Along with alcohol and tobacco, cannabis is one of the most widely used mind-altering substances in the United States. (And this has been the case, unsurprisingly, even before widespread legalization.) Yet, frequency of use has not necessarily led to more understanding of this mysterious plant…in fact, we know very little about cannabis. Much of this has to do with the historical and current restrictions of it on the federal level; essentially, limitations on growing, storing, and using it for hands-on clinical trials is stifling research.
That doesn’t mean we don’t know some things. The “truths” that the cannabis community understands today is due to anecdotal experience (e.g. Sativa and Indica strains producing noticeably different effects), but we now have enough published research to get a clearer picture on the most commonly-accepted beliefs around this plant.
Marijuana is a gateway drug
This is the granddaddy of all misplaced cannabis myths. To understand why it’s wrong, we first must understand what it means: that cannabis opens the door and encourages use of harder drugs like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. It is true that adolescents who use marijuana are more likely to “graduate” to harder drugs compared to their non-using counterparts, but this is also true for children and teens who use alcohol or nicotine.
There isn’t enough research to make a definitive conclusion, but it is clear that the majority of cannabis users do not use harder drugs. For adults, it is relatively safe. The most likely birth of this myth is the relationship between socio-economic pressures and drug use. To put it plainly – correlation does not equal causation.
You can’t become addicted to marijuana
Even though cannabis is safe for most adults, that does not mean that you can’t become dependent on it. Let’s broaden our definition of addiction – what exactly does it mean to be addicted to something? Cannabis isn’t known for producing effects that feed into your body’s chemical processes in the same way that many illicit drugs are, but it can all the same become a source of behavioral dependency.
Adolescents are more likely than adults to develop a cannabis dependency; adults have a 1 in 10 likelihood. Nonetheless, always practice caution when using cannabis or any other mind-altering substance.
Using marijuana causes brain damage
Let us be clear that “brain damage” and the loss or damage of neurons is not the same. The first indicates serious consequences, which currently, there is not substantial enough evidence to say when it comes to how prolonged cannabis use impacts the way we think and operate. It’s well known that cannabis use for developing brains (aka children, teens, and young adults) can impact memory function and other key areas, but it’s very unlikely that translates to the death of neurons in the same way that Parkinson’s disease does. Similar to alcohol, heavy or early cannabis use can interfere with neurogenesis, your body’s ability to birth new brain cells.
Overall, treat cannabis as you would most other legal or medicinal mind-altering substances: with moderation and for adults over the age of 21.
Hemp is a distinct species of cannabis
Though hemp is indeed different from what we dub “marijuana,” they are not different species – in fact, hemp is simply a subset of Cannabis sativa L. that, at least in the U.S., contains less than 0.3% THC. You can read a bit more about this breakdown in our How to Grow Cannabis Guide.
However, just because hemp and cannabis are the same species does not make them look and act the same. As far as appearance, hemp tends to be taller with skinnier leaves while marijuana often is more of a bush. But the true differences are the chemical composition, usage, and legality. Hemp historically has been used for textile and paper production and is federally legal (with restrictions), while marijuana is grown for the intoxicating or medicinal effects and remains federally illegal.
There are two subspecies of cannabis – Indica and Sativa
Similar to the misunderstanding with hemp, many believe that Cannabis indica is distinct genetically from C. sativa. It is not. How this came to common belief is a little complicated…essentially, a biologist in the 18th century mistakenly believed he found a new cannabis species due to it being native to a different part of the world and producing different effects in the body.
But if you look at Indica and Sativa from a biological standpoint, they are the same species (C. sativa). That doesn’t mean the strains within those broad categories don’t indeed have genetic and chemical differences. Anecdotally, many people tend to describe Indica and Sativa as providing either relaxing or awakening effects, respectively.
Marijuana today is 30-40% more potent than it was 20 years ago
It’s true that we’re no longer dealing with the weed our parents smoked. However, the actual differences are not quite as clear due to data inconsistencies (and likely inaccuracies) of the cannabis samples of yesteryear. Today, most of the strongest varieties will fall in the mid-20% range and tend to have a much higher percentage of THC compared to CBD. In the past, this ratio may have been more even and cannabis likely sat around the 10% potency threshold. Because of breakdown and low sample size seized and tested by law enforcement during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, we don’t know for certain how potent cannabis was before…but it’s clearly become stronger.
Many myths abound about this green, leafy plant, but we at RAIR have a goal of breaking down misinformation and ensuring consumers have what they need to make smart decisions.