Marijuana: Myths versus research

  • Published
  • By Jon Fishman
  • Edwards Drug Demand Reduction Program
Marijuana is the nation's most popular illicit drug, and over the past decade 14 states have legalized marijuana for medical purposes with twelve others looking at similar legislation. On Nov. 2, California voters will have the opportunity to vote on the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana. While opinions on the matter appear to be evenly split, what is most important is that people know the facts about delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Here are five marijuana myths versus facts everyone should be aware of.

Why should you care?

Regardless of the outcome of the pending election, Air Force policy will not change for Edwards personnel. Look for more articles to come concerning this matter, including a base legal discussion.

Myth #1: Marijuana is all natural so it's safe.

Fact: Marijuana smoke contains 50 to 70% more carcinogenic hydrocarbons than tobacco. Using marijuana may promote cancer of the respiratory tract and disrupt the immune system, increase the risk of chronic cough, bronchitis, and emphysema, as well as cancer of the head, neck, and lungs. Marijuana can cause the heart rate, normally 70 to 80 beats per minute, to increase by 20 to 50 beats per minute. In some cases it can even double. In 2001, marijuana was a contributing factor in more than 110,000 emergency department visits in the United States as reported by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Recent research by the American Psychological Association has indicated that regular and long-term marijuana users also experience a number of cognitive deficits to include memory loss, concentration and recall difficulties and impaired judgment.

Saying a substance is all natural does not make it safe; poison ivy is all natural, but you wouldn't want to smoke it.

Myth #2: Marijuana is not addictive.

Fact: Earlier studies on the addiction potential and psychological effects may have found limited effects, but there are two factors that may be attributed to a change in the recent research. The THC content found in most marijuana cigarettes in the 1980s was approximately 3.5%, while the average THC content last year was found to be between 10-14%. The other possible reason for the difference in research results is the increased number of studies and validity of those studies. This is why the APA, Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, as well as other national organizations are recommending caution when considering the implications of this drug.

A recent survey by the SAMHSA found that approximately 4.2 million Americans are either abusing or dependent on marijuana, with twice as many people being treated for marijuana addiction as prescription drug abuse. Marijuana is the number one treated illicit drug in the United States.

The University of Arkansas Center for Addiction Research found that marijuana users diagnosed as dependent experience withdrawal symptoms that can lead to relapse equal to or worse than other addictive substances, such as alcohol. Those seeking treatment for marijuana dependence relapse at the same rate as those seeking treatment for heroin, cocaine and alcohol dependence.

Myth #3: Marijuana helps calm people.

Fact: A 2010 Harvard University Report found that marijuana use has been linked to anxiety and with higher doses, leading to intense anxiety. Although some people find that marijuana calms them down, the most commonly reported side effects of marijuana are intense anxiety and panic attacks.

Marijuana is also linked to mood disorders, may induce manic episodes and increases rapid cycling between manic and depressive moods. Regular marijuana use may also trigger depression in people otherwise free from mood disorders. The results of several large observational studies also strongly suggest that using marijuana can increase the risk of developing psychosis, particularly in young people.

"Regular use of marijuana can lead to addiction and other mental health problems, especially in people who are genetically vulnerable," said Dr. Michael Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter.

Research also shows a link between frequent marijuana use and increased violent behavior as reported by HHS and SAMHSA. According to the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program, more than 41% of male arrestees in sampled U.S. cities tested positive for marijuana.

Myth #4: Marijuana is a good medical alternative for many health-related problems.

Fact: The use of marijuana for medicinal purposes has been legal in California since 1996 for patients diagnosed with any debilitating illness. However the use of smoked marijuana among patients has been rejected by the American Medical Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the American Glaucoma Society, the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Cancer Society.

Myth #5: Smoking marijuana on a weekend is no worse than drinking.

Fact: Marijuana stays in the system longer than alcohol and affects the brain, impairing cognition and memory for a far longer period of time. That means that an individual who smokes on the weekend will arrive to work the following week impaired, which puts everyone at risk. Not only is the individual driving to work while drugged, but he or she may be working on critical and dangerous equipment, carrying a weapon or treating patients while impaired.

Remember, regardless of the outcome of the pending election, Air Force policy will not change for Edwards' personnel. Look for more articles to come concerning this matter, including a base legal discussion.

For any further questions on this matter or the latest research, please contact Jon Fishman, M.S. CCPS, Substance Abuse Prevention Specialist at 275-3395 or