This week, The Tribune in California published the headline “Just because marijuana is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe” for an article penned by the Sacramento Bee Editorial Board. A better headline might have been, “Just because we’re media doesn’t mean we’re smart.”
The problem with the headline is that it uses inaccurate language that contributes to inaccurate cannabis-related stigma. Why is the headline inaccurate? Cannabis is safe. It is the irresponsible use of cannabis that is potentially unsafe. But this is true of so many things in life.
For example, is driving a car safe? Certainly not if a person is drunk, texting or speeding, but would you write, “Just because driving is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe”? No, you would say driving involves risk, and here are examples of what drivers can do to reduce that risk. Still, driving is very dangerous compared to cannabis: 38,300 people were killed and 4.4 million injured on U.S. roads in 2015.
Cannabis consumption also involves risk, but the vast majority of risk can be overwhelmingly reduced through safe and responsible use, such as not driving stoned. Cannabis itself is not, however, inherently unsafe. Should a five-year-old smoke a bowl of Blue Dream? No, but that kid shouldn’t drive a car either.
One of the points presented in the editorial was a study that said Washington state teens thought cannabis “wasn’t dangerous anymore” because of legalization. This was, again, a shitty use of words by the Editorial Board since the findings actually said the “perception of harmfulness” fell by 14 to 16 percent between 2010 and 2015. The editorial suggests that this is a bad thing, but is it bad if the decrease in perceived harm marks a change that better reflects the truth?
Consider this: Arguably no substance has been subject to more untrue, stigma-producing propaganda in modern history than cannabis. Past examples of “harmfulness” by the U.S. government alone include claims that cannabis makes you crazy, turns you into a serial killer, opens a gateway to heroin use, poses more danger and addiction risk than coke and meth and (with smile-filled thanks to DEA agent Matt Fairbanks) created a plague of stoned bunny rabbits who “cultivated a taste for the marijuana.” Or to quote a Sacramento Bee Editorial Board headline from September 2016, “Proposition 64 is bad for public health.” Maybe the perception of harmfulness is dropping because more and more people realize that the perception was wrong, propagated by headlines like those written by the Editorial Board.
Polls show that 60 percent of the country favors full legalization and 89 percent support medical cannabis. This dramatic shift in opinion comes from education and observation, not propaganda and ignorance, the latter being the driving force behind cannabis prohibition for a century. This bring us back to the original headline. The Editorial Board could have justifiably written, “Just because marijuana is legal doesn’t mean it’s free of risk.” That is actually true. However, suggesting that cannabis is inherently unsafe reinforces negative stigma, increases ignorance and misses a larger opportunity to educate readers on how to minimize the possible risks. As it stands, the Editorial Board’s headline and message, not cannabis or Prop. 64, is what’s truly bad for public health.