6 Harmful Cannabis Myths Debunked
[Editor's note: click here to watch the online class with Drs. Rachel and Jessica Knox on addressing the fears of using cannabis as medicine.]
Misinformation has overshadowed the cannabis plant ever since its gradual prohibition during the early- and mid-1900s. Nearly a century of negative propaganda has kept generations of Americans in the dark about the benefits of cannabis. Instead of cannabis facts we got cannabis lies and misinformation.
Shedding some light on this misunderstood plant is well past due! Here, we dispel some of the most common myths that our patients ask us about in clinic.
Myth #1: Cannabis smoke causes lung cancer.
Medical professionals frequently cite myth #1 to dismiss cannabis as an unsafe tool for medical use.
However, research led by Dr. Donald Tashkin at UCLA has shown that cannabis does not increase risk for serious lung diseases such as lung cancer, emphysema, and respiratory infection compared to nonsmokers – even despite evidence that cannabis smoke does contain some nasty carcinogens and combustion byproducts. Theories for this finding are based on the anti-cancer effects of the cannabis plant’s phytocannabinoids.
It should be noted though that Dr. Tashkin’s research did identify some negative outcomes for long-term cannabis smokers. Specifically, long-time cannabis smokers did have more chronic bronchitis than nonsmokers – that is, they experienced irritated airways, sore throat, wheezing, and cough. But these ill effects are reversible and non-life threatening. Cannabis smokers experiencing these side effects should decrease or eliminate smoking of cannabis and try gentler administration methods, such as vaporization, tinctures, or edibles.
Myth #2: Cannabis is addictive.
The first step in debunking myth #2 is to define the term addiction.
Addiction is the compulsive seeking and use of a substance despite harmful consequences such as failure to meet work, social, or family obligations. An addiction dominates a person’s life at the expense of all else.
Studies suggest that 9% of cannabis users become addicted to the plant. Many informed parties feel this statistic is likely inflated because it counts individuals who have completed court-ordered addiction treatment for their cannabis use in order to avoid stiffer penalties.
The reality is most cannabis users are not compulsively driven to use the plant, and can stop using cannabis whenever they want. But in stopping, they may experience recurrence of the symptoms for which they have routinely used cannabis. Chronic conditions typically require long-term symptom management and associated long-time use of cannabis should not be mistaken for addiction.
Myth #3: Cannabis kills brain cells.
Myth #3 can probably be touted as the preeminent parental and/or authoritarian argument against cannabis use.
Contrary to this popular misbelief, the study of cannabinoids and cannabinoid receptors in the brain have revealed the astounding truth that cannabinoids are neuroregenerative. This means that rather than killing neurons in the brain, phytocannabinoids actually play a role in building new ones.
Cannabinoids are also neuroprotective, protecting brain cells neurodegenerative disease and after brain injuries caused by stroke, concussion and other head trauma.
However, there are some caveats to consider.
The endocannabinoid system is finely tuned, particularly in the developing child and adolescent brain. Careful and responsible use of cannabis is therefore especially imperative in this population, and we recommend seeking a clinician’s care for all minors who may benefit from cannabis.
And many minors can benefit – in our clinical experience, younger patients (and their parents) report their cannabis medicine does not cause the sedating and vegetative effects they often experience from their use of prescription anti-epileptics and anti-psychotics.
And while clinical studies on the cognitive effects of long-term cannabis use continue to show inconsistent or conflicting results overall, findings in a review of studies whose subjects reported chronic and heavy cannabis use suggest an association between chronic and heavy use and deficits in cognitive functions such as decision making, concept formation and planning after periods of abstinence of 3 weeks or more.
What constitutes “chronic and heavy” cannabis use in many of these studies, however, is not clearly defined. As always, we recommend using the lowest effective dose to minimize such potential, unwanted side effects.
Myth #4: Cannabis causes schizophrenia.
This harmful myth involves a classic statistical error – if you’ve ever taken a statistics course, you will likely recall that correlation is not causation!
Indeed, cannabis has not been shown to cause schizophrenia. But many people with mental illnesses, schizophrenia included, are known to self-medicate and self-soothe with cannabis. Thus, studies may show increased cannabis use amongst those with mental health conditions, but this does not prove a causal link between the plant and the illness.
We should be careful here not to ignore possible side effects of cannabis – specifically high-THC cannabis – which could include anxiety, paranoia, and psychotic symptoms when used in high doses or in susceptible individuals. But let’s also not forget – the phytocannabinoid CBD is known to be anti-psychotic, and has been used successfully to help manage schizophrenia.
Myth #5: Cannabis is a gateway drug.
In debunking myth #5, it is important to distinguish between the concepts of a gateway drug and an exposure opportunity – because this is yet another example of clever propaganda against the plant.
As a result of its prohibition, cannabis has long been forced into the illicit drug trade. In this market, exposure to truly illicit, harmful, and addictive drugs is often unavoidable. It can only be expected that with repeated exposure and pressure, some individuals initially seeking only cannabis may have ultimately experimented with and possibly become habitual users of illicit drugs. But this problem is the making of a poorly designed system, not of the cannabis plant itself.
Another consideration against this myth refers back to the discussion of myth #4 – correlation is not causation. Individuals who use one illicit drug to self-medicate are more likely to use other substances, both legal and illegal, to self-medicate as well. Users of a “hard” drug often also use alcohol, tobacco and cannabis, but cannabis cannot be labeled as the cause of their other substance use.
In contrast to the typical conception of a gateway drug, our clinical experience has shown that cannabis may be a gateway medicine to other natural remedies and holistic lifestyles. For many cannabis users, this plant is just one of many natural tools they use to maximize their wellness and often times avoid harder substances.
Myth #6: Medical cannabis is a joke.
Myth #6 may be the most frustrating myth we routinely encounter. In just five words, this myth devalues and disparages patients with very real afflictions desperately seeking help.
It also devalues the open-minded and well-meaning clinicians who do their best to aid these patients, and it flies in the face of scientific evidence around this extremely powerful plant with healing potential even beyond our current understanding.
The relief provided by cannabis is very serious and extremely real. Most cannabis patients are not merely seeking to get high under the guise of a medical affliction – instead, they are searching for relief and finding it with cannabis, sometimes as a last, desperate resort.
Indeed, more than one million registered cannabis patients have seen improvement in seizures, autism, cancer, chronic pain, muscle spasms, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and more with cannabis. And those are just the people in legal states who are actually registered.
The increasing availability of non-psychoactive or non-euphoric products along with proper education will continue to drive progress in finally dispelling myth #6.
We do not intend to diminish the value of the plant’s psychoactive or euphoric effects with this statement – these effects are incredibly necessary and therapeutic at certain times and for certain people!
But we do understand that the non-psychoactive properties of cannabis, and the ability to utilize these properties without becoming high, will likely be the drivers of broader acceptance of cannabis as a medicine. And with broader acceptance and education we also hope to see better cannabis access and better cannabis therapies.
What other cannabis myths have you encountered and how did you debunk them with cannabis facts? Tell us in the comments!