A version of this story was first published in February.
Nearly 80 years ago, the feature film "Reefer Madness" hit theaters, projecting demonstrably false anti-marijuana propaganda all over the big screen. In today's era of legal medical and recreational cannabis, the tone of this movie is often mocked. But drug warriors are still employing many of the same hysterical arguments to prop up their campaign against weed.
When it comes to public opinion, it's becoming clear that anti-pot crusaders are losing the battle. Recreational marijuana is for sale in Colorado, it’s coming to Washington sometime soon and a number of states have considered legalization measures this legislative session. In all, 20 states have passed laws allowing the medical or recreational use of marijuana, and with a majority of Americans now in favor of legal weed for the first time in U.S. history, the momentum is on marijuana's side.
As more states move toward reforming pot laws, many anti-weed groups have clung to the same tired rhetoric, a decision that has only served to further marginalize them. Greater public acceptance and access to the drug mean that many of marijuana's stigmas, once accepted as fact, now appear increasingly out of touch with reality.
While there may be more reasonable arguments to make when considering the issue of legal marijuana, these overused statements are not among them:
1. "Marijuana is addictive."
Like pretty much any substance (or activity, for that matter), marijuana can be abused, and frequent use can lead to dependency. But if we're going to keep something illegal just because it has the potential to be addictive, we'll also have to reconsider our approaches to a number of other substances. Studies have found cannabis to be less addictive than nicotine, alcohol and even caffeine, according to research by one scientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
It's believed that somewhere between four and nine percent of regular marijuana users are likely to develop dependency problems, and it's true that a good number of marijuana users later avail themselves of professional help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that 957,000 people age 12 and over sought treatment for marijuana in 2012. But while drug warriors have touted this as evidence of a marijuana abuse epidemic, pot policy reformers have noted that the large majority of these patients have been referred by the criminal justice system, which has expanded options for treatment over jail time or other penalties. While it's a clear step up from imprisonment, many of the people who end up in treatment are still forced there for minor marijuana charges.
Furthermore, "not all abuse and dependency is created equal," as the authors of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know put it. The authors point out that while some heavy marijuana users do experience symptoms of clinical dependency and feel discomfort or withdrawal when trying to quit, kicking a pot addiction doesn't lead to the same type of intense, dangerous physical and psychological pain that often accompanies alcohol, nicotine or heroin dependency.
2. "It's as dangerous as heroin and LSD."
Not many people may be willing to make this argument directly -- even President Barack Obama knows there isn't any reliable evidence to support it -- but the Drug Enforcement Administration's classification of pot is based entirely upon this contention. Schedule I drugs like marijuana, LSD and heroin "are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence," according to the DEA. They are also said to have "no currently accepted medical use."
Key anti-drug officials have been unwilling to budge on the supposed parallels between pot and these harder drugs. During congressional testimony in 2012, DEA Administrator Michelle Leonhart refused to answer a question about whether crack was more harmful than pot. In January, Michael Botticelli, the drug czar’s chief deputy, ducked a question about whether meth or cocaine was more addictive than marijuana, leading Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to explain why these repeated denials and other inconsistencies in federal anti-drug policy only serve to undermine broader anti-drug efforts.
"Being unable to answer something clearly and definitively when there is unquestioned evidence to the contrary is why young people don't believe the propaganda, why they think [marijuana is] benign," Blumenauer said. "If a professional like you can't answer clearly that meth is more dangerous than marijuana -- which every kid on the street knows, which every parent knows -- if you can't answer that, maybe that's why we're failing to educate people about the dangers. If the deputy director of the office of drug policy can't answer that question, how do you expect high school kids to take you seriously?"
3. "Pot is a gateway drug that will lead you to more dangerous substances."
The claim that marijuana use will tip people toward other, harder substances has long been pushed by drug warriors, despite a lack of factual basis. The argument goes that because people often try harder drugs some time after having tried pot, the user's experience with marijuana must have played a significant part in later experimentation.
But in reading drug use statistics -- or any statistics at all -- it's important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Just because users of heroin, cocaine or other hard drugs are very likely to have used marijuana earlier in their lives doesn't mean that the pot itself was the catalyst for their later drug-related decisions.
