The story has all the aspects of a blockbuster thriller: It’s sexy, it has intrigue, conspiracies, and a hateable villain.

The unlikely (anti)hero of this tale is marijuana – AKA the most popular drug in the world1. But, in its role as a protagonist, marijuana is complicated and loaded (pun intended) with contradictions. And whatever your point of view on the drug, positive or negative, there seems to be a bounty of information available to support or deny your position. At bottom, marijuana is a highly politicized drug: There are interests on both sides, including some big, big players, that have much at stake in this contest (see below). This stake will have much to do with the future accessibility of the drug.

Yes, It Is as Bad as You’ve Been Led to Believe

Is it possible to overdose on marijuana?

To smoke one’s self to death, no. According to the DEA – an agency famous for its anti-marijuana stance – no death from overdose has ever been reported2. To kill you, by one estimation, it would take 1,500 pounds of pot smoked within 15 minutes. This impossibility is backed up by many sources including this popular story. Unlike opioids, pot can’t kill because it doesn’t affect the brainstem areas that control respiration. Nearly all medicines have toxic, potentially lethal effects – in this way marijuana is practically unique.

But, smoking has other consequences: On the lungs, some studies have compared a single joint as damaging to the lungs as five cigarettes3. It can also raise blood pressure, double the heart rate, and increase the risk of heart attack. For young brains, marijuana use can disrupt the development of circuits and has been associated with a five percent cognitive decline in teens4. The heaviest users could lose as much as eight IQ points. (For those who begin using after the age of 18, there was no significant decline.) Marijuana use has also been linked to depression and suicidal thoughts.

Just because it won’t kill you doesn’t mean that large doses can’t #$%* you up. In large doses pot can cause agitation, anxiety, paranoia, panic attacks, and hallucinations. Taking marijuana in the form of edibles increases the risk of these symptoms. Since marijuana’s effects are delayed – it can take longer than 45 minutes to kick in when eaten – and the effects are hard to predict, overindulging with edibles is far easier. (Anticipating no effect, users will consume more prematurely.) This rather famously happened to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently. THC derivatives known as “wax,” “dabs,” or “butane hash,” which consist of super-high concentrations of the chemical, can also lead to overindulgence. As a result, calls to 911 and emergency room visits have jumped significantly recently, especially in states where pot is now legal. The symptoms these victims feel, while not death throes, are very real – extreme anxiety, a sense of doom, the above mentioned accelerated heart rate, tight chest, and difficulty breathing.

According to a study5, a 2 gram dose of pure THC has a 50% chance of killing a 150 pound man. While the DEA reports that no one has ever died of an overdose of marijuana or THC, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) database of death certificates (CDC Wonder)6, in 2014 there were 18 deaths caused by cannabis poisoning alone (i.e. no mixing with other drugs was involved).

How do you know how much THC in your weed? If you’re buying your pot from a dispensary, your average pre-roll comes at around 12% or 750mg-1g.

No, It Is Not as Bad as You’ve Been Led to Believe

By most accounts, marijuana is the least dangerous recreational drug available – including tobacco. Of all drugs, marijuana has the lowest risk for mortality. Compare this to alcohol which has lethality that even exceeds that of heroin7. This makes the prohibitions of the U.S. and other world governments, as well as marijuana’s current federal scheduling in the U.S., all the more incomprehensible.

So, why is marijuana listed as a Schedule 1 drug?

As a Schedule 1, the most restricted class of drugs, means that marijuana has “no currently accepted medical use” and has a “high potential for abuse.” This puts marijuana in a group with LSD, ecstasy, and heroin. Even cocaine and methamphetamine are given a lower rank (as Schedule 2). Marijuana is neither considered highly addictive nor dangerous (except, as mentioned above, for adolescents). The Schedule 1 label also gives marijuana the harshest federal penalties for those caught with it, though those designations are getting blurry with decriminalization and legalization in some areas. Also note that neither alcohol nor tobacco are scheduled substances and yet both are considered highly addictive.

As far as marijuana’s medicinal value: Studies of the chemicals in marijuana, called cannabinoids (including THC and CBD), has led to two FDA-approved medications that contain cannabinoid chemicals in pill form. In a study, marijuana has also been shown to help patients with cancer and cancer related symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, weight loss, pain, sleep problems, and cancer-related fatigue9. Scientists are also conducting trials on other possible uses of marijuana and its extracts for such conditions as autoimmune disease (like HIV/AIDS), multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, and others.

The British government’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has recently admitted that marijuana has a positive medicinal effect. This could have a significant effect on the country’s momentum toward legalizing cannabis10.

Marijuana was given its schedule designation back in 1970 when Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act. Essentially, marijuana was given its status based on expediency rather than chemical realities – two years after the Act was passed, a government commission acknowledged that marijuana was less a threat to public health than it was a social issue; a social issue at least partially based on racism, a point the commission didn’t acknowledge. Most marijuana users at the time were believed to be black and Hispanic.

Then there’s the so-called “gateway effect”: While it is true that many who use other drugs may have also used marijuana, there is no hard evidence that can pin marijuana as the cause or “gateway drug.” It is also true that people often drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes before they try marijuana – are they also to be considered gateway drugs?

While marijuana is often said to be non-addictive, a relatively small percentage of those who try it will become addicted and far less than when compared to other drugs: For those who had tried marijuana once, 9 percent will eventually fit the diagnosis for cannabis dependence. The corresponding figure for alcohol is 15 percent, for cocaine 17 percent, for heroin 23 percent, and for nicotine it is 32 percent11.

You may also not be surprised to find who’s fighting hardest against legal weed: Big pharma.


Marijuana is a psychoactive drug that can have a profound effect on behavior and awareness. While it is considered relatively safe when compared to other drugs, the safety of its recreational use is poorly understood. Because of marijuana’s illegality and status as a Schedule 1 drug, acquiring the drug for study has been difficult and has left the field without much data. (All studies done have been the monopoly of one lab at the University of Mississippi.) A recent report issued by the Brookings Institute goes so far to say that the federal government has been actively “stifling” medical marijuana research that “has consequences for public health and public safety.”

As a medicine it holds promise. As a recreational drug there is still much about it we don’t know.

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Is Marijuana as Bad as You’ve Been Led to Believe?