Happy 4/20! To help you celebrate responsibly, here are three common marijuana myths, debunked by the authors of Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? 
Marijuana is Safer was Scribd’s most-read book of the year in 2010, when we offered it for a free download. Since then, the nation has seen expansive marijuana laws go into effect, especially in Colorado. The argument in Marijuana is Safer — that the public health outcomes of pot legalization make it a policy no-brainer — were what won the day in Colorado. As the fight for reasonable marijuana regulation continues the book will continue to be important for activists and politicians.
Have you heard these myths repeated in the media? Don’t be fooled — learn the facts behind the humble cannabis plant and its much-maligned psychoactive properties…
This is an excerpt from Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? It has been adapted for the web.
The origins of cannabis prohibition are steeped in prejudice, misinformation, and fear mongering. Inflammatory accusations against marijuana and marijuana consumers are typically unsubstantiated, while evidence refuting these claims often goes ignored.
Today, the U.S. government and many law enforcement officials continue to justify the need for cannabis prohibition by promoting alarmist myths that distort the truth about marijuana. Some of these distortions, such as the claim that pot smoking is linked to violent and psychotic behavior, date back to the “Reefer Madness” era of the 1930s. Other myths, like the claim that today’s cannabis is highly addictive, are more recent yet equally specious. Nonetheless, this propaganda serves as the basis for the criminal prohibition of marijuana today.
Therefore, we want to dispel some of the more prominent myths about cannabis by providing sound scientific, health, criminal justice, and economic data. We hope that you will keep these facts in mind the next time you hear government officials spreading lies about cannabis.
- MYTH: Using marijuana will inevitably lead to the use of “harder” drugs like cocaine and heroin.
- FACT: The overwhelming majority of marijuana users never try another illicit substance.
Although pot is consistently referred to as a “gateway drug,” the authorities neglect to mention that virtually everyone who has ever used cannabis tried tobacco and alcohol first. Yet it is hard to imagine that even the most ardent prohibitionist would argue that this sequential correlation would justify criminally prohibiting the use of booze or tobacco by adults.
It should come as no surprise that the majority of people who use highly dangerous drugs like heroin or crack cocaine have previously used the far more popular and safer drug marijuana. But despite pot’s popularity, Americans’ use of other illicit substances remains comparatively low. Data provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicates that only 3.5 percent of U.S. citizens have ever tried crack, and fewer than 2 percent of Americans have ever tried heroin. As for cocaine, the next most commonly used illicit drug in America after cannabis, fewer than 15 percent of Americans have tried it.
But what about those minority of cannabis users who do go on to use other illicit drugs? Isn’t the pot to blame? Not at all. In fact, experts generally identify “environmental circumstances,” not the prior use of a drug, as the primary reason why a handful of people transition from the use of marijuana to harder drugs.
If U.S. policymakers legalized marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol—thereby allowing its sale to be regulated by licensed, state-authorized distributors rather than by criminal entrepreneurs and pushers of various other, hard drugs—the likelihood is that fewer, not more, marijuana smokers would ever go on to try any another illicit substance. In short, it is marijuana prohibition, not the use of marijuana itself, that functions as a gateway to the potential use of harder drugs.
- MYTH: Marijuana is highly addictive. Millions of Americans seek treatment every year because they become dependent upon marijuana.
- FACT: Marijuana lacks the physical and psychological dependence liability associated with other intoxicants—including tobacco and alcohol. Very few cannabis users voluntarily seek drug treatment for pot “addiction.” The majority of marijuana smokers in drug treatment were arrested for pot possession and ordered into treatment as a condition of their probation.
Is cannabis addictive? Let’s look at what the science tells us. Numerous reports, including one by the prestigious British medical journal the Lancet and another cited in the New York Times, have found cannabis’s risk of physical or psychological dependence to be mild compared to most other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. In fact, two experts in the field—Drs. Jack E. Henningfield of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse and Neal L. Benowitz of the University of California at San Francisco—reported to the New York Times that pot’s addiction potential is no greater than caffeine’s.
According to a report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, fewer than 10 percent of those who try cannabis ever meet the clinical criteria for a diagnosis of “drug dependence” (based on DSM-III-R criteria). By contrast, investigators reported that 32 percent of tobacco users, 23 percent of heroin users, 17 percent of cocaine users, and 15 percent of alcohol users meet the criteria for “drug dependence.”
- MYTH: Smoking marijuana impairs driving in a manner that is worse than alcohol. Marijuana consumption is responsible for tens of thousands of traffic accidents every year.
- FACT: Marijuana intoxication appears to play, at most, a minor role in traffic injuries.
While it is well established that alcohol consumption increases motor vehicle accident risk, evidence of marijuana’s culpability in on-road driving accidents and injury is nominal by comparison. That’s not to say that smoking marijuana won’t temporarily impair psychomotor skills. However, pot’s psychomotor impairment is seldom severe or long lasting, and variations in driving behavior after marijuana consumption are noticeably less pronounced than the impairments exhibited by drunk drivers.
Unlike motorists under the influence of alcohol, individuals who have recently smoked pot are aware of their impairment and try to compensate for it accordingly, either by driving more cautiously or by expressing an unwillingness to drive altogether. As reported in a 2008 Israeli study assessing the impact of marijuana and alcohol on driving performance, “[S]ubjects seemed to be aware of their impairment after THC intake and tried to compensate by driving slower; alcohol seemed to make them overly confident and caused them to drive faster than in control sessions.”
Of course, none of this information is meant to imply that smoking marijuana makes you a “safe” driver. In closed-course and driving-simulator studies, marijuana’s acute effects on driving include minor impairments in tracking (eye-movement control) and reaction time, as well as variation in lateral positioning, and speed.
To summarize, a motorist who has just smoked marijuana is a safer driver than one who has just consumed alcohol (even quantities of alcohol that are well within the legal limit for drinking and driving in most countries), but he or she is arguably not a “safe” driver. As with alcohol or most over-the-counter cold remedies, cannabis consumers are best advised to abstain from operating a motor vehicle for several hours after imbibing, and they should always designate at least one person to act as a sober designated driver.