It’s high time for marijuana to be reconsidered in an honest light. After being criminalized and demonized for more than a century, our laws and attitudes toward marijuana are slowly evolving in the direction of sanity. Still, there are 3 big myths that persist regarding this natural plant that need to be dispelled and replaced with more factual perspectives.
Myth #1: Marijuana is a dangerous drug.
Fact: Marijuana is far less dangerous than sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, toxic media, automobiles, football, guns, and many other things we steadfastly embrace in our daily lives.
Does this mean that marijuana is risk free? Of course not. But the greatest dangers of marijuana are not associated with its use, but its misuse. Too much, too often, too young will cause problems. But it’s dishonest to evaluate any substance or behavior based solely upon its irresponsible use. Used responsibly, marijuana is much safer than people realize. Cancer and death rates attributed primarily to marijuana use are negligible. Rather than promoting violence or dangerous behavior, its influence is largely pacifying.
Myth #2 Marijuana is addictive.
Fact: Marijuana is not chemically addictive the way that sugar, alcohol, narcotics, nicotine, and caffeine are.
Does this mean that marijuana can’t be overused? Of course not. People can become overdependent on marijuana the same way people can become overdependent on fossil fuels, meaning that if a suitable alternative was available there would be little difficulty giving it up. But used responsibly, marijuana has minimal addictive potential. Stand alone recovery programs for marijuana addiction are scarce in comparison to those for alcohol, narcotics, or (sugar-induced) obesity.
Myth #3 Marijuana is dangerous to mental health.
Fact: On balance, marijuana is low risk for mental health.
Does this mean that marijuana can’t be detrimental to mental health? Of course not. But when used responsibly it is seldom damaging to mental health. The myth that marijuana is dangerous to mental health is rooted in the fact that many people with mental illness are often heavy marijuana consumers. The same is true for heavy cigarette smokers, but there’s no evidence that marijuana or nicotine are significant causes of mental illness. The fact is that people who suffer from high levels of anxiety and depression consume substances that make them feel better.
Another reality becoming more widely recognized is that marijuana, when used responsibly, can be beneficial to mental health. For millions of people it reduces anxiety, helps the mind and body unwind from high levels of stress, decreases anger, improves sleep, and enhances their relationships. And as marijuana has become more legal and available, evidence is emerging that people are preferring it to prescription medication for the management of pain, anxiety, depression, and seizures, setting off alarms in the pharmaceutical industry.
Marijuana Safety Depends on Responsible Use
Because the arguments challenging each of these myths hinge on the responsible use of marijuana, let’s talk about what that means. As with all pleasurable indulgences, too much, too often, and too young is risky.
The simplest way to grasp the principle of responsible marijuana use is to compare it with the responsible use of soft drinks. Soft drinks containing processed sugars are far more addictive, toxic, and lethal than marijuana, though they remain legal, heavily promoted (and immensely profitable) beverages that bring pleasure to billions of people who consume them. Parents are the only ones expected to ensure their children consume them responsibly. That means not drinking them all day, every day, or in the absence of healthy diet and exercise routines. After going to school, eating healthy meals, playing outdoors, and getting chores done, parents might reward their kids with a soft drink. They can be enjoyed on special occasions like birthdays, picnics, vacations, and to celebrate achievements. These are examples of the “conditional use” of a substance rather than “unrestricted use” (habits of moderation). I often refer to this as the dinner/dessert principle of life, which simply means taking care of one’s responsibilities prior to indulging in one’s less healthy pleasures. It also means consuming reasonable proportions. Just because we finish our fruits and vegetables doesn’t mean we should get to eat a whole pint of ice cream.
The greatest danger associated with marijuana is one that has been largely ignored. It’s not the damage caused by marijuana use, but the damage caused by marijuana prohibition. Criminalizing marijuana has filled our prison system with non-violent offenders, damaging the lives of individuals and families, primarily those from minority and impoverished communities. Like with the era of alcohol prohibition, the criminalization of marijuana created enterprises of organized and disorganized crime. Consumers of alcohol and marijuana should never have been made into criminals. The true crimes causing the greatest harm to society have been the prohibitions themselves.
Human beings will never stop ingesting substances and indulging in behaviors that make us feel better. Managing these risks should depend on education and treatments rather than punishment. So let’s stick with the facts and dispel our myths.