Facts


Marijuana, Health, and Safety

Facts ChartTo say that marijuana has been given a bad rap over the past few decades is an understatement. If you’re like most Americans, you have been led to believe that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug that has destroyed the lives of millions of teens and adults. You have been encouraged to believe that marijuana causes lung cancer and is a “gateway” to harder drugs. The government has even tried to convince you that most people who use marijuana are losers who sit around on couches all day doing nothing.

What we would like to do is wipe the slate clean and start over. Forget everything you have heard in the past and be open-minded to the truth about marijuana. We are not here to tell you that it is without harms or is some kind of miracle drug. We simply hope you will come to understand that it is far, far less harmful than what your government has told you.

Part of the problem is that many people are simply unfamiliar with marijuana. They have never tried it (or perhaps only tried it a time or two decades ago) and assume the worst. They have been conditioned to think that marijuana use is bad and that people who use it are dangerous or strange or maybe even dirty. They have visions of people using marijuana and being totally zonked out, unable to maintain a regular conversation.

The truth is that marijuana is widely used in a manner quite similar to alcohol. Adults might consume it before enjoying a dinner party with friends. Friends might have a little before engaging in a spirited game of ultimate Frisbee. And spouses – yes, even some couples you know – might imbibe a bit while enjoying a romantic evening together. Concert-goers have even been known to have a puff or two before or during a show – which more likely than not results in them dancing or otherwise enjoying the music, not lying on the ground like lumps.

None of this is “bad” or “wrong” or “immoral.” It is simply something that these responsible adults choose to do. And frequently it is something they choose to do specifically instead of alcohol. And for good reason! Alcohol is more toxic, more addictive, more harmful to the body, more likely to result in injuries, and more likely to lead to interpersonal violence than marijuana.

Below are just a few facts that highlight the very different impacts of these two popular substances on those who consume them and on the broader community.

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Impact on the Consumer

Many people die from alcohol use. Nobody dies from marijuana use. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 37,000 annual U.S. deaths are attributed to alcohol use alone (i.e. this figure does not include accidental deaths). On the other hand, the CDC does not even have a category for deaths caused by the use of marijuana.

People die from alcohol overdoses. There has never been a fatal marijuana overdose. The official publication of the Scientific Research Society, American Scientist, reported that alcohol is one of the most toxic drugs and using just 10 times what one would use to get the desired effect could lead to death. Marijuana is one of – if not the – least toxic drugs, requiring thousands of times the dose one would use to get the desired effect to lead to death. This “thousands of times” is actually theoretical, since there has never been a case of an individual dying from a marijuana overdose. Meanwhile, according to the CDC, hundreds of alcohol overdose deaths occur in the United States each year.

The health-related costs associated with alcohol use far exceed those for marijuana use. Health-related costs for alcohol consumers are eight times greater than those for marijuana consumers, according to an assessment recently published in the British Columbia Mental Health and Addictions Journal. More specifically, the annual cost of alcohol consumption is $165 per user, compared to just $20 per user for marijuana. This should not come as a surprise given the vast amount of research that shows alcohol poses far more – and more significant – health problems than marijuana.

Alcohol use damages the brain. Marijuana use does not. Despite the myths we’ve heard throughout our lives about marijuana killing brain cells, it turns out that a growing number of studies seem to indicate that marijuana actually has neuroprotective properties. This means that it works to protect brain cells from harm. For example, one recent study found that teens who used marijuana as well as alcohol suffered significantly less damage to the white matter in their brains. Of course, what is beyond question is that alcohol damages brain cells.

Alcohol use is linked to cancer. Marijuana use is not. Alcohol use is associated with a wide variety of cancers, including cancers of the esophagus, stomach, colon, lungs, pancreas, liver and prostate. Marijuana use has not been conclusively associated with any form of cancer. In fact, one study recently contradicted the long-time government claim that marijuana use is associated with head and neck cancers. It found that marijuana use actually reduced the likelihood of head and neck cancers. If you are concerned about marijuana being associated with lung cancer, you may be interested in the results of the largest case-controlled study ever conducted to investigate the respiratory effects of marijuana smoking and cigarette smoking. Released in 2006, the study, conducted by Dr. Donald Tashkin at the University of California at Los Angeles, found that marijuana smoking was not associated with an increased risk of developing lung cancer. Surprisingly, the researchers found that people who smoked marijuana actually had lower incidences of cancer compared to non-users of the drug.

