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Four Big Ways the Media Got the Marijuana Study Wrong

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sarra22 via Getty Images
sarra22 via Getty Images

Major new study shows marijuana is extremely safe, and definitely far safer than alcohol. Media somehow gets it all backwards.

You might have seen the recent headlines: "Cannabis as addictive as heroin, major new study finds," "Study finally demolishes claims that smoking pot is harmless," and "20 years of marijuana research shows ill effects of chronic use."

I'm here to tell you: don't believe the hype. These media reports are shoddy, sensationalistic and plain wrong. I've read the original paper, and what it actually shows is that marijuana is remarkably safe!

How can this be, you might ask? Good question! Let me show you the top four ways the lamestream media got the study results entirely backwards, making it seem as if cannabis is much more dangerous than the study results show, when put in proper context.


Every media report highlighted the study's claim that marijuana use doubles the risk of an automobile accident. OK, we'll give them half a point, because that is what the study reported.

But not one reporter put that figure in context. You know what else doubles your risk of an accident? Having two or more passengers on board. A young person with three passengers has a four times greater chance of an accident, same thing if they're driving at night. Other things that increase your risk of accident in this range include being pregnant, and driving 65km/hr in a 60km/hr zone.

In comparison, a legal blood alcohol content of just 0.04% increases a young driver's chance of an automobile accident by about 20 TIMES, and that's low enough to pass a breathalyzer test! So the drunk can be 10 times as impaired as the pot smoker, and still be street legal. By this standard, cannabis seems much less worrisome.

At the cut-off point of 0.05 BAC, a young person suffers a 30 times increase in accident risk. Meanwhile, texting while driving increases your chance of an accident by about 23 times. By neglecting to mention these figures, the media gave a false impression that the risk of using cannabis is on par with these other, much more risky behaviours.

Of course everyone should avoid any impediment to perfect driving, and that includes driving high or talking too much to the person next to you. But in terms of public policy, what this study really shows is that enforcement and education efforts should stop worrying about pot, and focus on the behaviours that are causing most of the accidents and injuries: drunk and distracted drivers.


Every media report went into detail about the study's effects of cannabis on the intellect, but again they focused on the wrong thing and got the story backwards.

Media outlets claimed "regular cannabis use causes a person's IQ to drop over time" when the study found that marijuana use had no permanent effect on the IQ of people who started using cannabis as adults.

The only group where there seemed to be some form of permanent IQ drop was "the small proportion of cannabis users who initiated in adolescence and persisted in daily use throughout their 20s and into their 30s."

So basically, only the kids who started smoking several joints a day starting around age 12 and continuing into their 30s had any cognitive issues. Everyone else was fine.

The study says "No effects were found in those who initiated later, or in daily users who ceased use earlier in adulthood."

So the headlines should actually have read "Study finds marijuana use has no long-term effect on the IQs of people who started using cannabis as adults" -- but where would be the fun in that?


The headlines blared that this study shows how marijuana causes schizophrenia and psychosis. But here's what the study actually has to say after analyzing 20 years of research on the issue:

"It is difficult to decide whether cannabis use has had any effects on psychosis incidence, because even if the relationship were causal, cannabis use would produce a very modest increase in incidence."

The study also notes that there has been no public increase in rates of psychosis, while cannabis rates have increased dramatically. This indicates that cannabis does not cause schizophrenia, but that it might trigger problems in those few people who already have latent mental health issues.

Once again, a comparison to alcohol's effects on the mind puts the very minimal risks of cannabis in perspective. There is significant loss of brain tissue in chronic alcoholics. Alcohol consumption is behind about 10% to 24% of all dementia cases, and about 25% of alcoholics develop panic and anxiety disorders. Even just alcohol withdrawal can cause psychosis and hallucinations.

What are some other things that put you at a definite risk of psychosis, unlike the difficult-to-find-because-it-isn't-there connection with cannabis? Well, serious psychosis risks include being born by caesarean, or with a forceps delivery, or just being born in the winter, or being raised in the city, being an immigrant or getting divorced. When the risks are put in perspective, we see that cannabis isn't so scary after all.


British newspaper the Telegraph ran their story on this study with the incredibly misleading headline "Cannabis as addictive as heroin."

Of course the study makes no such claim! They simply state that cannabis can be "addicting" for some users, just like anything can be addicting, including alcohol and heroin. They define addicting as "experiencing difficulty stopping" without any reference to specific symptoms of the degree of difficulty. In fact, the study makes it clear that these substances have very different effects, and the study's author has even issued a statement that the media misinterpreted his results.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and fever, none of which occur with cannabis. For cannabis withdrawal, the study explains "the most common withdrawal symptoms include anxiety, insomnia, appetite disturbance and depression."

Since cannabis is used medically to treat anxiety and sleep disorders, as well as to stimulate appetite and improve the mood, there's no wonder that stopping use will also stop these beneficial effects. However, for non-medical users, these mild withdrawal symptoms usually last for a few days at most.

Let's compare these mild symptoms to alcohol withdrawal. A heavy pot smoker who goes cold turkey might have trouble sleeping or working up an appetite, but alcohol withdrawal can cause tremors, hallucinations, seizures, brain damage and death! Woah, suddenly cannabis is looking pretty good!

Withdrawal symptoms from a legal drug like Prozac can last for up to two months, and can include flu-like reactions, headaches, diarrhea, chills, fatigue, and dizziness, plus stranger symptoms like "hyperarousal" and "strange sensations of vision or touch." This is the kind of stuff doctors prescribe because they think cannabis is too risky!

So there you have it folks. Once again we se how lazy reporting and a bias towards sensationalism stokes the flames of cannabis fear without any basis in fact.

Help us replace ignorance with knowledge, and join us in our quest to change the marijuana laws! Join Sensible BC and become part of Canada's largest team working together to repeal marijuana prohibition.


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