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Debunking Some of the Most Common Misconceptions About Cannabis

cannabis misconceptions
Written by Alexandra Hicks

Not even a decade ago, the idea of legalizing cannabis was still a social taboo and a topic that was mostly avoided by mainstream media outlets, politicians, and celebrities. During its many years of prohibition, a lot of misconceptions about cannabis were born – some were minor marketing and industry blunders, but others were so damaging that they still contribute to the plant’s poor reputation and federal prohibition.

Finding the facts about cannabis can be a challenge. Prohibitionists will do anything in their power to diminish the health benefits of this plant. Usually, money in other industries is a motivator. Alternatively, pro-cannabis activists and particularly those with a financial stake in the industry may downplay any possible side effects, promoting cannabis as a be-all, end-all solution to all your problems; doing anything to progress legislation and sell their products.

As is usually the case in life, the reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes, and in the spirit of spreading accurate information, I wanted to quickly cover some of the most common misconceptions surrounding cannabis.

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Common cannabis misconceptions: Indicas are stronger than sativas

This is one of those cannabis misconceptions honestly drives me a bit crazy. I’m a regular cannabis user – I smoke flowers, dab concentrates, and eat edibles. I love pot and use it daily, so as you can imagine, I spend quite a bit of time shopping in cannabis dispensaries. Here in California, options are plentiful. So much so, that when I’m trying to do a quick run and get in and out of the store quickly, the sheer number of product choices can get a bit overwhelming.

In this scenario, I’ll usually ask the budtender what their favorite strain or concentrate is that week. Nine times out of ten, they point me in the direction an indica and tell me, “I like this one cause it’s an indica and indicas are stronger.” Since it’s usually not the right time for a debate, I bite my tongue and move on, but in my head I’m screaming, “haven’t you ever heard of terpenes?!?”

If you’re shopping based on indica vs sativa alone… YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG. To find a strain that will provide you with the desired effect, you have to search beyond indica and sativa and look at the entire package instead – strain name and genetics, terpene blends, and cannabinoid content. In reality, the entire indica vs sativa vs hybrid trend is basically just a big marketing ploy anyway.

There is no scientific evidence to support this dichotomy of cannabis types because on a molecular level, indica and sativa strains don’t have patterns that differentiate the two “types” from each other anyway. From a chemical standpoint, most strains on the market today can be classified as hybrids.

Cannabis kills brain cells

The brain damage misconceptions can be traced back to some very questionable cannabis studies conducted on monkeys back in the 1970s. To this day, one of the most common arguments against cannabis use is that it can cause long term psychological damage, especially on developing adolescent brains. But just like the monkey research from decades back, none of the current studies have come to any type of conclusive answer either.

A few observational studies have suggested that teenage cannabis use can be an increased risk factor for developing schizophrenia later in life. In most of these studies though, no confounding factors were accounted for and there was little consensus as to whether cannabis directly caused schizophrenia, or if it was one of many other risk factors, or if it simply correlates in a less obvious way. Does cannabis lead to schizophrenia, or are undiagnosed schizophrenics more likely to self-medicate with cannabis? None of these questions have been answered.

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Take this review from 2014 on the effects of cannabis on adolescent brains, the review authors state: “teens who engage in heavy marijuana use often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning.” This is followed by this admission: “It remains unclear whether such disadvantages reflect pre-existing differences that lead to increased substances use and further changes in brain architecture and behavioral outcomes.”

Again, does cannabis cause mental health issues, or are people with mental health issues more likely to self-medicate with cannabis? For some reason, the very obvious answer to this question is always avoided in these “studies”.

On the flip side, some lab tests on elderly mice have shown promising results indicating that THC could be used to regenerate brain cells, reverse the psychological signs of aging, and prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s. More research on this subject is much need, and goes to show how policy remains far ahead of the available science.

