For decades, cannabis opponents controlled the messaging around the popular plant and cultivated any number of lies about its effects. This built up a powerful stigma against marijuana, the effects of which have not worn off. The racist,expensive and failed U.S. war on drugs continues to rage on. The criminalization of cannabis users and distributors remains a top priority in that war. The government stubbornly classifies it as a dangerous Schedule I substance with no medical value, despite stacks of evidence to the contrary.
While many acknowledge the truth about cannabis—that it is healthier than alcohol and more effective than pharmaceutical drugs in treating a number of illnesses—and more than half of all Americans want it legalized, marijuana myths are still repeated in some mainstream circles. Legalization opponents, determined to ignore the evidence, are grasping to justify their outdated position.
But the evidence is in, and the arguments against legalization simply don’t hold up. As more people feel comfortable discussing the actual facts about marijuana, the falsehoods that dominated much of the 20th century are dissipating from the zeitgeist.
Here are a dozen marijuana myths that persist to some degree today, and the facts that debunk them.
Myth #1: Stoned driving is as bad as drunk driving.
Drunk driving kills 28 people a day in America, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Studies have not found similar results for driving while high, and it’s not even clear that marijuana even increases the number of traffic accidents. That’s not to say that marijuana doesn’t affect driving ability—for many people it does. However, marijuana use is as likely as anything to make people more cautious than usual, which is an asset while driving. This same cautiousness makes some high people opt not to drive at all. Furthermore, as Sanjay Gupta explains in his documentary Weed, daily pot smokers seem to be less impaired on the road after smoking than occasional users.
Myth #2: Legalization wouldn’t hurt the drug cartels.
The most obvious and direct way that legalizing marijuana in the United States would save lives is through weakening drug cartels. While the United States is mostly insulated from the horrors of Sinaloa, Los Zetas and the other powerful and violent cartels, they are a scourge on Mexico and much of Central and South America. The cartels don’t just trade in marijuana, they are essentially armed gangs that will make money in any way they can, including extortion, human trafficking, and selling other drugs and contraband. But estimates put marijuana at 30-50% of cartel revenue. Were legal sellers in the United States to effectively steal their largest market, the cartels would continue to exist, but they would be able to fund fewer soldiers and bribe fewer politicians. The bloodshed they visit on each other and on countless civilians would be similarly reduced.
Myth #3: Marijuana causes brain damage.
This one resurfaced lately, based largely on one recent study in France. The study looked at the brains of 20 heavy cannabis users and compared them to 20 non-smokers (all participants were 18-25). Their brains showed differences in areas related to cognitive and emotional processing. The media ran with those results, claiming that marijuana reorganizes your brain.As the study authors explain, their results do not show this. Rather, they show a correlation, with no clear indication whether cannabis changes brain structure or if people with certain brain structures are more likely to enjoy marijuana. It should also be noted that the sample size of the study is very small, and that the study does not examine long-term effects of cannabis use. And, even if cannabis use does cause changes in the brain over time, there is no evidence to show whether those changes are positive or negative.
Myth #4: Pot is addictive.
A certain number pops up again and again in op-eds about the dangers of marijuana: 9%. That’s the number of cannabis users who become dependent, according to a study from the 1990s. This would still put marijuana dependence risk comfortably below alcohol (14%) and tobacco (24%) according to the same study. Additionally, the 9% figure was likely inflated because the study did not account for marijuana’s criminalization. Certain measures of dependence, such as whether someone had spent “a great deal of time” acquiring the substance, could be the result of criminalization, not addiction, but the study authors ignored this. Regardless of what percent of cannabis users can be considered dependent, it’s clear that heavy cannabis use is far less damaging than heavy use of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or alcohol.
Myth #5: You know what a pot smoker looks like.
From Scooby Doo’s best buddy Shaggy to Cheech and Chong to the legendary Dude of The Big Lebowski, pop culture has the stoner archetype firmly established. That image persists, despite countless examples of cannabis users that don’t fit the mold. It’s time we start baking in the likes of Justin Timberlake, George Clooney, Louis C.K., Bill Maher, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Aniston, and Morgan Freeman. That’s just a brief sampling of celebrities who have talked about current usage. As for people who have admitted to trying it, or even having a prolonged pot “phase,” just google your favorite actor, musician, author or president and chances are they fit the bill. You’ll notice that most of them don’t look or act like Shaggy or the Dude.
Myth #6: Pot smokers lack motivation.
A popular refrain among weed opponents these days is something along the lines of, “everyone knows that marijuana makes you lazy, do we really want to encourage that?” Studies have not been able to separate out cannabis-induced laziness from general “amotivational syndrome.” About 5-6% of the population seems to have identifiable difficulties with motivation, but research has not successfully tied this to marijuana use. So yes, there are lazy potheads out there, but there are also lazy people and ambitious potheads. There is plenty of evidence, including thousands of years of human experience, to show that pot makes you creative, active and influential rather than lazy. Fifty examples are found on this list of the 50 most influential marijuana users.
