Five potent cannabis myths BUSTED

We've researched and found answers to some of the most popular queries about cannabis myths so you don't have to

by Megan Townsend

No, it won’t directly turn you into a violent criminal overnight and it also won’t turn you into a zombie stoner. It is no secret that cannabis has attracted a number of myths over the years, each with varying degrees of truth. 

To put some of these to bed we took to twitter to ask you what the common misconceptions were, and you had a lot to offer us. With that, this article attempts to debunk some of the myths surrounding cannabis use: 

“Cannabis is completely harmless”

Unfortunately, no it’s not. 

Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions is that cannabis is a completely harmless drug. In a survey carried out by Neurosight, 39% of university students believed this to be the case. This, of course, is a harmful myth in and of itself. 

There is still a lack of research concerning toxicity levels and the impacts of isolated compounds, meaning that the effects of cannabis use on the body are relatively unknown. From what we do know long-term cannabis use has been linked with breathing problems, increased heart rate and mental health issues in some. It’s always important to note that harm and risk are always predicated on what is being used, how much, how often and who is using it . Everything in life comes with a risk, and overuse of any substance is likely to cause long-term harm. 

Also included in the scope of this myth is the notion that cannabis isn’t addictive.

However, contrary to the belief of some, Cannabis-Use Disorder (CUD) is a registered disorder in DSM-V, defined as: A problematic pattern of cannabis use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by at least two of 11 symptoms, occurring within a 12-month period.” 

Lack of withdrawal is often cited as evidence that cannabis isn’t addictive, however, this too is false and is actually a key part of CUD. Withdrawal symptoms begin to show within a week of quitting and can include cravings, difficulty sleeping, irritability, low mood, restlessness and changes in appetite. Importantly though, these symptoms are only temporary. 

As well as this, the European habit of mixing cannabis with tobacco means that nicotine addiction is also a problem. So as well as withdrawal from cannabis, some users will face the additional task of nicotine withdrawal which can include symptoms such as cravings, restlessness, irritability, difficulty sleeping and difficulty concentrating. 

“Cannabis is a gateway drug”

I’m sure we’ve all heard this from one of our teachers at some point. 

The idea of cannabis being a gateway drug was a key misconception highlighted by our twitter thread. The phrase itself was popularised in the 1980s due to the observation that those using recreational drugs would often use cannabis as a starting point, thus it acted as a ‘gateway’ to other substances. Therefore, some suggest that cannabis use changes the neural pathways in the brain, causing users to develop a ‘liking’ for drugs. 

However, this alone does not make a strong case for the gateway theory, and little evidence exists to back these claims. Moreover, it is important to note that correlation does not equal causation when it comes to drug use. So whilst some people do use cannabis before other substances, this isn’t proof that cannabis has caused them to do this. 

In fact, research suggests that the majority of people who use cannabis do not go on to use other ‘harder substances’. Given that cannabis is the most widely used illicit drug, if there really was some weight to the gateway theory surely all cannabis users would be going on to use Class As? 

As well as this, the ‘cross-sensitisation’ effect observed with cannabis (which most mistake for a gateway effect) is also seen with alcohol and nicotine. Therefore, an alternative explanation is that drugs like alcohol, cannabis and nicotine are easier to access with regards to cost and choice. So, is it not just common sense that someone would start with these, rather than class As? 

Arguments aside, the gateway theory heavily focuses on a biological reasoning for drug use. However, an individual’s choices can be affected by a range of environmental factors. The fact that cannabis is illegal in most countries means that those accessing it are entering a black market, which deals in a range of illegal substances. Again, is it not common sense that this would expose individuals to ‘harder’ drugs which they might then go on to consume? 

“People who use cannabis are just lazy stoners”

Give me one example of a film or cartoon which features an active and successful cannabis user, I bet you can’t. 

There is no denying that the stoner stereotype is the go to depiction of people who use cannabis. Scooby Doo’s Shaggy Rogers, The Big Lebowski’s ‘The Dude’ and Pineapple Express’ Saul Silver to name just a few. And we all know how they’re portrayed, slow, lazy and unmotivated with little aspiration in life. 

However, these stereotypes can be harmful, as they further add to the stigma surrounding cannabis use both recreationally and medically, creating barriers to access. 

Moreover, there’s actually not much scientific grounding for the ‘stoner’ stereotype, as recent research has effectively debunked this myth. The study, led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, explored whether people who used cannabis showed higher levels of apathy (lack of enthusiasm) and anhedonia (lack of pleasure) compared to those who don’t, and whether they were less willing to use physical effort to get a reward.  

Interestingly, researchers found that cannabis users didn’t experience greater apathy or anhedonia compared to non-users, and even scored lower (albeit by a small amount) on anhedonia than non-users. As well as this, cannabis users were just as likely as non-users to want and enjoy rewards. 

So, it appears that the ‘stoner’ stereotype is lazy itself. 

“Cannabis causes psychosis”

I think we all know that this one is a go-to for prohibitionists, but if we delve a little deeper into the research then it appears the jury is still out on the link between cannabis and psychosis. 

A number of studies have linked regular usage to an increased risk of psychosis and other mental health conditions, and are quick to point towards a causal link. However, in an article for The Independent, mental health expert Ian Hamilton points out that when there were over 2 million people trying cannabis in the previous year, it’s common sense that some of them will already have, or will go on to have a mental health condition. That’s just a fact. 

Moreover, if there really was a quantifiable link between cannabis use and psychosis, we would expect to see an increase in diagnoses over time. It is no secret that cannabis use has risen significantly over the past 50 years. However, this documented increase in cannabis usage has not coincided with an increase in psychosis rates, which have remained relatively low and stable

Therefore, it is again important not to mistake correlation for causation when it comes to cannabis and mental health. 

The research base is also mixed when it comes to the cannabis-psychosis link. A longitudinal study, published in September of this year, explored the differences in psychotic symptomatology between cannabis users and non-users. Interestingly, the researchers found no evidence of qualitative differences in psychotic symptoms experienced by users and non-users, and although users did report more symptoms they were not severe and were also not indicative of psychotic illness. 

For Ian Hamilton, the much more concerning aspect of cannabis use in the UK context is the potential for exposure to tobacco, which can result in a number of harmful effects as well as nicotine addiction. Therefore, it could be time that research turned its attention to this, rather than repeatedly exploring an already debunked myth. 

So there you go, consider the common cannabis myths debunked.  Using cannabis won’t send you on a downward spiral into class A drugs, it won’t turn you into a lifeless zombie and it also won’t cause you to plunge into psychosis. However, it is important to recognise that cannabis isn’t without its risks and harms, much like every substance.

This piece was written by Volteface Intern Megan Townsend. Megan is a current MA Criminology student at Birmingham City University. Tweets @megant2799.

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