway theory have an agenda, and they are willing to ignore logic to push it.
5. Pot makes you stupid. Marijuana use crosses all sorts of cultural gradients: like alcohol, it is used by adults of every age, tax bracket and personality type. Yet we still hear the echoes of the cultural stereotype of the stoner: likes video games and junk food, dislikes jobs and bathing. Furthermore, this stereotype is mentally slow, unambitious and a leech on the upstanding, hard working people who tried pot once and weren’t into it. The Hall study provided some limited fodder for this idea with the finding that marijuana smoking that starts in adolescence is correlated with lesser academic achievement. Again, the key word is correlated. Perhaps teenage pot smokers are more likely to be bored in school, disaffected by the dominant cultural standards of achievement. This attitude may veer them off course whether or not they get into marijuana.
But let’s assume for a moment that there is a causal relationship between smoking pot and reduced academic success. In fact, let’s throw in the other correlative factors that opponents like to bring up: cognitive issues, a relationship of some sort with psychosis and links to health problems, like chronic bronchitis. Taken in total, and given more credit than they are likely worth, those reasons still don’t add up to a worthy case to keep cannabis illegal. Put alongside the well-established issues related to alcohol consumption, cannabis looks about as harmful as aspirin. The plant is a medicine for some people, a vice for others, and not much of either for a majority of users. With mass incarceration, well-funded drug cartels and police diverted from more important work, the greatest maladies related to cannabis are those that result from keeping it illegal.
By Owen Poindexter