Written by: Skylark’s Peer Youth Harm Reduction Team
Skylark’s Peer Youth Harm Reduction Team is composed of peer youth ages 16-24 who work to support Skylark in creating space for young people to talk about drugs, sex and sex work. This blog post aims to challenge stigma and offer unbiased information for/about people who engage in cannabis use.
There is a lot of misinformation out there about cannabis, so Skylark’s Peer Youth Harm Reduction Team are breaking down 7 of the most persistent myths– and giving you the facts instead. If I smoke cannabis, will I be tempted to try other drugs? Will cannabis affect my mental health? Read on to find out the answers to these questions and more!
Myth #1: Cannabis is a gateway drug
A gateway drug is defined by Dictionary.com as “a habit-forming drug that, while not itself addictive, may lead to the use of other addictive drugs.”[i] You may have heard this term thrown around in the “Health” unit of your Phys-Ed class but have you ever wondered about the actual implications of defining cannabis as a gateway drug? First of all, this belief suggests that everyone who smokes pot also uses other drugs which, simply put, is just not true. People who use drugs often seek out the drug or drugs that they enjoy and settle with them, occasionally trying new drugs if they so choose. Cannabis is usually the first illicit drug that people try due to its accessibility in terms of price and availability. This doesn’t mean it is a direct causation of other drug use. A lot of people choose to use drugs as a way of self-exploration. Therefore, cannabis may be a drug that brings people to find they might enjoy trying other drugs, but that does not mean that cannabis causes people to use other drugs.[ii] Let`s use frozen desserts as an analogy. A person tries ice cream for the first time and they have an amazing experience and decide they want to explore other frozen desserts. They do their research, they talk to people they know who may have experience with frozen desserts and they eventually try sorbet. This person decides they do not like sorbet and moves on to gelato. They discover that they love gelato! In this situation, the experience of enjoying ice cream may be correlated with the decision to try other frozen desserts, but in no way did eating the ice cream cause the person to eat other frozen desserts. Whether it is used as comfort food, to socialize or even get out of bed in the morning, the person’s discovery for their love of gelato through ice cream is not necessarily a negative thing and they are the only one’s who can define their relationship with gelato. Harm reduction believes in the safe and informed use of frozen desserts and can help support people who use frozen desserts by providing them with necessary, unbiased information that seems so out of reach within the confines of a high school health class.[iii]
Myth #2: One puff & you are hooked
It is commonly believed that individuals become “addicted” to weed after one puff.[iv] However, this is not necessarily true. While many folks can have strong reactions to weed, especially the first time they try it, this does not mean that it will become an addiction, dependence, or problematic at all. Many people marry the concepts of dependence and addiction, but they can look very different case to case. Dependence refers to when you use a drug to keep yourself functioning the way you want to function. Addiction, on the other hand, is self-defined problematic drug use, for instance, when an individual continues to use a drug despite experiencing undesirable effects.[v] Some people use weed regularly for day-to-day activities, such as going to work or school, preparing for social events, or relaxing after a long day, and that in itself is not evidence of addiction.[vi]
Myth #3: If you overdose on cannabis, you could die.
You may have heard that it is possible to die of a cannabis overdose. We are here to give you all the facts about cannabis overdose, including what it could look like and feel like. Many people define a drug overdose as a lethal dosage of a drug, but technically an overdose describes taking too high a dose/quantity of any drug and experiencing unwanted effects. An overdose could look like having too much alcohol, vomiting, and getting right back to your party. An overdose can also look life threatening; in the case of alcohol, this could result in someone being too drunk and becoming unconscious or choking on their own vomit.[vii] So, what does a cannabis overdose look like? A cannabis overdose varies heavily from person to person and from strain to strain (just as the amount of cannabis needed to overdose varies from person to person). A cannabis overdose on one strain could look different from an overdose on another strain and some strains generally have a more psychoactive high than others do. Despite the difference in affects, cannabis overdoses can generally be identified by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, racing thoughts, light-headedness, anxiety, paranoia, trouble walking, and drowsiness. These symptoms are never fatal, and usually a good remedy is water, sleep, and food if possible.[viii]
Myth #4: If you have mental health challenges, using cannabis will aggravate them and overall worsen your mental health.
An individual’s mental health cannot be easily defined or compared to another person’s mental health. Therefore, when speaking about something as complicated and ever-changing as mental health, we cannot draw broad conclusions like this one. Cannabis has actually been known in some cases to help support an individual’s mental health rather than be a negative influence on it. The anti-medical cannabis lobby contends that since pot has been used recreationally, it has no place as a legitimate medical treatment. Clearly this kind of argument bears little merit since cannabis has been proven to have wide clinical applications. Dr. Jeremy Spiegel, a prominent and tireless advocate for the use of cannabis as medicine, has conducted three studies, two for anxiety and one for depression where medical cannabis has been of great benefit[ix]. Cannabis may not be the best choice for everyone when it comes to supporting mental health and wellbeing, but a lot of people with mental health challenges will vouch for it as being beneficial to them and this cannot be disregarded.[x]
Myth #5: Weed can cause schizophrenia
Over the years, there have been claims that weed can cause schizophrenia in those under the age of 25. This claim has been investigated many times and due to conflicting research results, there is yet to be any definitive proof of this claim. In long-term survey data reported by Statistics Canada, in 1960, less than 5% of the population aged 15 and above reported cannabis use, while in 2015, more than 15% of the same population reported cannabis usage.[xi] During this same time period rates of folks with schizophrenia have remained a constant at approximately 1%.[xii] The significance of these statistics in relation to young people is that schizophrenia is often diagnosed during young adulthood, the exact time when cannabis use is said to possibly induce psychosis.[xiii] If cannabis undeniably caused schizophrenia, we would most definitely be seeing a jump in reported cases of schizophrenia amongst young people. Now, if cannabis caused a person to develop schizophrenia, how do those statistics fit into the equation? Fact: they do not. The most recent studies state that cannabis has a differential risk on susceptible vs. non-susceptible individuals. In other words, young people who have a pre-existing genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia may be at a greater risk to develop symptoms earlier if they choose to use cannabis. If there is no pre-existing genetic susceptibility to schizophrenia, cannabis cannot cause a person to develop schizophrenia.[xiv] Therefore, although research is still indeterminate, it is clear that if a relationship exists, it is not one that should be used to draw generalized conclusions.
