Marijuana: It’s highly debated, and its reputation is often highly embellished in the public eye. Those who hate it demonize it with wild tales of cancer and addiction, while those who love it tell wide-eyed stories of how the Founding Fathers used to smoke it. But are any of these stories true? To make a long story short, no. Here are some of the most prevalent (and colorful) fictions about pot that have circulated their way around the globe since the late 1800s — and in some cases, still persist today.
1. It’s a Gateway Drug
Marijuana is not a gateway drug, says Psychology Today, which notes that alcohol and tobacco are the two most common “drugs of abuse” and that most people begin their substance use with these two — not weed.
2. It Kills Brain Cells
According to MIT’s The Thistle, this myth appeared when an experiment showed structural changes in the brain cells of animals that were exposed to high doses of marijuana. Not only were these results never replicated, but two more studies involving monkeys later showed no evidence of physical brain alteration. Although marijuana can cause temporary short-term memory loss in heavy users, it does not actually destroy brain cells.
3. It Causes Cancer
Smoking weed “regularly and heavily” does not lead to lung cancer; in fact, it may have a protective effect. After a National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study was completed in 2006, Donald Tashkin of the University of California at Los Angeles told the Washington Post, “We hypothesized that there would be a positive association between marijuana use and lung cancer, and that the association would be more positive with heavier use… What we found instead was no association at all, and even a suggestion of some protective effect.”
4. It Will Kill You
The infamous 1936 movie “Reefer Madness” comes right out and calls marijuana a “deadly narcotic.” There have been many rumors over the years about weed overdoses, but as CNN reports, a marijuana overdose is “extremely unlikely” ever to occur, considering that a 160-pound person would need to eat 48 pounds of pot in one sitting to overdose. (And honestly, eating 48 pounds of anything in one sitting sounds like it would probably kill you anyway.)
5. It’ll Make You Crazy
Yes. I remember. Just a young boy… under the influence of drugs… who killed his entire family with an axe.”
– Dr. Carroll, “Reefer Madness”
People (especially the creators of “Reefer Madness”) loved to paint a terrifying picture of pot as an addictive, highly hallucinogenic drug that would drive anyone who even smelled so much of a whiff of it into an insane, blood-soaked rampage in which they would murder small children and innocent puppies. In a 2010 interview with KPBS, Assistant Professor Isaac Campos of the University of Cincinnati stated that in the 1890s and early 1900s, marijuana was “reported to turn users into wild maniacs who would run down the street with a knife and stab everybody in their way.”
6. Lucky Strike Cigarettes Contained Marijuana
In 2006, someone emailed Snopes, saying that they’d heard Lucky Strikes got their name from the occasional bonus joint that would appear in random packs. Unfortunately for those hoping they’d find some free weed in their next pack of cigarettes, Snopes debunked this myth, reporting that Lucky Strikes got their name from the Gold Rush days.
7. Everyone Was Smoking in the ‘60s
College students in the 1960s weren’t quite as pot-crazed as everyone seems to believe. In the spring of 1967, just 5 percent of students surveyed said they’d tried marijuana; by the spring of 1969 that number had risen to 22 percent, but by the fall of 1971, it was a whopping 51 percent, according to the University of Louisiana. Pop culture might make it look like the ‘60s took place in a cloud of marijuana smoke, but apparently people were still quite tentative about smoking at that time.
8. ‘Satanic’ Jazz and Swing Music Existed Because of Marijuana
1937’s Marihuana Tax Act made pot illegal; this act was spearheaded by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. According to the Gazette, the following quote is attributed to Anslinger as part of his anti-pot propaganda campaign in the ‘30s: “There are 100,000 total marihuana smokers in the United States, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marihuana use.” Unbelievably, it gets even more offensive from there, as Anslinger refers with horror to the possibility that white women under the influence of “marihuana” might be tempted to have “sexual relations” with men of other races.
9. Smoking Weed Makes You a Communist
It’s unlikely that most people actually believed this one, but based on the other propaganda that was believed at the time, who knows? Communism was a pretty big deal in the 1940s and ‘50s, reaching national witch-hunt levels during the era of McCarthyism. The classy Mr. Anslinger, always a consummate professional, declared that “marihuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing,” says the Post-Gazette.
10. Newspaper Magnate William Randolph Hearst Was the Driving Force Behind Marijuana Prohibition
According to popular conspiracy theory, William Randolph Hearst, owner of the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal, wanted to stamp out the marijuana business because hemp was in competition for paper. Supposedly, Hearst owned vast tracts of timber that he used to make paper to print his newspaper on, and he didn’t want hemp becoming a viable alternative to wood-based paper. Although it’s a fascinating and plausible-sounding theory, there’s no evidence that it’s true. Skeptoid reports that Hearst didn’t own any timber empire; he paid for the paper his news was printed on. He did own quite a bit of land, but none of it was ever used for lumber harvesting.
Dr. David Musto of Yale University agreed during a 1997 interview with NPR, saying, “There’s no evidence that [these theories] were correct. I think they come from people who can’t believe that you could actually just be against marijuana just because it’s marijuana.”
11. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Grew Pot
In response to a reader’s question in 2009 that asked if the “ubiquitous” rumor that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson traded marijuana blends with each other, the Straight Dope listed a lot of facts, including the fact that hemp was used for rope, paper and clothing in colonial Virginia and that Washington and Jefferson both attempted to grow hemp on their farms. They also traded hemp seedlings with other farmers. Since hemp, unlike the type of cannabis that is smoked, is low in THC and is not smoked (in fact, it’s not even possible to get high from smoking it), it’s quite unlikely — some might say impossible — that the Founding Fathers were getting blazed on their industrial hemp crops.
The more you know!