While the United States continues to inch closer to nationwide legalization—use of medical marijuana is currently allowed in 33 states and most Americans support legalization—there’s still a stigma associated with the complicated plant. Despite growing research that cannabis is relatively harmless compared to other drugs (it ranked second to last on 2018’s Global Drug Survey, which ranks drugs by the risk of harm), there’s a common misconception about its use both recreationally and medicinally. At the root of the issue are half-truths and myths that the general public often perceives as fact. With cannabis inching towards being the new normal, we spoke to six experts to set the record straight about what’s real when it comes to marijuana.
Myth #1. Cannabis is a gateway drug
Gateway theory—the idea that the use of “soft” drugs like cannabis and alcohol will ultimately lead to experimentation with more dangerous drugs—is one of the most pervasive myths surrounding cannabis. This claim has somehow survived beyond the D.A.R.E. curriculum of yesteryear, despite there being no firm evidence to support it.
“Simply put, the fact that cannabis use is associated with later use of hard drugs does not mean that cannabis causes people to use hard drugs,” says David L. Nathan, MD, a New Jersey-based psychiatrist and founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “Strong winds can be observed when windmills turn faster, but that doesn't mean that windmills produce wind.”
Addiction isn’t ushered in by “soft” drugs. Instead, it’s more likely that certain users are simply more prone to addictive behaviors, regardless of the drug they first decide to use.
“The more plausible ‘common liability’ theory explains how many factors, including genetics, poverty, and social environment are causative agents of substance use disorders,” Nathan adds. “Any correlations between the misuse of different drugs are at most indicators of the ‘common liability’ that leads some people to the misuse of all drugs.”
Myth #2. Cannabis causes psychosis
Some researchers are still convinced that smokers are at risk for cannabis-induced psychosis and that using cannabis could even cause schizophrenia.
Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at University at Albany, SUNY and author of Understanding Marijuana, believes the basis of this theory is fundamentally flawed. Earleywine explains that it’s likely that schizophrenia isn’t spurred by cannabis use, but that people with schizophrenia are just more likely to be marijuana smokers. “Some folks might be drawn to use cannabis in an effort to combat psychotic symptoms,” Earleywine reasons.
It’s also possible that cannabis users are being stigmatized by researchers, which can lead to user’s habits being mischaracterized as a disorder. “The way ‘psychosis’ is measured has turned out to be problematically biased in a way that makes cannabis users look pathological simply because they are part of an underground subculture,” notes Earleywine.
Still, most experts agree that while marijuana likely doesn’t cause psychosis, it might trigger the condition in those who already have it. “Teenagers and people with psychotic first-degree relatives should certainly stay away from cannabis, but the idea that it serves as a lone cause of schizophrenia is clearly not the case,” Earleywine concludes.
Myth #3. All Indicas make you sleepy; All Sativas are energizing.
If you’ve ever used cannabis, chances are you’re familiar with this oft-touted rule of thumb about how different strains produce markedly different effects. But “Hawaii” Mike Salman, co-founder of cannabis-infused dining concept Chef For Higher, says the difference between Indica and Sativa strains are not as clear-cut as some make it out to be.
“The chemical compounds will vary even if it’s the same strain—just like grapes in a vineyard,” Salman explains. “It would be great for this to be so clear and simple but, unfortunately, it’s just marketing that started in the black market and is now being adopted by damn near everyone.”
Salman thinks there are more nuanced factors to consider when discussing the effects of Sativa and Indica-dominant strains. For one, the sheer variation between strains makes it nearly impossible to determine the relative purity of one strain over another. “If you’re not smoking a landrace strain [a cannabis strain that has never been cross-bred], I can guarantee it’s not pure Indica or Sativa; it’s a hybrid,” says Salman.
Since Indicas and Sativas rarely exist in a pure form, it’s better to consider each strain based on your personal reaction to it rather than a broad definition that may or not hold true. “The effects you feel are generated by the chemical compounds found in the plant coupled with you—your individual self and endocannabinoid system—along with factors such as mood, blood sugar levels, if you’re hungry, tired, etc,” Salman notes.
Myth #4. Cannabis has no medical benefits
“The marijuana plant is among the most studied biologically active substances of modern times,” says Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). Despite being the subject of over 29,000 scientific papers, according to Armentano, cannabis’ well-documented benefits continue to be refuted.
“The totality of peer-reviewed research is far greater than that which exists for most conventional pharmaceuticals, such as acetaminophen (22,459 total studies), ibuprofen (13,785 total studies) or adderall (216 total studies),” Armentato points out.
What’s more, many reputable sources have confirmed the relative safety of cannabis and acknowledged the ever-growing list of medical uses of the plant, including the National Academy of Sciences. As Arementato puts it, “Cannabis possesses an extensive history of human use dating back thousands of years and ample empirical evidence of the plant’s relative safety and efficacy.”
Myth #5. CBD derived from cannabis works differently than CBD that comes from hemp
CBD, the non-psychoactive element of the cannabis plant, is having a moment. Since the recent legalization of hemp, CBD, or cannabidiol, has cropped up everywhere: vitamins, candy, moisturizers—even in your morning coffee.
So, what’s with the hype? CBD delivers many of the medical benefits of cannabis—such as relief from pain, anxiety, and inflammation—without the high. As with THC, users and researchers alike are fixated on maximizing its potential benefits. When it comes to CBD, the debate is often centered around how hemp-derived CBD products compare to those that come from cannabis.
“There is no molecular, pharmacological, or chemical differences between the CBD found on cannabis vs. hemp,” says Jahan Marcu, Ph.D, co-founder of the International Research Center on Cannabis and Mental Health. “They are the same species of plant, grown for different reasons, that produce the same ingredients. CBD from hemp, CBD from cannabis—they are the same.”
Rather than debate the efficacy of hemp vs. cannabis-derived CBD extracts, users should focus on how to reap the full suite of benefits from CBD. “Pure CBD has a lot of medical potential. The real question that science needs to answer is: do CBD-rich whole plant extracts work differently?” points out Dr. Jeffrey Chen, founder and Executive Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative.
Chen is referencing “The Entourage Effect”: the belief that combining the active compounds in cannabis has a greater impact than just CBD alone. “It’s a theory that has some early evidence behind it, but the science is still in its infancy,” says Chen. “The vast majority of what we know about CBD has been from research on pure CBD—there has been very little research on CBD-rich whole plant extracts.”
To make the most of CBD, users should seek the ideal synergistic benefits for their condition. In other words, you need to experiment with CBD that contains different cannabinoids and essential oils and weigh the pros and cons for yourself.