COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Harmless Weed
One of the things people today tend to giggle at is the depiction of Marijuana in old movies and TV. Films like Reefer Madness are watched for entertainment rather than education and the old stories of kids going crazy and causing problems while stoned are scoffed at. Pot makes you mellow, after all. The most damage you'll end up doing is to the snack bar, not someone else.
If anything, people tend to think a stoned world would be safer and less troubled. Weed makes me drive better, I've heard people say. Less anxious and aggressive, more laid back, how can that go wrong? We're told by advocates of "hemp" that pot is less dangerous than cigarettes, causes less cancer, and nobody has ever become violent on pot. Its harmless!
Indeed, support for legalizing marijuana has become more widespread, with states such as Colorado and Washington effectively legalizing the use and states such as Oregon and California legalizing pot for "medical" purposes. Supposedly, according to a Gallup poll, more people want pot legal than banned.
And if marijuana is so harmless and less damaging that cigarettes, why is it still illegal?
Well, advocates of legalization can be a bit... loose with the facts, when it suits them. And since they're probably all smoking weed, you have to take their pronouncements with the sort of respect you would any kid toking on a bong and stating how the world could be fixed.
The first thing to understand about marijuana is that its imbibed in almost all cases by smoking. And deliberately sucking burning material and smoke into your lungs is bad, no matter what the material is. Its damaging to your lung tissues, its harmful to your throat, and it will lead to the same sort of problems as cigarette smoke: emphysema, bronchitis, loss of sense of taste, coughing, lower lung capacity, etc. Using a vaporizer will avoid some of these problems but might have its own drawbacks.
CANCER OR NOT
How cancerous pot can be is a matter of some dispute. There haven't been a lot of really reliable studies done on the topic. I remember reading about 20 years ago that smoking a joint is about 20 times as cancerous as smoking a cigarette, but how factual that is I'm not sure about. Certainly the chemicals sprayed on pot to kill it (then sold unscrupulously anyway by pot dealers) probably makes it significantly less healthy.
Pot advocacy group NORML notes:
Cannabis smoke – unlike tobacco smoke – has not been definitively linked to cancer in humans, including those cancers associated with tobacco use. However, certain cellular abnormalities in the lungs have been identified more frequently in long-term smokers of cannabis compared to non-smokers. Chronic exposure to cannabis smoke has also been associated with the development of pre-cancerous changes in bronchial and epithelium cells in similar rates to tobacco smokers.They also cite several studies that claim that "no association" was found between cannabis use and incidents of oral cancer, but then its very rare with tobacco cigarettes as well and the studies were quite small and short term. A 2006 UCLA study found no link between pot smoking and increased cancer risk, but another found up to six times the risk.
Although Marijuana use is ancient, its been illegal and significantly less popular than tobacco smoke in the past, so its difficult to get a quality long-term study done on the effects. What studies have been done do suggest that there's definitely risk
One study demonstrated a doubling in lung cancer for male marijuana smokers who also used tobacco (i.e. for men who smoked the same amount, the risk of lung cancer was twice as high for men who also used marijuana.) Another study found that long-term use of marijuana increased the risk of lung cancer in young adults (55 and under), with the risk increasing in proportion to the amount of marijuana smoked.And, of course, if we legalize pot just to find out if there's any real risk, by the time we find out it will be too late to fix the problem. Something significant about pot smoking is that while it is free of substances such as nicotine, users hold the smoke in their lungs longer, thus exposing the tissues to damaging materials and carcinogens for a longer period of time.
What is certain is that it is irrational to claim confidently that smoking pot has no cancer risk. That's just ridiculous on its face, and the science on the matter is highly contested and uncertain. Alan Budney, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine puts it this way: “Do you want to put cancerous material in your body even though it hasn’t been proven to cause cancer?” It was a long time (and highly contested) that cigarettes were even damaging to your health at all, and they were legal.