Alcohol is more addictive than marijuana. Addiction researchers have consistently reported that marijuana is far less addictive than alcohol based on a number of factors. In particular, alcohol use can result in significant and potentially fatal physical withdrawal, whereas marijuana has not been found to produce any symptoms of physical withdrawal. Those who use alcohol are also much more likely to develop dependence and build tolerance.

Alcohol use increases the risk of injury to the consumer. Marijuana use does not. Many people who have consumed alcohol or know others who have consumed alcohol would not be surprised to hear that it greatly increases the risk of serious injury. Research published in 2011 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, found that 36 percent of hospitalized assaults and 21 percent of all injuries are attributable to alcohol use by the injured person. Meanwhile, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that lifetime use of marijuana is rarely associated with emergency room visits. According to the British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, this is because: “Cannabis differs from alcohol … in one major respect. It does not seem to increase risk-taking behavior. This means that cannabis rarely contributes to violence either to others or to oneself, whereas alcohol use is a major factor in deliberate self-harm, domestic accidents and violence.” Interestingly enough, some research has even shown that marijuana use has been associated with a decreased risk of injury.

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Impact on the Community

Alcohol use contributes to aggressive and violent behavior. Marijuana use does not. Studies have repeatedly shown that alcohol, unlike marijuana, contributes to the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior. An article published in the Journal of Addictive Behaviors reported that “alcohol is clearly the drug with the most evidence to support a direct intoxication-violence relationship,” whereas “cannabis reduces the likelihood of violence during intoxication.”

Alcohol use is a major factor in violent crimes. Marijuana use is not. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 25% to 30% of violent crimes in the United States are linked to the use of alcohol. According to a report from the U.S. Dept. of Justice, that translates to about 5,000,000 alcohol-related violent crimes per year. By contrast, the government does not even track violent acts specifically related to marijuana use, as the use of marijuana has not been associated with violence. (Of course, we should note that marijuana prohibition, by creating a widespread criminal market, is associated with acts of violence.)

Alcohol use contributes to the likelihood of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Marijuana use does not. Alcohol is a major contributing factor in the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault. This is not to say that alcohol causes these problems; rather, its use makes it more likely that an individual prone to such behavior will act on it. For example, a study conducted by the Research Institute on Addictions found that among individuals who were chronic partner abusers, the use of alcohol was associated with significant increases in the daily likelihood of male-to-female physical aggression, but the use of marijuana was not. Specifically, the odds of abuse were eight times higher on days when men were drinking; the odds of severe abuse were 11 times higher. The website for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) identifies alcohol as the “most commonly used chemical in crimes of sexual assault” and provides information on an array of other drugs that have been linked to sexual violence. Given the fact that marijuana is so accessible and widely used, it is quite telling that the word “marijuana” is not included.

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Frequently Asked Questions

•  Is marijuana addictive?

According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base:

“Compared to most other drugs … dependence among marijuana users is relatively rare … [A]lthough few marijuana users develop dependence, some do. But they appear to be less likely to do so than users of other drugs (including alcohol and nicotine), and marijuana dependence appears to be less severe than dependence on other drugs.”

Does using marijuana lead to harder drugs?

According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base:

“There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs … There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone on the basis of its particular physiological effect … Instead, the legal status of marijuana makes it a gateway drug.”

The World Health Organization noted that any gateway effect associated with marijuana use may actually be due to marijuana prohibition because “exposure to other drugs when purchasing cannabis on the black-market, increases the opportunity to use other illicit drugs.”

Is marijuana more dangerous than tobacco?

In a word: no. Marijuana is not more dangerous than tobacco. Research has shown that marijuana causes far less harm than tobacco.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, tobacco was responsible for 435,000 deaths in 2000, or nearly 1,200 deaths per day. On the other hand, marijuana has never caused a fatal overdose in more than 5,000 years of recorded use.

It is important to note that the act of smoking anything is harmful to the lungs, and in this regard, marijuana is not completely benign. According to Understanding Marijuana (2002), a book by Dr. Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., marijuana smokers sometimes exhibit symptoms similar to those experienced by tobacco smokers — coughing, wheezing, and bronchitis.

However, these harms can be minimized by ingesting marijuana orally, with devices known as vaporizers, or by using higher-potency marijuana, which reduces the harms associated with smoking while still delivering marijuana’s medical benefits.

Other research shows that daily marijuana use does not lead to increased rates of respiratory illness, and that smoking both tobacco and marijuana is worse than smoking just one.

