Recently, a study from the British medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry got a lot of coverage in the media, which boiled the conclusions down to two primary data points:
1. More Americans are using marijuana.
2. Fewer Americans think using marijuana is harmful.
Of course, the third data point they either ignored or buried is that the number of Americans who have a marijuana use disorder has remained virtually the same.
It’s that second data point that has some public policy wonks worried. People just don’t think regularly smoking pot is as risky as they used to. As Roger Roffman, a professor emeritus at University of Washington, School of Social Work told ABC News:
“The idea that marijuana is harmless has been far too widely accepted by people. I want to see that pendulum switch back towards accuracy and for us to be more tuned in to what people need to make informed decisions.”
Let’s burn that straw man right off: nobody is claiming that marijuana use is “harmless.” I’ve seen too many newbies pass out from a dab to believe that. But nothing is harmless; you can drink too much water and die.
However, Roffman and the others who are lamenting the swing of this pendulum on marijuana perception need to have some perspective. This pendulum is just swinging back to reality from the reefer madness.
The perceptions our mainstream society have about marijuana have been pushed so far to the absurd that any accurate and factual understanding about marijuana is naturally going to reduce the fear and stigma around its use.
After all, marijuana was the “demon reefer,” the “Mexican loco weed” that the Greatest Generation was told would lead to “insanity, criminality and death.” They were warned that “if the hideous monster Frankenstein came face to face with the monster of marijuana, he would drop dead of fright.”
It was the “hippie weed,” the “Schedule I narcotic” that the Baby Boomers were told would make them go sterile or alter their baby’s chromosomes. It would make you an amotivated slacker loser with man-boobs and lead you straight into the arms of heroin addiction.
It was the “gateway drug,” the “wacky tobaccy” that Generation X were shown would turn our brains into eggs in a frying pan. Our president even told us that “I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast.”
Even today it’s the “Pot 2.0,” the “not your father’s Woodstock weed” that Millennials are told is so super-potent it will cause you permanent loss of intelligence and consign you to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.
“The general change in risk perception began around 2006 to 2007,” writes ABC News, “around the same time that legislation surrounding marijuana began to change.”
Well, no shit.
After four generations of us being told how terrible marijuana was, in the late 1990s brave activists pushed back against the establishment. They touted the medical benefits of marijuana for those with severe nausea—something even the older generations had some knowledge of as a benefit to cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy—and other severe ailments.
For 10 years, medical marijuana legislation continued to pass in state after state. Nothing bad seemed to have happened. News stories accumulated of patients gaining great relief from marijuana. None of them seemed to turn into crazed axe murders or idiot heroin addicts.
So in 2002, when the government asked, “do you see a great risk in smoking marijuana once or twice a week,” it was not a surprise that barely over half the people said there was a great risk. That’s still half the country that believed four generations of anti-pot propaganda.
Now, another 10 years after medical marijuana has continued to advance and a few states have outright legalized—and the sky still hasn’t fallen—only a third see that great risk from weekly toking.
Also consider, the factor of risk isn’t just to one’s health, but to one’s freedom. As more states and cities have reformed their marijuana laws, even just decriminalization reduces the risk of weekly toking leading to a free ride in a cop car.
Whether or not people think marijuana use is risky and harmful is an irrelevant statistic. How many people are consuming marijuana is interesting, but not the point. The point is whether or not marijuana is actually causing harm to self and others and what policies do we enact to reduce that harm?
So far, the biggest harms from marijuana have resulted from its prohibition. We’re addressing that. Only once prohibition is over nationwide can we accurately assess what, if any, harms there are from its regular use.
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