The concept that pot makes you mellow and won't lead to violence is one that's been increasingly challenged in recent years. The University of Buffalo is working on a study to find out just how valid this connection is (funded by federal dollars of course). This might make you scoff, but while marijuana is a depressant and tends to make you calm so is alcohol and the presumption that this cannot lead someone to become violent is a bit unreasonable. We have plenty of experience with the effects of alcohol on people; it varies greatly. Drunks vary by person; some are morose, some are cheerful, some are violent, and so on. Its not so unreasonable to believe that some marijuana users could be more violent in reaction than others.
Does use of marijuana cause any crime or violence? This one is a bit more clear. There have been several high-profile shootings and mass killings lately that are linked to pot use. For example when Congresswoman Giffords was shot in Arizona along with several other people, it was by a man Jared Lee Loughner who was a pot smoker. In fact, many recent shooting incidents were by guys who are smoking pot, and stoned at the time. The Navy Yard shooter? Pot smoker. Boston bomber? Pot smoker - major league toker. Aurora theater shooter? Pot smoker. Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza? Pot smoker.
Now, this doesn't mean the pot was to blame for the shooting but it certainly blows the "people stoned on pot are like, mellow, man" myth to shreds. People on weed do commit crimes, do hurt others, and do kill. In fact, police will tell you that pot doesn't prevent violence or crime at all.
It has been known for a few years now that pot can cause schizophrenics to become unstable and violent. What isn't as well known is that studies show someone who smokes pot is more likely to become schizophrenic. And studies show that marijuana use can lead to psychosis. Whether that is because the tendency is exaggerated or unlocked by marijuana or it tends to cause the illness isn't clear. What is clear is that pot is not harmless and even might be very dangerous.
Some doctors prescribe "Medical marijuana" for depression and anxiety, but there's evidence that's actually bad for these conditions rather than helpful.
And the driving thing is pretty obviously silly. Every single depressant and drug that causes relaxation or "stones" the user has a warning on it: do not operate heavy machinery. Why not? Because slowed reaction time, hindered perception, and a dopey mind does not lead to a skilled and capable user. Driving a car requires keen senses and awareness of one's surroundings, and marijuana does not help you do that better. You may feel more relaxed but there's a point at which you become too relaxed and don't operate things better.
Various studies have shown that people who are stoned drive worse than when they are not. Reaction time, fine motor control, and awareness are reduced. How much this affects drivers isn't exactly clear - nor is it for being drunk, because it varies by situation, driver, and the vehicle - but the pattern indicates that people who drive stoned are more likely to break traffic laws and get into accidents. This is contested by groups like NORML who want to legalize pot, but the general data indicates a problem.
Like many arguments, the "legalize it" movement goes too far. They insist on arguments that are absurd, and your average pot advocate says the silly stuff mentioned above: totally harmless! Never hurt anyone! Nobody ever killed someone on weed! You drive better! That's ridiculous and were they not desperate to argue for a position they would recognize it. Or stoned, of course; I've had plenty of exposure to stoned people and they make stupid arguments because they don't think straight. The whole "college kids around a bong" stereotype exists because its true, people who smoke pot think terribly idiotic or shallow things are of terrific weight and importance. It can make them argue very poorly as well.
So you get responses that any suggestion of a problem with weed are all lies and prohibitionist trash and outrageously overstated support for legalization of pot. Almost all their arguments are discredited as a result, and most are deceptive. The whole "hemp is a wonder product" movement for example is just an attempt to get pot legal, they don't really care about hemp.
Overall the truth about pot is mixed: its almost certainly cancerous, to what degree is unknown. It almost certainly causes at least some people to become violent and seems to lead to mental instability in some people, especially those already unbalanced. And traffic stats and data show that driving while stoned is not any better and possibly worse than driving while drunk.
In other words, weed isn't as harmless and wonderful as advocates claim, but at the same time it isn't the death drug that some claim, either. Its probably not going to drive your young people insane as old propaganda suggested (but there is risk it might push unstable people over the edge), but its not safe and healthy to use, either. Its not Reefer Madness but its not what NORML claims, either.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.