As Maia Szalavitz writes at Time, "Hell's Angels motorcycle gang members are probably 104 times more likely to have ridden a bicycle as a kid than those who don't become Hell's Angels, but that doesn't mean that riding a two-wheeler is a 'gateway' to joining a motorcycle gang. It simply means that most people ride bikes and the kind of people who don't are highly unlikely to ever ride a motorcycle."
It makes sense that statistics would show drug users frequently turning to pot first. Marijuana is relatively easy to lay hands on, meaning that anybody with a desire to alter their state of mind with a substance can likely access it (though if this is the actual standard-bearer of a gateway drug, as some would argue, then studies have also shown alcohol to be the true gateway substance).
Studies have pointed out this flaw in the "gateway theory" since as early back as the late 1990s, though the failure to find a direct link hasn't stopped anti-drug crusaders from pushing the argument.
4. "You smoke marijuana like tobacco, so it must be just as bad for you!"
Cigarettes lead to nearly half a million American deaths each year, so it might seem natural to assume that marijuana smoke drawn into the lungs in the same fashion would also do some serious physiological harm. But science hasn't borne out this hypothesis. Studies have found that cannabis and tobacco smoke contain some of the same carcinogens -- but cigarettes, which contain nicotine, cause significantly more harm than marijuana, which contains cannabinoids.
While many marijuana smokers may report respiratory discomfort like coughing or wheezing after excessive pot use, an extensive study released in 2012 found that the drug itself does not impair lung function. Other studies have found that cannabis can even suppress a variety of aggressive cancer cells. If medical science has reached any real conclusion about marijuana, it's simply that more research should be done to pin down the exact effects of cannabis smoke and cannabinoids.
And while smoking is the most common way to use marijuana, there are also other methods of delivery that allow users to minimize or avoid potential harm to the lungs: Ingesting high-potency cannabis-infused edibles or using a vaporizer, which eliminates much of the heated marijuana smoke, are a few of the most common alternatives.
5. "Pot can make you go insane."
In "Reefer Madness," teens are driven to murder, sexual assault and insanity after indulging in pot. TV host Nancy Grace still thinks marijuana users "shoot each other, stab each other, strangle each other" and "kill whole families," and that such behavior is all pot's fault.
While it's established that psychotic people are more likely to have used drugs -- and most commonly cannabis -- before the onset of the disease, research has shown that smoking pot simply leads to an earlier onset of psychosis by an average of 2.7 years in people already prone to the condition. Other research suggests that marijuana emphatically does not cause psychosis, and past research has not been able to definitively rule out the possibility that people who are prone to developing mental illnesses like schizophrenia may simply be more likely to turn to drugs like marijuana. Furthermore, other research suggests that another cannabis compound, cannabidiol, may negate some symptoms of psychosis.
Studies have also shown that changes in the brain due to marijuana use are likely reversible and that the legalization of medical marijuana may reduce suicide rates. While no substance is completely harmless, marijuana, in many studies, has been shown to be relatively safe. But again, until a larger wealth of research is completed in all of these areas -- which will likely only be done after further legalization -- we are left without more concrete conclusions.
6. "Marijuana leads to criminal behavior."
While some studies have indicated higher marijuana use among criminal offenders, that doesn't mean it's the pot itself that leads users to a life of crime. In fact, dozens of studies on the issue show that a causal relationship between marijuana use and crime has not been found.
When it comes to violent crime, alcohol is a much more significant factor than marijuana. A report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests that 25 to 30 percent of violent crimes are linked to alcohol use. A 2003 article from the journal Addictive Behaviors noted that "alcohol is clearly the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication-violence relationship," and that "cannabis reduces likelihood of violence during intoxication." The National Academy of Sciences even found that in chronic marijuana users, THC causes a decrease in "aggressive and violent behavior."
Although there is little evidence that marijuana use increases the likelihood of criminal behavior, marijuana convictions are definitely likely to ruin lives and expose people to a life of crime behind bars. State laws differ, but in some places, possessing just one marijuana joint can be punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine. Marijuana convictions also appear to be racially biased. A recent ACLU report, which tracked marijuana arrests by race and county in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, found that black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people.
7. "It makes you lazy and unsuccessful."
