Before starting this article, I wrote an article called “Navigating Sobriety as a University Student,” where I discussed my experience with cannabis dependency and different forms of sobriety. I also discussed the experience of being a sober student at university, when it feels like university culture and social norms are to partake in alcohol or drugs.
While writing that article, I felt that many people are misinformed about cannabis in general. It shocked me that some people I talked to were consuming high amounts of cannabis (particularly THC), but were misinformed about the way cannabis can affect individuals not just mentally, but also physically.
I was sitting under a tree on campus trying to figure out who I should talk to about misconceptions surround cannabis, other than just simply talking with Campus Health, when I saw one of the Food For Thought Club team members setting up some posters and pamphlets to advertise their now-passed discussion about harm reduction, legalization, and criminalization of drugs.
We had a great conversation and I emailed them a list of questions, knowing their club, in their team members words: “is all about having important and interesting conversations on social issues like this [cannabis misconceptions and harm reduction].”
So, I decided to write this article. Here are the 4 main misconceptions surrounding cannabis I heard when talking to students about cannabis consumption.
I want to preface this by stating that I decided to discuss these topics with the Food For Thought Club, specifically the team members. In no way did I expect the Food For Thought team members to be experts in the field of medicine and the medical effects of cannabis, nor did I expect them to be experts in racial justice. However, their goal as a club is to encourage students to explore topics like these, and start more important discussions. I encourage readers to seek medical advice for physical and or mental health if cannabis has affected them negatively. I also encourage students to dig deeper into this topic themselves as well.
- Stigma surrounding cannabis usage is not as prevalent or even nonexistent in Canada because of the legalization of cannabis.
When I was writing this article and discussing cannabis misconceptions, it was absolutely clear to me that I had to discuss racism. The reason being that stigma around cannabis consumers is still prevalent, and the stigma is rooted in racist stereotypes about the Black community specifically.
As I was researching, I came across a “dialogue series” — which is what the Mental Health Commission of Canada calls it — and learned that stigma towards cannabis consumption, specifically in the Black community, stems from police brutality towards Black individuals for cannabis related crimes. I also learned that Black communities are underrepresented in the research related to cannabis consumers, among many other very important topics.
I ask the Food for Thought Club to touch more on the stigma surrounding cannabis consumption in marginalized communities — specifically those who are people of color and impacted by racism. They said:
“Despite studies showing that white and BIPOC people use drugs at similar rates, alternate studies across five Canadian cities looking at arrests related to minor cannabis possession found that BIPOC people are greatly overrepresented in these numbers. The stigma among law enforcement that led them to disproportionately target BIPOC people for drug crimes did not disappear with legalization, and has not been meaningfully addressed. Statistics surrounding arrests of illicit drugs still show that BIPOC people are targeted at disproportionate rates. Thus, there is significant and problematic racist stigma that is still present among law enforcement in Canada not only surrounding marijana usage, but drug use in general. Obviously, stigmatization does not exist in a vacuum; in the case of Canada, stigma amongst the public can be directly tied to long histories of systemic racism.”
It is extremely important to recognize the privileges white cannabis consumers have always had, and recognize that legalization and partaking in cannabis requires knowledge about racist histories involving the criminalization of drugs. Just because cannabis is legal in Canada, that does not mean it is not still stigmatized.
- Cannabis does not negatively impact an individual's physical health.
This is a misconception that I think a lot of people want to be true. When I partook in smoking cannabis, I convinced myself that because it’s not nicotine, it won’t damage my lungs. I’m reporting back now to say that smoking cannabis definitely damages your lungs in some way. I was also surprised to go to the dentist for the first time in a while, to have them tell me that smoking cannabis can stain your teeth and damage your gums if you’re smoking heavily and not flossing.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse published research detailing the physical long-term and short-term effects, as well as mental effects. They state that physical effects of smoking cannabis are “...daily cough and phlegm, more lung illness, and a higher risk of lung infections.” They further state that smoking cannabis increases heart rate, therefore increasing risk of heart attack. This risk is obviously higher for those with heart conditions and older individuals.
Again, the effects of cannabis on individuals who are people of color are under-researched, meaning this might only represent a small percentage of individuals who partake in cannabis.
- Cannabis improves mental health problems and improves problems related to physical health.
