A comprehensive answer to the question of whether using marijuana is dangerous, with a focus on the plethora of research indicating that most users do not incur cannabis-related harm.
Is there evidence to support the argument that marijuana consumption is “dangerous”? While proponents of this argument would want you to believe that weed hurts the health of all users, research indicates that it is really not dangerous for the majority of users but, instead, its harm potential only applies only to a small select group of users and a limited number of cases. This finding brings into question how weed can still be illegal nowadays under the United States federal law, while alcohol and nicotine, which have higher associated risks, are not prohibited. In the midst of changing policies on cannabis possession in certain U.S. states, such Oregon, and in countries around the globe, here is the latest research on any associated danger for users.
Weed’s Potential for Harm & High-Risk Users
It is important to start by explaining that marijuana-related harm does not affect most users. Instead, its danger potential is limited to a select group of users who are deemed to be high risk and form a minority of all those who consume it.
In general, users’ health risks are higher than most if they start young or have been using for a long time. A user with one or both of these qualities is thought to be high-risk by many scientists, most of whom would likely add that long-term users are more likely to become dependent on marijuana than infrequent users. But, what you may hear less often is that relatively small amount of cannabis users become dependent on weed. A 2010 study by Lopez-Quintero et al. demonstrated this exact point.
Did you also know that the percentage of addicted users is lower than for nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine? In reality, only a minority of users are dependent on cannabis. Roughly 10 percent of users develop a marijuana addiction, according to WebMD. Yes, this number is relatively small.
Case-Specific Risks of Marijuana Use
Also, high-risk practices must be taken into account as a factor in a harmful result. For example, the associated health risks increase with the intensity of use. This means that an intense smoker is more at risk than an occasional one. As for how many users are “intense” or frequent, these people form only a minority of the total users.
If we delve further into frequent vs. occasional users, the research indicates that cannabis can encourage pre-existing vulnerabilities to mental illness. For example, a 2012 study by Rapp et al. found that schizophrenics who smoked weed had more disease-associated brain alterations than non-smokers.
However, researchers have yet to establish causality between susceptibility to mental illness and cannabis consumption. The connection is admittedly complex and not enough research exists to understand the relationship well.
Cannabis Has Less Risks & Harm Than Alcohol or Tobacco
As for the research regarding tobacco and alcohol consumption as it relates to marijuana, a growing number of studies indicate that the former two substances have more associated risks than weed. In a 2015 study published in Scientific Reports, for example, researchers concluded that alcohol presented the biggest risk of mortality, followed by nicotine next, with cannabis as the least risky of the materials they tested.
The research team concluded that cannabis was about 114 times less deadly than alcohol. The study revealed that the risk of death associated with alcohol had been gravely underestimated by researchers.
Did you know that, on average, six people died of alcohol poisoning every day from 2010-2012 in the U.S., as per the CDC? Furthermore, if you were to search online for statistics on cannabis overdose mortalities nowadays, you would find none. There are no reported deaths by weed overdose. Marijuana cannot lead to death by overdose, unlike alcohol.
As for tobacco, numerous studies have proved that it causes cancer. Cigarette smoke contains 43 compounds known to be cancer-causing. Meanwhile, there is no clear causal connection between cannabis and deadly disease.
Despite all of this evidence, however, tobacco and alcohol both remain legal in the U.S., while marijuana has a Schedule 1 drug classification under the federal Controlled Substances Act. All of this evidence seems to suggest that lawmakers are basing guidelines on emotions and guesswork rather than scientific evidence. They also may believe the marijuana gateway theory, although it has flaws too.
Cannabis is Not a Gateway to Hard Drugs
The basis of the marijuana gateway hypothesis is that the risks of progressing from weed to hard drugs like heroin or cocaine are high. However, the research shows a very different picture.
Many studies show that marijuana is not a precursor to using illegal drugs in most cases. In reality, the majority of people do not go on to use cocaine, heroin or other hard drugs, explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Also, the social interactions and other environmental factors that affect someone’s risks of using hard drugs must be taken into consideration. Weed is easier to get ahold of than cocaine, for example, which could explain why some people use it before their friends encourage them to try cocaine.
Thus, the marijuana gateway theory does not hold up to the research. As the authors of the study titled “Reassessing the Marijuana Gateway Effect” explained, “while the gateway theory has enjoyed popular acceptance, scientists have always had their doubts. Our study shows that these doubts are justified”.
In fact, not only does cannabis lack the dangerous image that some lawmakers would want you to believe, but it actually has medical benefits for users.
Weed for Medical Use: What are the Benefits
Marijuana can alleviate vomiting and nausea, as well as lower anxiety. It can also reduce and prevent glaucoma. As per the National Eye Institute, weed lowers the pressure inside the eye, which may slow the progression of glaucoma.
Weed can help to reduce pain in specific medical cases too, thanks to the tetrahydrocannabinol or THC ingredient in it. Some users explain that marijuana relieves muscle aches associated with multiple sclerosis, with research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal backing up this statement. The THC compound may reduce the number of muscle spasms for multiple sclerosis sufferers as well.
As for the CBD or cannabidiol compound in cannabis, research indicates its positive effects as an epileptic treatment, with the potential to control seizures in patients. For those with long-term, uncontrolled seizures, the hope that medical marijuana provides can be life changing.
Furthermore, research continues regarding the relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the brain receptors that marijuana activates, called CB1. Research continues to determine if cannabis is a viable treatment for people suffering from PTSD.
The Call for Legal Changes for Cannabis
On a federal level in the U.S., marijuana is prohibited, and the same holds true in several other countries. However, even when weed is illegal, the penalties do not deter everyone from using it, no matter how strict the law. You need only look so far as the failed U.S. “War on Drugs” to prove this point.
Also, criminalizing weed has high enforcement costs and clogs up the criminal justice system, making for disastrous effects. Year after year, in countries that prohibit cannabis, people are charged for personal possession and prosecuted. Drug enforcement costs around the globe are staggeringly high at upwards of $100 billion spent in this area.
Plus, it is simply bad policy to restrict personal freedoms to help enforce cannabis. Few of the people being sentenced for possessing small amounts of weed would otherwise have criminal records. These convicted offenders now have barriers in employment and discord with their families over their arrests. The social costs are many, from increasing unemployment rates to divided families. Also, the police and legal resources being put toward enforcing laws prohibiting personal cannabis consumption could be better put elsewhere.
Rather than decriminalizing cannabis, which refers to reducing penalties for small amounts for personal use, we instead call for legalization of weed, which would remove penalties altogether. Given the limited risks of cannabis, we support this viewpoint fully. It does not make sense to prohibit weed federally because of its risks to only a limited group or in a minority of cases.
Plus, legalization would provide the federal government with the opportunity to regulate marijuana possession in a way that lowers risks for the limited group of people and cases where its possession could be problematic. With proper health-focused regulations and implementation, cannabis harm can be eliminated; decriminalization and prohibition cannot achieve these same results. Public health, though, must remain the primary focus of the regulation for it to be the most effective.
Summing Up the Evidence on Weed Being Dangerous
In conclusion, the data on the dangerous effects of weed on users is weak. As demonstrated above, marijuana-related harm only applies to a small sub-group of frequent users who began at an early age or users in specific cases, and not in every instance either.
The legalization of cannabis would be a positive step in the U.S. and many other countries, especially given that it is not really “dangerous”. As for risks to the limited population, educating people about the vulnerabilities would be helpful in dissipating any stigma that remains regarding weed usage. The reality is that no cannabis-related harm will affect the majority of users and the research to date backs up this point.