Unlike tobacco, research has never shown that marijuana increases rates of lung cancer or other cancers usually associated with cigarette smoking. In a 10-year, 65,000-patient study conducted at the Kaiser-Permanente HMO and published in 1997, cigarette smokers had much higher rates of cancer of the lung, mouth, and throat than non-smokers, but marijuana smokers who didn’t smoke tobacco had no such increase. And in May 2006, Dr. Donald Tashkin of UCLA presented results of a new study showing that even very heavy marijuana smokers had no increased risk of lung cancer.

Has anyone ever died from marijuana?

In all of recorded medical literature, no one has ever died from a marijuana overdose.

In 2001, a detailed examination of the health and psychological effects of marijuana use from the National Drug and Alcohol Centre at the University of New South Wales in Australia noted that marijuana “makes no known contribution to deaths and a minor contribution to morbidity [illness].”

In a 1998 editorial, The Lancet, an esteemed British medical journal, wrote, “On the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill-effect on health.”

Can marijuana use cause cancer?

Marijuana smokers do not have an increased risk of premature death or cancer. According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base:

“There is no conclusive evidence that marijuana causes cancer in humans, including cancers usually related to tobacco use. … More definitive evidence that habitual marijuana smoking leads or does not lead to respiratory cancer awaits the results of well-designed case control epidemiological studies.”

Can marijuana cause fertility problems?

According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base:

“[T]he effect of cannabinoids on the capacity of sperm to fertilize eggs is reversible and is observed at [concentrations] which are higher than those likely to be experienced by marijuana smokers … The well-documented inhibition of reproductive functions by THC is thus not a serious concern for evaluating the short-term medical use of marijuana or specific cannabinoids.”

Can marijuana cause other life-threatening health problems?

According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, “Epidemiological data indicate that in the general population marijuana use is not associated with increased mortality.”

Does marijuana cause amotivational syndrome?

According to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine’s 1999 report, Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, “When heavy marijuana use accompanies these symptoms, the drug is often cited as the cause, but no convincing data demonstrate a causal relationship between marijuana smoking and these behavioral characteristics.”

Is today’s marijuana more potent or dangerous?

Claims of a dramatic increase in marijuana potency are commonly based on the assertion that marijuana used in the 1960s and 1970s contained only 1% THC (the main psychoactive compound in marijuana). But these claims are based on very small numbers of samples that may have been improperly stored, according to Understanding Marijuana, a book by Dr. Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., a psychology professor and researcher at the State University of New York at Albany. Furthermore, marijuana with just 1% THC is not psychoactive — that is, it doesn’t produce a “high.” So if the 1% figure is true, the drug’s rapid increase in popularity was based on marijuana so weak that it wasn’t even capable of producing the intended effect.

Earleywine further explained that the moderate increases in potency that have occurred “may not justify alarm. THC is not toxic at high doses like alcohol, nicotine, or many other common drugs. High-potency marijuana may actually minimize risk for lung problems because less [smoke] is required to achieve desired effects.” Thus, even if today’s marijuana were stronger, it would not be more dangerous.

Are people actually arrested for marijuana?

Yes. In 2011 alone, there were 757,969 marijuana-related arrests in the United States. (89% of these were for possession alone.) That’s one marijuana arrest every 41 seconds and more people arrested than the entire population of Alaska.

How much does marijuana prohibition cost?

By adding law enforcement costs and depriving governments of the revenue that could be gained by taxing marijuana sales, prohibition costs U.S. taxpayers $41.8 billion per year, according to a 2007 estimate by public policy researcher Jon B. Gettman, Ph.D. The report, “Lost Taxes and Other Costs of Marijuana Laws,” is based primarily on government estimates of the U.S. marijuana supply, prices, and arrests.

A more conservative 2010 estimate by Harvard University economist Dr. Jeffrey Miron is still staggering at $17.4 billion per year, including $8.74 billion in savings and $8.74 billion in tax revenue.

Would repealing marijuana prohibition make it easier for teens to buy marijuana?

Marijuana prohibition has not prevented a dramatic increase in marijuana use by teenagers. In fact, the overall rate of marijuana use in the U.S. has risen by roughly 4,000% since marijuana was first outlawed in 1937, and independent studies by RAND Europe and the U.S. National Research Council have reported that marijuana prohibition appears to have little or no impact on rates of use.

Prohibition may actually increase teen access to marijuana. Sellers of regulated products like tobacco and alcohol can be fined or lose their licenses if they sell to minors. Prohibition guarantees that marijuana dealers are not subject to any such regulations. Drug dealers don’t ask for ID.

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