This is another misconception, not based on the idea that cannabis can never improve an individual's mental or physical health, but on the basis that cannabis never causes harm. People with disabilities and chronic illnesses from all over the world have spoken out about their use of THC and CBD to help with their pain and/or their mental health, and those experiences are perfectly valid.
However, positive experiences with cannabis do not erase the negative experiences and negative long term effects of smoking cannabis. The National Institute on Drug Abuse commented on this as well, in a short snippet detailing how cannabis — specifically THC — might impact an individual's mental health, especially those with a family history of mental health problems.
The Food For Thought team added onto this by stating:
“Some harms may come from long term use, some may take just one high, some harms may be just for the night, others may last a lifetime. It really depends, substances do not affect everyone the same way. That's why destigmatizing conversations like this are important. Why education and consulting with doctors can be useful, as well as being in tune with your own needs and assessments.”
As for my own personal experience as a person with OCD, smoking cannabis in high quantities day after day caused my compulsions and intrusive thoughts to get worse. It also worsened my binge eating. On the other hand, it improved my gender dysphoria, skin picking disorder, and body dysmorphia. But, depending on a drug to fix your mental health, as opposed to alleviating mental problems by consuming cannabis, sometimes can quickly turn into a dependency or even an addiction.
All of this is not to say that cannabis can never be used to benefit an individual's mental health, and should never be prescribed for therapeutic purposes. Individuals with mental health problems tend to benefit from CBD as opposed to THC, and obviously both THC and CBD will have different effects on a user's mental and physical health.
I also think the Food For Thought team commented on this effectively when adding that just because something is harmful, it doesn’t mean it needs to be banned. They also commented:
“Sometimes people think “legal” means “safe,” and this is not always the case. For example, we look at alcohol use in our presentation. Alcohol is a socially normalized substance. Instead of criminalizing its usage, despite the harms we know it can cause, we practice harm reduction through education, social/community support, and health care options. Marijuana can be the same — there can be risks involved with its usage, but criminalizing its use doesn't help stop usage or reduce these risks. Harm reduction practices do.”
They touched more on stigma surrounding cannabis again, specifically with criminalization of drugs, which is also extremely important to remember:
“Criminalization can stigmatize having important conversations, and make people less willing to get help if they do feel they are having issues with its use. Also, criminalization can make it harder for research to be done so that we can be better informed on the risks associated with the use of substances.”
- Cannabis is not addictive; you can not be dependent on cannabis.
This is probably the most popular misconception, even among cannabis consumers. I hear it in conversation all the time!
I think this idea mostly stems from the fact that cannabis is now legal in Canada and has been for a while, but also from the fact that cannabis is a relatively popular drug that our parents, and our siblings, and everyone we know has tried at least once. I remember my father telling me interesting stories about his experience with cannabis.
I asked the Food For Thought team if they believe that cannabis can be addictive, or if individuals can become dependent on the drug. Again, this is simply just to start an important discussion, not expecting medical expertise. They told me that it’s important to distinguish between addictions and dependencies:
“Yes, most likely it can. But, the term ‘addiction’ shouldn't have the negative social connotations associated with it. Also, I'd encourage readers to look into the differences between addiction, chemical/physical dependency, habits, routine, socialization. All of which are similar or can lead to similar outcomes, but have important differences. The use of marijuana could stem from any of the above, and appear/feel very similar to addiction.”
The New York Times published an article in April called “How Do You Know if You’re Addicted to Weed?”, which might help identify if cannabis addiction is the problem for readers who can’t stand reading medical articles. There are also plenty of addiction recovery websites that detail how to know if you’re addicted to or dependent on cannabis, that you can find with a quick Google search.
Food For Thought ended our discussion by stating:
“If you are able, there are many resources where you can speak to such people if you are curious, want to be more informed, or are struggling. On campus alone, we have our Harm Reduction Team and our Health and Wellness option, as well as professors who have dedicated their studies to this subject.”
It’s important to remember that cannabis is still a drug with real effects on the individual consumers, and communities of people due to stigma. But, it can also be fun when used safely, and can also be beneficial for various reasons.
Find the Food For Thought Club on Instagram: @food4thought_
Campus Health here at UBCO also has a bulletin board set up in the Admin building staircase, which informs readers of cannabis use, and encourages users to be aware of all the issues I just discussed. I reached out to them via email; however, Campus Health was unable to get back to me in time for a comment. Their bulletin board was inspirational to this article and I encourage readers to check it out, or visit the Campus Health website.