East Kootenay Addiction Services on marijuana myths

The second in a series of articles discussing legalizing marijuana, written by Dean Nicholson of the East Kootenay Addiction Services.

As the federal government begins the process of moving towards legalizing marijuana, East Kootenay Addiction Services Society will be presenting a number of articles to generate discussion about marijuana and what changes to marijuana laws could mean.  This article will look at some of the common beliefs about marijuana and separate the myths from the facts. Marijuana is the most popular illicit drug used worldwide. Because of its popularity, and in part because of the push to change the legal status of marijuana in Western countries, there are many statements made about marijuana in the media and on the internet that sound factual but may not be accurate.

Myth 1:  Marijuana is a plant, it’s natural and therefore it’s safe.

Truth:  People often use this argument when comparing marijuana to man-made chemical drugs like Ecstasy, Crystal Meth or Fentanyl.  Just because marijuana grows out of the ground doesn’t make it automatically safe.  There are lots of plants that can kill or cause serious illness.  Marijuana naturally has a large number of active compounds which can affect everything from brain function, development of the fetus, and lung functioning.  Marijuana today is often grown in controlled settings with fertilizers and other chemicals to increase the productivity.  These chemicals aren’t at all natural.  Remember that all substance use has potential risks and no drug is perfectly safe.

Myth 2: Marijuana is a gateway drug.  If you start smoking marijuana you’ll move on to harder drugs.

Truth:  This one is mostly a myth.  Most people who try or use marijuana don’t go on to use other drugs.  There is nothing in marijuana that automatically makes people want to try other drugs.  It is true that most people, who report using drugs like cocaine, or opioids or amphetamines, also report that they used marijuana before they started these drugs.  That doesn’t mean marijuana caused them to use those drugs.  After alcohol, marijuana is typically the first drug that young people experiment with if they are going to experiment.  There can be many reasons why a small group of people will progress from using marijuana to using other drugs.  They can include genetic vulnerabilities, personality factors, history of trauma, and environmental factors.  It is true that if young people smoke marijuana they have a greater chance of being exposed to people using other drugs, but it does not mean they will automatically use them.

Myth 3:  No one has ever died from a marijuana overdose, therefore it’s safer to use.

Truth:  It probably is true that no one has actually overdosed by using marijuana.  It doesn’t seem to affect the body that way.  That doesn’t mean people haven’t died while under the influence of marijuana through motor vehicle crashes and other accidents caused because people’s judgment, coordination and motor control were impaired by marijuana.   Marijuana also acts to increase the effects of other drugs.  People who use marijuana while using alcohol, cocaine or other drugs could be at greater risk from overdosing from those drugs.  Just like alcohol, there are safer times, places and ways to use marijuana, and there are ways which are riskier.

Myth 4:  Marijuana is not addictive.

Truth:  Marijuana is addictive, both physically and psychologically.  Some of the confusion around this belief arises because of confusion with the word ‘addiction’.  A better word might be dependency.   One of the reasons people often don’t recognize marijuana dependency is that it is often not as obvious as alcohol or cocaine dependency, where the negative problems tend to be more obvious and show up earlier.  Regular use of marijuana can cause dependency in which people experience a strong need to use marijuana in order to feel okay.  This can be accompanied by increased use, more thought and time spent focussed on using, using at times and places that would not be socially appropriate, and using despite having negative consequences.  Withdrawal symptoms can occur when someone has been using heavily for a period of time.  These can include irritability, anxiety, difficulty falling asleep, lack of appetite, restlessness, depression and occasionally abdominal pain.  A recent report suggested that marijuana users have a 16 per cent risk of developing dependency.  This was slightly lower than alcohol (23 per cent) or cocaine (21 per cent) but still means that one out of six people who use marijuana could be at risk for developing a more serious problem.

There are many other mistaken ideas about the risks and benefits of marijuana use.  Unfortunately there is no shortage of websites and blogs talking about marijuana, many of which sound authoritative but which give information which may be inaccurate or flat-out wrong.  There are Canadian organizations that have excellent websites which offer factual, research-based information on the risks and benefits of marijuana including the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, and the Centre for Addiction Research of British Columbia.

Submitted by Dean Nicholson, M.A., Executive Director, East Kootenay Addiction Services