Cannabis 101

Threatening Truths or Misleading Myths? Uncovering 5 Cannabis Misconceptions

Published on June 30, 2015 · Last updated July 28, 2020

We have to admit, it makes sense why many people misunderstand cannabis and the benefits it holds for both individuals and society. Cannabis, after all, has been fraught with decades of misguided stereotypes, scare tactics, and inaccurate information masquerading as facts. Our legal system and anti-drug policies make it even harder to debunk these outlandish myths, as they themselves encourage misuse, perpetuate stereotypes, and spread fear-based messaging and biased conclusions, leaving society uninformed and struggling to separate the truths from the lies.

Exposing these false messages through research and awareness is our best bet at eliminating the misconceptions surrounding cannabis. Here are five misleading anti-cannabis sentiments we’ve all probably heard at some point or another. For each of these points, we state the facts and logic to debunk the arguments so you can decide on your own what to believe.

1. “Cannabis is a gateway drug.”

Heroin use

This myth has persisted despite being debunked on numerous occasions. It shouldn’t be surprising that people who consume harder, more illicit drugs have potentially consumed cannabis as well. We can say the same for alcohol and tobacco, yet, we don’t consider them a gateway to drug abuse because it’s foolish to associate a correlation as a cause.

The missing logic from the gateway argument unfolds even further when you look to its larger social implications. In a post on Psychology Today, Constance Scharff, Ph.D, points to alcohol and tobacco as the more sensible ‘gateway’ drugs:

“Many people mistakenly believe that marijuana use precedes rather than follows initiation of other illicit drug use. In fact, most drug use begins with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana, making nicotine and alcohol the two most common drugs of abuse.”

Aside from the confusing differentiation of cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco, Dr. Karen Van Gundy, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, recently completed a study on cannabis showing other factors of causation hidden in the gateway myth:

“But pot does serve as a ‘gateway’. Mainly for young people who are poor, unemployed and subjected to severe psychological stress.”

Larger social issues are at play here, so claiming that cannabis is a gateway drug is ignoring the numerous and complex factors, from environmental to psychological, that account for why heavy drug users turn to a variety of substances.

2. “Marijuana is worse for your lungs than tobacco.”


Hats off to the tobacco corporations who’ve successfully perpetuated the idea that smoking cannabis is more harmful to your lungs than cigarette smoke — a crux of capitalism rather than science. No matter the projected rationale behind these arguments, whether it’s harping on the lack of filters or claiming that you inhale longer with marijuana, no study proves marijuana to contain more harmful effects than tobacco.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study in 2012 indicating that smoking cannabis was not linked with lung damage:

“Marijuana may have beneficial effects on pain control, appetite, mood, and management of other chronic symptoms. Our findings suggest that occasional use of marijuana for these or other purposes may not be associated with adverse consequences on pulmonary function. It is more difficult to estimate the potential effects of regular heavy use, because this pattern of use is relatively rare in our study sample; however, our findings do suggest an accelerated decline in pulmonary function with heavy use and a resulting need for caution and moderation when marijuana use is considered.”

Another study found that cannabis and tobacco smoke are not equally carcinogenic, and research led by the University of California San Francisco in conjunction with the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that cannabis is less damaging to the lungs than tobacco.

We aren’t saying that smoking marijuana doesn’t have any negative effects on your lungs — any sort of inhalation can have repercussions on your pulmonary health. But research has indicated on multiple occasions that tobacco is more harmful to your lungs than cannabis. Keep in mind that for both tobacco and cannabis, the resulting effect on your lungs is dependent on the quantity you consume.

If you’re concerned about your lung health as a cannabis user, remember that there are many other ways to consume cannabis without smoking it. Legalization opponents miss the mark when they spout this one off. Put this one to rest, people.

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3. “Cannabis use leads to crime.”

Cannabis and crime

Here’s an example of propaganda at its best: the 1936 film Reefer Madness. Prohibition and anti-cannabis supporters still ride the waves of fear induced by a film that’s almost 80 years old. It makes sense to link cannabis to crime if you don’t want it around but, similar to the gateway myth, the argument is blind to the bigger social issues.

This myth hangs on to a premise that largely relies on the status of cannabis in our legal system. Crime trends and statistics used to fuel the argument against legalization don’t make sense, as the whole point is to end those arrests and allocate police attention to the real issues.

To take a look at how crime and cannabis really interconnect, we refer to a study in London that decriminalized cannabis for a year in the borough of Lambeth. Results showed a large drop in crime rates across the board, even in non-drug related crimes:

“We use the key lessons from this localized policing experiment to shed light on what would be the impacts on crime if the same policy were to be applied citywide, by developing and calibrating a model of the market for cannabis and crime, we account for the behavior of police and cannabis users.”

This policy change decreased crime and allowed the borough to further understand how cannabis functions in their community. The authors also noted how police were able to prioritize higher-risk crimes, improving the overall safety of the borough rather than tackling low-risk cannabis offenses. Can you imagine if the entire US adopted this model?

Speaking of the United States, in March, The Washington Post reported the significant and positive impact Colorado’s retail cannabis legalization has been having on Denver crime:

“The total number of marijuana court cases fell from 39,027 in 2011 to 2,036 cases in 2014. Those 37,000 fewer cases represent a savings of untold millions of dollars in court costs and law enforcement fees. They represent 37,000 fewer people who have to deal with the stigma and financial burden of an arrest and possible conviction.”

Cannabis isn’t indicative nor a cause of criminal behavior. Rather, anti-drug policies use cannabis as a scapegoat for community issues, which only results in promoting illicit activity and the black market rather than eliminating it.

4. “Cannabis is addictive.”

Cannabis user on couch

A simple guideline when it comes to using cannabis is to consume responsibly and within moderation. Anything can be considered harmful if it’s done or used in excess. People can be addicted to food, exercise, and even sleep when that’s all they do, all of which are perfectly legal activities.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse tells us that 9% of users become dependent on cannabis, which is unfortunate, but less overwhelming than cannabis opponents would have you believe. The organization describes the symptoms of marijuana addiction as “linked to a mild withdrawal syndrome”:

“Frequent marijuana users often report irritability, mood and sleep difficulties, decreased appetite, cravings, restlessness, and/or various forms of physical discomfort that peak within the first week after quitting and last up to 2 weeks.”

Addiction is an issue with all substances, which is why both awareness and mindset are crucial when using cannabis. The potential harm, no matter how minimal, should be combated through education and proper protocol, not fear and misinformation.

5. “We all know what stoners look like.”

Stereotypical stoner

This one doesn’t need science to be debunked; instead, it requires a moral conscience and a willingness to dispel stereotypes as a way of seeing the world. The cannabis archetype is set in stone: Cheech and Chong, Snoop Dog, Scooby and Shaggy all come to mind, but they aren’t the only stoners out there (not to mention how truly successful these so-called “lazy” stoners actually are).

Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Maya Angelou, George Clooney, and many other successful people have all used cannabis, and they all look, live, and consume differently. There’s no one way or one type of person who consumes.

Not convinced? Check out these cannabis-friendly people, many of whom you probably recognize. Do all of them fit neatly into the archetypical stoner image?

We’ve got some work to do before the stereotypes and myths disappear, but consuming responsibly and being sensible with how we introduce the truths to others will lead to great things.

Five myths are down — what other misconceptions should we uncover next?

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Nick Elam
Nick Elam
Nick Elam works on strategic partnerships, influence marketing, social media, and digital strategy for Leafly.
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