Cannabis has a long history of being misunderstood. Being a substance that’s been banned, criminalized and inspired decades of anti-cannabis propaganda will do that. As Canada gears up to legalize cannabis, there are several persistent myths that need to be cleared about cannabis and its effects.
Here are five of the most common misconceptions about cannabis.
MYTH: Cannabis is a gateway drug
Cannabis has a reputation as a “starter” drug that eventually leads people, especially youth, to the harder stuff. A 25-year study of adolescents published in 2006 showed regular or heavy cannabis use upped the participants’ chances of using other illicit drugs. But scientists are now questioning whether circumstantial factors like trauma and poverty should be taken into account when examining what leads to harder drug use.
That is until researchers at BC’s Centre for Substance Use dug deeper into the link between cannabis use and intravenous drugs. Between 2005 and 2015, they monitored 481 homeless youth, aged 14 to 26, who used illicit drugs. They found that daily cannabis use actually related to a 34 per cent decrease of the hazard rate–the number scientists calculated would normally try heroin or other injectable drugs for the first time.
Additionally, some researchers and medical experts suggest that cannabis is a “getaway” drug that could be used as a powerful substitute for opioids, cocaine and possibly even alcohol.
A 2015 article published in the International Journal of Drugs highlighted the potential therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids for users “coping with crack-cocaine-related problems, including withdrawal and cravings, impulsivity and paranoia.”
MYTH: You can overdose on cannabis
An overdose is when an excessive or dangerous amount of a drug is consumed. While it is possible to consume an excessive amount of cannabis, the chances of a lethal cannabis overdose are incredibly small. It’s been estimated by scientists that a lethal dose of cannabis would require consuming about 1500 pounds of the drug in 15 minutes, which is virtually impossible.
However, overconsumption is a common problem, especially with novice users. Signs of a nonlethal cannabis overdose include include panic attacks, paranoia, confusion, increased heart rate and hallucinations.
MYTH: Cannabis doesn’t affect driving skills
Consuming cannabis leads to impairment, which is why you should never drive after getting high. Unfortunately, many Canadians don’t understand the risk involved with driving under the influence of marijuana. Public Safety Canada released disturbing statistics last year about drug-impaired driving, which uncovered serious misconceptions about consuming cannabis while hitting the road.
The government survey found that of the Canadians who had tried cannabis, 28 per cent reported that they had driven a vehicle while under the influence. One in three Canadians surveyed said they had ridden in a vehicle driven by someone who was under the effects of cannabis. And of that number, four out of 10 downplayed the risks of cannabis-impaired driving. This unsettling trend didn’t exclude minors—22 per cent of youth who have used cannabis said they drove while impaired and most said they did it because they didn’t think it was as dangerous as drunk driving.
According to MADD Canada, testing of fatally-injured drivers in Canada found that twice as many crashes involved drugs alone (27 per cent) as alcohol alone, and that “cannabis, the most commonly-found drug, is present in almost half of the drug-positive fatal crashes.”
MYTH: Cannabis kills brain cells
A 2012 New Zealand cannabis study titled “Persistent cannabis users show neuropsychological decline from childhood to midlife” helped perpetuate the myth that cannabis kills brain cells. It followed subjects from 13 to 38 and conducted IQ tests at both ages. The study found that participants who chronically used cannabis before the age of 18 had a dip in IQ by 8 points by the time they reached 38.
Dr. Perry Solomon, Chief Medical Officer at HelloMD, tells Lift & Co. there are problems with how the study was interpreted. For one, the statistical significance of the study was small—just 3.5 per cent. Secondly, the study’s participants were using cannabis more than the average person would use the drug—four to five times a week—for over 20 years. A follow-up of the study suggested that socioeconomic status, not cannabis use, may have been a reason for the decrease in IQ points. Not to mention the ongoing controversy over using IQ as a valid measure of brain function and intelligence.
“There’s a saying in science: you can’t associate coincidence with causation,” says Solomon. “Just because two things because two things appear to be related, doesn’t mean one caused the other. That’s the biggest problem with this kind of study.”
Studies on animals have since shown promising results when it comes to cannabis and the brain. A German study treated young and old mice with THC. It found new neuron growth in the old mice, which resembled the brain of younger mice. The theory is that chronic low dose cannabis use can increase brain cell growth, at least in rodents. Whether the same can be said for humans is still being studied but Scientific American’s report was headlined: Marijuana May Boost, Rather Than Dull, the Elderly Brain.
MYTH: Cannabis is bad for you
Describing cannabis as bad or unhealthy would be a sweeping statement. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians use cannabis to help treat a wide range of symptoms related to conditions like HIV/AIDS, cancer, arthritis and chronic pain. Some people who suffer from severe epilepsy, including many children, find CBD oil, derived from the cannabis plant, to be the most effective treatment in reducing seizures.
Like any other medication, cannabis does have an array of side effects, which means it’s not right for everyone. These include red eyes, short-term memory loss, increased appetite, paranoia, and dry mouth. If smoked, it can lead to respiratory problems like bronchitis, coughing, and wheezing. Vaping is often recommended for medicinal users as a method of harm reduction.