Myth #7: Smoking pot is much worse for your lungs than smoking cigarettes.
This is another reason people like to rattle off when discussing the grave dangers of marijuana. Some argue that because weed is generally smoked without a filter, the lungs are not protected. Whatever the rationale behind this claim, it doesn’t appear to be true. A 2012 study on marijuana’s effects on the lungs came up with this conclusion: “Occasional and low cumulative marijuana use was not associated with adverse effects on pulmonary function.”
That’s not to say smoking marijuana has no adverse effects. The crucial difference may be one of quantity. All but the heaviest pot smokers don’t average more than a couple of joints or bowls a day, whereas pack-a-day cigarette smokers are not particularly uncommon. Whatever the reason, cannabis users seem to end up with healthier lungs than cigarette smokers.
On top of all of that, there are plenty of ways to ingest cannabis without any smoke. You can eat it, drink it, inhale it as a vapor, take it in tablet form, or rub it on your skin as a lotion or oil (this last one won’t give you that euphoric “high” feeling, however).
Myth #8: Marijuana turns teenagers into troublemakers.
This myth combines some science regarding early drug use with the remnants of the Reefer Madness anti-weed propaganda of the past. It is the idea that good kids can turn bad under the influence of cannabis. This silliness doesn’t hold up whatsoever under scrutiny. A 1980 study of 10,000 high school juniors and seniors found that marijuana use is one out of a host of unconventional behaviors, which correlate with each other. In other words, some adolescents are more rebellious—some would say independent —than others, and these kids are more likely to smoke pot (and drink). But pot doesn’t turn anyone into a delinquent.
Myth #9: Cannabis use leads to crime.
This one is easily debunked, but the desire of some people and groups to demonize marijuana has kept this idea around longer than it deserves. It is easy enough to find statistics that seem to tie marijuana use with crime, but these rely on a roundabout spin of an analysis. Essentially, the association with cannabis and crime comes from the fact that cannabis itself is illegal. A Norwegian study found that the laws, not the drug, were to blame:
“The study suggests that cannabis use in adolescence and early adulthood may be associated with subsequent involvement in criminal activity. However, the bulk of this involvement seems to be related to various types of drug-specific crime. Thus the association seems to rest on the fact that use, possession and distribution of drugs such as cannabis is illegal. The study strengthens concerns about the laws related to the use, possession and distribution of cannabis.”
Other research backs up this basic conclusion. A borough in London depenalized pot for a year, and a subsequent study found that crime rates dropped during this period. Really, this shouldn’t seem too profound. Stoned people are more likely to stay home and watch a movie than suddenly decide to rob a store. As with alcohol in the first half of the 20th century, it is prohibition itself that leads to crime, not the sustance that is prohibited.
Myth #10: Marijuana leads to harder drugs.
The gateway effect, as it is popularly known, is still a favorite counterpoint to the notion that cannabis itself isn’t so bad. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker cited the gateway effect in an interview in February noting that “[Wisconsin sheriffs] said when they talked about heroin and meth and other issues that they were still very concerned that [marijuana] was a gateway drug.”
Indeed, almost everyone who tries those hard, often disastrous drugs did marijuana first. They also probably got drunk at least a few times in their lives before trying heroin, yet no one calls alcohol a gateway drug. What’s actually going on is that some people are generally more interested in mind-altering drugs, and marijuana is the most popular and available illegal drug. If marijuana caused harder drug use, we would not see results such as those in a recent survey from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Instead the study found that marijuana use had increased in recent years among adolescents, but heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine use has all dropped.
Myth #11: The jury is still out on marijuana’s medicinal effects.
One would think that around half the states in the U.S. having some sort of medical marijuana law would have quieted this one, but some opponents still take solace in the federal government’s continuing refusal to acknowledge any medicinal use of cannabis. The reality is that cannabis is something of a wonder drug. The majority of American medical doctors think marijuana should be legal according to WebMD survey reported in April—and with good reason. It alleviates symptoms related to chemotherapy, AIDS, certain cancers and especially glaucoma. Marijuana’s ability to help people with certain debilitating seizure disorders inspired a number of mostly conservative states to adopt (highly restrictive) medical cannabis laws. Cannabis is effective medicine for millions of people, and legalizing it would provide more of them access to it.
Myth #12: Opposition to cannabis legalization is driven entirely by cautious prudence.
The opposition to marijuana legalization has come from many earnest and concerned people, but it is also fueled by industries that figure to lose profits should cannabis become legal and widely available. Alcohol, tobacco, pharmaceuticals (see Myth #11) and cotton (which would have to compete with hemp) are all billion-dollar industries. It is less expensive for them to pay into politicians' campaign funds than for them to face a strong competitor.
One by one, these myths are falling away. The faster they do, the sooner we will be able to enjoy cannabis laws and regulations based on common sense, peer-reviewed evidence and public health. With momentum toward legalization as great as it has ever been since cannabis was criminalized in the 1930s, vanquishing these myths could finally end one of the United States’ most senseless and harmful policies.