Myth #6: Most people who smoke weed are Black
Watching the news or media may have you believe that Black folks (typically those from the Caribbean), are the most likely group of people to use cannabis, this is simply not the case. Cannabis usage has been reported to be about the same across all races, however, the over criminalization of this often targeted group of people has led to this widely spread misconception.[xv] Way back in the 1920s and 30s, when anti-cannabis propaganda in the United States was beginning to pick up steam, Canadians were listening closely.[xvi] Stereotypical images of Black folks were popularized and frequently involved the use of cannabis. These images were largely influenced by racist sentiments at the time and contributed to the association of Black folks with cannabis. Stereotypes from this time have been passed down by generations and continue to affect the lives of Black folks today. [xvii] To help end this dangerous misconception, challenge both your own thinking and that of those around you, by reminding yourself of the origin of these myths.
Myth #7: Under 25, cannabis affects brain development
This myth is one that deserves some serious and science-y unpacking. We‘ve all endured that speech in health class about how cannabis usage while under the age of 25 will greatly (and permanently) impact your cognitive functioning as an adult. We’re here to tell you that the science is simply inconclusive. Not the answer you were hoping for, huh? Let’s start off with what’s true about this myth: the science has repeatedly shown that in the short term, cannabis can have an impairing effect on functions such as short-term memory, reaction times, attention span, learning and decision making. Where it gets sticky is with long-term effects. While some studies have shown that short-term effects can bleed into the long-term, it has been nearly universally found that after a period of abstinence from cannabis the impacts on cognitive function have become nearly undetectable and have returned to the rates seen in those who do not partake in cannabis use.[xviii]
What’s not so cut and dry is the effects on teenagers. Certain studies have linked teenage cannabis use with various social effects such as an inability to regulate certain emotions, higher dropout rates and lower life satisfaction. The problem with many of these scientific studies on the topic is that they largely do not consider individual life circumstances when drawing conclusions about long-term effects on an individual. This can mean that the thing they think is causing the effect (cannabis) can be nothing but a part of someone’s everyday life and the real effects stem from other extenuating circumstances.[xix]
In regards to neuropsychological effects, a 40 year long New Zealand study detailed that in those who were defined as having “cannabis dependence”, there was a 6-point drop in IQ between the ages of 13 and 38. However, the same study mentions that IQ is often dependent on one’s level of schooling, and the study did not take into account individual life circumstances that influence IQ performance.[xx]
Long story short, the effects are inconclusive and the results of studies are often contradictory. However new science is being published every day so it’s important to stay informed!
[xi] Statistics Canada. “Economic Insights Experimental Estimates of Cannabis Consumption in Canada, 1960 to 2015.” Agricultural Water Use in Canada, Government of Canada, Statistics Canada, 2 Feb. 2018, www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-626-x/11-626-x2017077-eng.htm.
[xii] Public Health Agency of Canada. “ARCHIVED: Chapter 3: A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada – Schizophrenia.” Canada.ca, 26 Mar. 2012, www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/reports-publications/report-on-mental-illnesses-canada/schizophrenia.html
[xiii] Hill, Matthew. “Perspective: Be Clear about the Real Risks.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 23 Sept. 2015, www.nature.com/articles/525S14a?WT.ec_id=NATURE-
[xv] Browne, Rachel. “Black and Indigenous People Are Overrepresented in Canada’s Weed Arrests.” VICE News, News, 18 Apr. 2018, news.vice.com/en_ca/article/d35eyq/black-and-indigenous-people-are-overrepresented-in-canadas-weed-arrests
[xvi] Grimm, Beca. “The Racist Strain of ‘Marijuana’.” Splinter, Splinternews.com, 29 Jan. 2018, splinternews.com/the-racist-strain-of-marijuana-1822511845.
[xvii] Rankin, Jim, and Sandro Contenta. “Toronto Marijuana Arrests Reveal ‘Startling’ Racial Divide.” Thestar.com, Toronto Star, 6 July 2017, www.thestar.com/news/insight/2017/07/06/toronto-marijuana-arrests-reveal-startling-racial-divide.html.
[xviii] Weir, Kirsten. “Marijuana and the Developing Brain.” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, Nov. 2015, www.apa.org/monitor/2015/11/marijuana-brain.aspx.
[xx] Jacobus, Joanna, and Susan F. Tapert. Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3930618/.