The truth about cannabis

Ruby Deevoy tackles some of the most common arguments against cannabis use

by Ruby Deevoy

Millions of people around the world have been striving for years to make cannabis use, possession and even cultivation legal and accessible, both in medicinal and recreational markets. However, where there is a voice for decriminalisation, legalisation and progressive change, there is often a voice of concern over proposed liberal policies.

To make real strides forward in a political re-imaging of cannabis, it’s key to be able to meet these concerns and arguments against a new approach to cannabis with well-reasoned answers and hard statistics where possible. To make life easier for anyone reading this who might like to be able to stand strong and well-educated in cannabis’ corner, we thought we’d put together a few of the most common counter-points you’re likely to face, and some facts to help you handle them.

Cannabis causes a rise in schizophrenia and psychosis

Ah, the old schizophrenia line. It’s a strong one that has been used to prop up the anti-cannabis narrative for decades. But is there any truth in it?

As with the best lies, yes – there is a nugget of truth here. Chronic use of high THC cannabis (particularly in young males) has been shown to have the potential to trigger the early onset of schizophrenia in those who have an existing predisposition for the condition.

So, does cannabis use in general cause a rise in mental health problems? Well, technically yes, it could. But realistically only by a minute amount of people who perhaps should steer clear from cannabis anyway. After all, cannabis isn’t for everyone, just like sugar isn’t for everyone, and alcohol, and penicillin. 

But does keeping cannabis illegal protect those who are susceptible to having mental health conditions like schizophrenia, anxiety or psychosis triggered by cannabis? 

Absolutely not.

If cannabis were made completely legal, people who are interested in using it would hopefully be obtaining it from doctors and budtenders who would be educated enough to advise on whether or not cannabis is a suitable option. And the person taking cannabis, if they still wish to do so despite the potential risk, would also have the option of perhaps choosing a strain which would be better suited to their needs. Maybe lower in THC, or even just CBD flower.

If cannabis legalisation were causing a hike in mental health conditions, we would be able to see this clearly in countries where this policy is already in place. However, the numbers don’t add up. In September 2021, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported a significant increase from 38% in 2015 to 44% in 2020 in cannabis use among college students. This is the highest level since the 1980s. So there must have been a whopping spike in mental health conditions, right?

Wrong. The evidence isn’t there. But there are findings to suggest pre-existing schizophrenia could lead to cannabis use or cannabis use disorder, flipping the whole thing on its head. And just to blur the lines even more, there are now studies (and patents for medical formulations) showing that CBD could offer a potential treatment for schizophrenia, while of course, many cannabis patients will tell you they use cannabis to treat mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

It’s undoubtedly a complex issue, but not much of an anti-cannabis argument.

Cannabis is a gateway drug

Buying cannabis from a drug dealer who sells a wide variety of substances without any kind of harm reduction or vetting process for consumers is the gateway,  if anything, not cannabis. This argument is used a lot, but it’s almost as though the rhetoric has been so strong for so long that it’s just parroted without much thought. Because if you do stop to think about it, saying that cannabis will lead you to take other drugs doesn’t make much sense.

Do you know what does make sense though (and has been proven through numerous studies)? Alcohol being the “gateway” drug. This legal and completely accepted drug, which the World Health Organisation has just announced is harmful to human health in any amount, has been shown to lead to the use of tobacco, cannabis, and other illicit substances. Moreover, “students who used alcohol exhibited a significantly greater likelihood of using both licit and illicit drugs.”

So if something being a gateway drug is a good enough reason to keep it illegal, why are we actively encouraged to drink?

Making cannabis legal will increase use in the general population

Again, evidence from countries where cannabis is available recreationally doesn’t support this. Cannabis use in the UK is already very high, with an estimated 1.8 million, people using cannabis on the illicit market for medicinal purposes, around 20,000 prescribed medical cannabis patients, and results from a WHO report suggesting 7.5m people aged 16-59 in the United Kingdom have used cannabis at least once.

If people want to use cannabis, they will use cannabis. You can buy it on the street, order it online, buy seeds to grow your own and 100 other ways. We’ve now even got guerrilla advertising for cannabis sellers on the London tube. 

Making cannabis legal might encourage people to give it a try, but what they’ll be trying will be regulated, safe and trustworthy product – not something that can be said for most illegal product. But, who says that’s a bad thing? Many of those consumers are likely to be people with medical needs – insomnia, chronic pain, anxiety or endometriosis to name a few. 

Increased use in the general population is less of a worry to UK citizens, and more of a concern for pharmaceutical companies, who stand to lose a huge chunk of profits for anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, anti-seizure, antiemetic and pain-relieving drugs if cannabis were made more widely available. 

One report found 38.1% of 2 841 respondents who used cannabis reported termination of prescription drug use, and 45.9% a substantial decrease in prescription drug use. More than half (65.8%) found cannabis to be much more effective compared to prescription drugs, and 85.5% said the side effects associated with prescription drug use were much worse compared to the use of cannabis. A huge 91% of participants who ditched the pharma drugs used non-prescribed cannabis. Comparatively, 54.6% had deliberately started using cannabis in an attempt and replace a prescribed drug.

Perhaps increased use of legal cannabis in the general population wouldn’t be such a bad thing (for us) after all.

Ruby Deevoy is a U.K. cannabis journalist with years of experience covering CBD and cannabis in mainstream publications such as The Independent, The Mirror, The National, Elle, Red, Top Sante and Natural Health magazine. She’s also the U.K’s only CBD columnist, writing monthly for Top Sante magazine, cannabis agony aunt for Leafie, writes the Indybest CBD product lists, is founder of The CBD Consultancy and is the primary press member for The Cannabis Industry Council. Tweets @RDeevoy.

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