Marijuana opponents often point to studies suggesting that long-term use could result in a lack of motivation and a life of bumming around in your mom's basement.
A Marijuana Policy Project study, listing 50 of some of the most successful people in the world who have admitted to using pot, completely shatters this mythology. President Obama, Jon Stewart and billionaire George Soros can hardly be characterized as lazy or unproductive.
Anti-drug groups have also argued that marijuana nullifies the traits required to be a successful athlete. That's probably news to a lot of football players. Despite a league policy that bans the substance, one former player has said that something like half of all NFL players smoke pot either for medical or recreational reasons. Professional football is one of the most demanding and competitive sports in the world. Players probably aren't high while competing, but the fact that some turn to pot during their free time underscores the point that it's possible to achieve a balance between one's professional life and one's recreational marijuana use.
8. "Legalization will cause mass zombification!"
While the threat of a zombie apocalypse is one of the Internet’s favorite fantasies, some anti-legalization opponents use it as a metaphor for their unsubstantiated fears of a lazy pothead nation developing in the wake of legal weed.
Putting aside the fact that the link between marijuana use and habitual laziness is tenuous at best, multiple studies suggest that the decriminalization of marijuana has little to no effect on consumption rates. And prohibition has been woefully ineffective at deterring use. “Fear of arrest, fear of imprisonment, the cost of cannabis or its availability do not appear to exert much effect on the prevalence of cannabis use,” says one frequently cited study on marijuana prohibition.
9. "I tried it once and didn't like it."
So you don't like marijuana. Or you tried it once but didn’t inhale. Or maybe you smoked a lot of pot a while ago, but now can't get off the couch while you're high, so you don't anymore. That's fine -- the drug affects people differently, and anybody with knowledge of marijuana is well aware that "highs" vary greatly. But should your personal opposition to pot really require us to uphold a status quo of prohibition that results in one marijuana arrest every 40 seconds in the U.S., costs the nation between $10 billion and $40 billion a year and deprives state and federal governments the tremendous revenue generated from taxes on legal weed?
10. "People don't even use it at weddings, so obviously it's more harmful than beer."
This is an odd one. Earlier this year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) pulled out this wedding scenario while claiming that "it’s a big jump" between having a beer and smoking pot.
"If I'm at a wedding reception here and somebody has a drink or two, most people wouldn't say they're wasted," Walker said, according to The Capital Times. “Most folks with marijuana wouldn’t be sitting around a wedding reception smoking marijuana.”
Walker appears to be employing some serious circular reasoning here, claiming that weed -- which is illegal, obviously -- is less socially acceptable than alcohol, which is (he seems to be saying) one reason it should remain illegal. Walker has said that there's "a huge difference" between marijuana and alcohol, and the governor is right: Most studies show that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol.
In 2010, for example, there were approximately 189,000 emergency room visits by people under 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol, including accidental poisoning. While there have been reports of people being treated at the hospital due to discomfort after using too much marijuana, these are far outweighed by the number of alcohol-poisoning incidents. To this day, aside from one recent, unprecedented and widely contested conclusion about a cannabis-related death in the United Kingdom, there have been no reported deaths due to marijuana overdose in at least 10,000 years of human consumption.
On the other hand, just 10 times the recommended serving of alcohol can lead to death, a recreational drug study from American Scientist found. By contrast, a marijuana smoker would have to consume 20,000 to 40,000 times the amount of THC in a joint in order to be at risk of dying, according to a 1988 ruling from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
11. "Uhhh ... but don't you care about the children?"
Yes, which is why it's important to understand that when it comes to marijuana, drug warriors are lying to them and causing more harm than good. Lawmakers have recently argued that the anti-drug crowd is losing the faith of teens because they pummel them with blanket statements instead of offering factual explanations about marijuana use and how to approach the drug responsibly.
There are admittedly legitimate questions and concerns about adolescent marijuana use, including hotly debated claims about the effects of the drug on teens' mental health. And the fact that marijuana studies so often show conflicting findings is a sign of how much more research is needed in this area and how important those answers are.
No one needs to encourage anybody, teenage or otherwise, to use marijuana. But if the drug warriors are to be taken seriously, they need to retire these shopworn arguments and update their playbook for a new century.