Cannabis is NOT addictive

People can get pretty defensive over the argument of cannabis being addictive, but let’s just strip this down to the bare minimum for a quick second. ANYTHING can be addictive, and just because something is addictive doesn’t make it inherently bad. For example, people can be addicted to working out. We all know that regular exercise is one of the best things we can do for our health. However, some people do exhibit an unhealthy obsession with physical fitness and exercise, usually stemming from some type of body image disorder.

Exercise addicts display the same traits and behaviors as drug addicts and alcoholics: engaging in behavior despite it being potentially harmful, obsessing over behaviors and results, and being secretive and continuing behaviors that are harmful to themselves and damaging to their relationships with others. When we work out, the brain releases chemicals that are strongly linked to feelings of pleasure and reward – dopamine and endorphins. Exercise addiction may be partially related to a dependence on this pleasure response.

Think of cannabis addiction no differently. Just like exercise addiction, dependence on cannabis shows how someone can be addicted to both substances and activities, and how the addiction in question isn’t necessarily a bad thing on its own. When it comes to smoking addictions, the act of smoking is just as habit-forming as the substance you’re smoking. Almost always, smokers associate the act of smoking with other activities such as driving, something to do after meals, or as a leisurely activity with friends.

Cannabis is a “gateway drug”

This gateway theory is one of the hardest pushed cannabis misconceptions. Growing up in the 90s, this was something I heard all the time, along with “just say no” and all the red ribbon week campaigns. Pointless if you ask me, but that’s neither here nor there. The real point is, will pot smokers eventually turn into meth or heroin addicts because that’s just the nature of the plant? Mostly likely not.

Actually, it statistically seems out of the realm of possibility. Take a look at this data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2017, which shows that out the 123 million Americans who use cannabis, only 5.3 million were also heroin users.

Assuming this is accurate, and also assuming that all of those 5.3 million heroin users started with cannabis, that would mean only 4.3% of the 123 million cannabis users have tried heroin. Speaking from personal experience, me and all those closest to me smoke weed regularly and have never tried heroin.

Despite being a bit repetitive, I’ll refer you back to what I mentioned in the previous section about correlation. An individual who uses cannabis as a coping mechanism for their problems is more likely to seek relief from stronger drugs as well. Someone with mental health issues is more likely to self-medicate (there’s that term again) with cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. The problem here is not with the cannabis itself, but with the person’s inability to cope without mind-altering substances.

CBD will make you fail a drug test

So, this one isn’t really a misconception per se, but rather misinformation. CBD, or cannabidiol, is the most abundant non-psychoactive compound in cannabis, and as such, it is used exclusively for health and wellness matters. CBD the cannabinoid cannot make you fail a drug test, because those only test for different types of THC. But it’s possible that certain CBD products containing trace amounts of THC, can be problematic.

Even this situation is extremely unlikely though. A standard drug screen will test for tetrahydrocannabinol’s dominant metabolite: 11-nor-delta9-carboxy-THC (THC-COOH). Cross-reactivity between THC/THC-COOH and other cannabinoids such as CBD, CBD, and CBN, is very uncommon with urine tests. If high-quality CBD contains 0.3% THC or less (up to 1/300th the amount of THC found in cannabis), someone would have to consume 1500 to 2000 mg of CBD per day to build up the amount of THC that would be needed to fail a drug screen.

To simplify, that’s A LOT of CBD so you probably won’t test positive for anything. Keep in mind that false positives do happen occasionally, but that has nothing to do with the presence of other cannabinoids. Ultimately, consumers need to be up to date on their employer’s specific regulations regarding drug testing and they should only buy CBD products from reputable sources. If you want to be extra safe, stick to products that are made with CBD isolate.

Final thoughts on cannabis misconceptions

I know that so many more cannabis misconceptions exist out there. It has only recently begun to find its way into the mainstream, but until just a few years ago, it was one of the most misunderstood plants in our society. We’re programmed to think that just because something is illegal, it’s bad and has no health benefits, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Sometimes when a substance is banned and stigmatized, it’s really just because a lack of published information on that substance exists. It has nothing to do with the actual safety profile of that substance, and from that lack of knowledge can stem many strange and damaging misconceptions.

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.