Though cannabis was permitted in America for much longer than it was outlawed, no one alive today remembers a time before the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act when the Federal Government fully prohibited the sale and consumption of weed across all states. For most of the 20th century, propaganda regarding pot use was abundant, and despite some research that demonstrated cannabis’s relative safety and even applicability to medical treatment, most Americans have long continued to believe that weed is one of the most dangerous substances known to mankind.
Fortunately, attitudes toward cannabis have shifted in the 21st century — but beliefs about cannabis addiction remain mired in the past. Here are a few misconceptions about cannabis use and addiction that we need to overcome in the coming years.
It Is Impossible to Be Addicted to Cannabis
Unfortunately, the biggest myth concerning cannabis addiction is that it does not exist. Yet, unequivocally, research demonstrates that cannabis addiction is real. Sufferers can experience both physical and psychological dependence on cannabis, enduring hallmark addiction symptoms like cravings and withdrawal as well as more subtle effects like lacking control over use, using in high-risk situations, struggling to maintain relationships or occupation and more.
Technically, cannabis addiction is called cannabis use disorder, or marijuana use disorder, by professionals. However, the compulsion for an individual afflicted with this disorder to use cannabis is as dangerous and destructive as any addiction to another substance or behavior. Cannabis use disorder that goes untreated is likely to cause an individual substantial harm, particularly in terms of mental and social health. Fortunately, states that have legalized cannabis typically use tax revenues to fund cannabis use disorder rehabilitation programs, so sufferers can find help.
Cannabis Addiction Causes Violence and Criminality
This is one of the oldest myths regarding cannabis consumption, and it is also one of the longest debunked. In fact, one of the first reports on the individual and community effects of cannabis consumption, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report of 1894, concluded that “There is no adequate ground for believing that [cannabis] injuriously affects the character of the consumer.” In other words, over 100 years ago, researchers were quite certain that cannabis use didn’t cause moral depravity or criminality.
This myth was perpetuated in America largely after the turn of the 20th century, when a large number of immigrants from Central and South America began entering the U.S. in search of high-paying, industrial jobs. Few Americans used hemp recreationally; cannabis was mostly consumed in tinctures and tonics to improve health. However, Latin American immigrants enjoyed smoking marijuana as a cultural pastime. Xenophobic and racist, white Americans suspected that these new immigrant communities would increase crime and immorality in U.S. cities, and they linked these fears directly with cannabis consumption.
Almost every decade since 1940 has seen the release of a new report that asks the question: Does cannabis use increase aggression and violence? Without exception, the findings state that the issue is a bit more complicated than that. Individual consumers who use weed are not more likely to commit violent acts or engage in crime, even after developing a substance use disorder.
However, the very act of prohibiting cannabis sale and consumption means that marijuana does increase crime rates. Infrequent or moderate users need to break the law to acquire weed, and criminal organizations tend to develop around the cultivation and distribution of marijuana. By legalizing cannabis, states are likely to see lower cannabis crime rates because those afflicted by substance abuse won’t need to succumb to extreme measures to get their fix.
Cannabis Is a Gateway Drug to Harder Narcotics
The term “gateway drug” has almost exclusively been applied to cannabis, which is also true of the term “soft drug.” People who use these terms tend to agree that cannabis itself isn’t particularly dangerous, either to the health of the individual or the safety of the community. They might not believe that cannabis addiction exists, or they might doubt that cannabis use disorder is as much of a concern as substance abuse with “harder” narcotics like heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine.
The idea that cannabis is a “gateway” to other drugs is founded on the idea that once someone experiences psychoactive effects, they will continue to pursue that experience to devastating ends. As one gains tolerance to cannabis, one will search for a substance with greater effects — and those substances tend to be more immediately physically dangerous to users.
However, researchers on cannabis consumption believe a more accurate term for cannabis is a “terminus drug,” meaning that once a user tries cannabis, they are more likely to stop sampling other drugs. In fact, cannabis use is so sticky as a substance that legal dispensaries in states like Maryland decrease opioid-related overdoses and deaths. Researchers believe that the desire to use opioids decreases with legal weed, in part because medical patients have a safer alternative and in part because recreational users don’t have to break the law to find a mind-altering experience.
Cannabis is no longer a niche issue. More states are legalizing cannabis consumption and sale, which means more people need to learn the truth about how cannabis can affect individual users and communities. Sorting the truth from the fiction regarding cannabis addiction is a good place to start.