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Reefer Madness: Debunking 5 Cannabis Myth

In the 1930s, cannabis was the scapegoat for America’s spiritual and moral decay— the devil’s lettuce that pushed people to jump out of windows and commit mass murder. It’s easy to look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of the Reefer Madness era, and even though the posters are now considered pop art, these myths had serious public policy consequences. And they still do.

Harry J. Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, garnered public support for his anti-cannabis policies by playing into the rampant racism and xenophobia of the early 20th Century. By associating cannabis with Mexican immigrants and Black Americans, and with the help of the iconic Reefer Madness film and anti-cannabis propaganda printed in newspapers, Anslinger successfully molded public opinion and used that support to craft and implement public policy. Anslinger’s work lead to the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937- the precursor to President Nixon’s War on Drugs and the unofficial beginning of cannabis prohibition in America. 

Cannabis myths have consequences. 

Lately, there has been a resurgence of pernicious cannabis myths, all while legalization is spreading across the country and around the world, and public support for cannabis is at an all-time high. But this time, instead of overt racism, today’s cannabis myths are often under the guise of concern for public health. From the persistent gateway theory to the grotesque insinuation that cannabis causes mass shootings, Reefer Madness 2.0 is here. 

In the spirit of Halloween, here’s a scary thought: failure to swiftly and loudly address cannabis myths will have detrimental consequences for the cannabis legalization movement. At best, they will slow legalization efforts. At worst, they will turn back the clock on cannabis progress. 

Scared yet? Let’s debunk five common cannabis myths:

1. Cannabis legalization leads to higher rates of youth usage.

The idea that legalization  increases the rate of underage cannabis consumption is pervasive but unfounded. A recent peer-reviewed study found that cannabis legalization in the US did not influence underage adolescent cannabis use. Another study looking at national data on cannabis use among high schoolers from 1993 until 2019 found “no significant associations” between medical and adult-use legalization laws and underage cannabis consumption. In fact, some studies even suggest that legalization may lead to a decrease in youth cannabis consumption. One 2019 study using data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveys from 1993 to 2017 found that adult-use legalization was associated with an 8% decrease in youth cannabis consumption rates. This is likely because, as the cannabis industry shifts from the illicit market to an above-ground, regulated industry, it becomes harder for teens to access cannabis, especially given strict identification requirements for dispensaries and cannabis deliveries. While concerns about young people accessing cannabis are valid, the myth that legalization increases underage consumption has been debunked over and over again. 

2. Cannabis is being laced with fentanyl.

One of the newer myths is that cannabis is being cut with fentanyl– a synthetic opioid that can be fatal in small doses– and sold to unsuspecting consumers. Though the opioid crisis is very real in the United States, and fentanyl overdose is the number one cause of death among Americans ages 18 to 45, fentanyl-laced cannabis is not the culprit. There is no evidence that anyone is intentionally lacing cannabis with fentanyl, despite what some policymakers may say. Our recent blog post breaks down the fentanyl cannabis myth in more detail. 

3. Cannabis use leads to mass shootings.

And now for one of the most offensive and asinine myths out there– the misinformation that cannabis causes young people to commit mass shootings. This lie was recently touted by Fox News Hosts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, as well as Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. To be extremely clear- cannabis is not the cause of mass shootings in America. My colleague, Weedmaps’ VP Bridget Hennessey, said it best: “It is an affront to our humanity to blame cannabis–or any other ridiculous excuse–for what caused the death of children and the adults dedicated to teaching them.”

4. Cannabis is a gateway to other drugs.

The gateway theory- that cannabis leads to the use of other drugs- is a classic cannabis myth with remarkable staying power. Though it has been debunked countless times, many still believe that cannabis leads a person down a path of increasingly problematic drug use. The main issue with the gateway theory is that it conflates correlation with causation. While it may be true that most people who use other drugs have used cannabis at some point in the past, there is no evidence that cannabis causes one to use other drugs. The Institute of Medicine found that cannabis use does not appear to cause, or be the most significant predictor of, serious drug abuse. Further, RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center offers an alternative explanation for why someone may go on to use other drugs after cannabis: “it is not marijuana use, but individual’s opportunities and unique propensities to use drugs that determine their risk of initiating hard drugs.” For more on the gateway theory, check out our policy paper, “Dispelling the Gateway Theory.”

5. Cannabis leads to increased crime rates.

Some believe cannabis legalization will increase crime, but numerous studies show otherwise. This myth is likely the product of decades of anti-cannabis propaganda associating cannabis with criminal activity. The reality is that legalization has no impact on crime rates, and it may actually reduce crime. Data from Washington and Colorado– the first two states to legalize adult-use cannabis– saw “minimal to no effect” on major crimes and no long-term effects on violent and property crimes following legalization. Another study examining crime data from 1990 through 2006 found a potential reduction in violent crime following medical cannabis legalization. Internationally, a 2017 study found that medical legalization led to a decrease in violent crime in states bordering Mexico, with stronger reductions in counties closest to the border. It is clear that cannabis does not increase crime, and in fact, decriminalization frees up law enforcement budgets to focus on more serious crimes.

Final Thoughts

There is nothing inherently wrong with good-faith questions about the impacts of cannabis legalization. It will take time and effort to undo the past century of anti-cannabis propaganda, and with a brand new industry comes plenty of benefits… and policy challenges. Fortunately, revenue from the cannabis industry is funding research on the impacts of cannabis legalization across the country. For example, California announced a $20m grant program earlier this month– entirely funded by cannabis revenue– for public universities to study cannabis and “address research gaps and inform policymakers.” Recipients of this grant will research the health of the cannabis industry, California’s legacy cannabis genetics, cannabis potency, monopolies and unfair competition, and the medical use of cannabis. 

In the meantime, pesky cannabis myths will likely be around for years to come. For the sake of the industry, it is vitally important to continuously and loudly debunk misinformation when it arises. 

For more, check out the “Addressing Concerns” page on our website, and our “Myth vs. Fact” policy paper. 

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