The Problem with Cannabis Culture

(a perspective from someone who isn't an old, conservative Boomer)

By Salma Metwally

Weed, pot, marijuana, grass, hash, whatever you like to call it—we have to talk about it. I firmly believe that in 30 years we will look back on weed the way we look at cigarettes now.

In recent years, cannabis has become one of the most popular recreational drugs in youth populations; roughly 30% of high school seniors (living in states where cannabis is legal) report having used this drug in 2022. Furthermore, more states have started legalizing cannabis without properly addressing or even considering the long-term implications.

Cannabis, race, and (de) criminalization  

The acceptance and decriminalization of cannabis after it became popular in predominantly White communities stands in stark contrast to the historical and ongoing disparities faced by Black and indigenous groups when it comes to drug enforcement. As cannabis use became more widespread among White, often more affluent, communities, it underwent a transformation from a stigmatized substance to one associated with counterculture and rebellion. The hypocrisy in American drug laws is glaring when we consider that cannabis, which was used as a pretext for targeting and incarcerating minority communities, has enjoyed a more lenient stance as it became associated with “White” culture around the 60s and 70s with the rise of the hippie movement, and even more recently with its legalization in multiple states. 

This racial bias in drug enforcement has resulted in devastating consequences, such as the disproportionate incarceration rates and pervasive negative consequences for communities of color, not just when it comes to cannabis, but in almost every realm of drug enforcement. This uneven application of drug laws has perpetuated systemic racism in the criminal justice system, revealing a deeply rooted and unjust aspect of American law and society. Even as legalization or decriminalization efforts gain momentum, Black and indigenous communities often face barriers to participation in the emerging cannabis industry, furthering already existing and devastating economic disparities. 

Cannabis use is encouraged in media, but no one's doing anything about it.

I wish young people could have more nuanced discussions about weed without dismissing criticisms of the drug as products of narrow-mindedness and “party-pooping” conservatives, often somewhat older. I can’t drive past the freeway without seeing billboards advertising to me how I can ship weed directly to my house, something especially frustrating and confusing after I get anti-vaping advertisements while listening to music on that very same drive. If the FDA legitimately cared about the rates of lung cancer, it would have banned advertising weed, just like it did with vapes and cigarettes. 

All three of these culprits increase the prevalence of lung cancer because of one simple reason: they fill the lungs with smoke, carcinogens, and toxins. Nicotine in and of itself isn’t very harmful, but smoking and vaping it is; these are the same most common methods of consumption for weed. It’s an undeniable fact: smoking weed—smoking anything, actually—increases the risk of lung cancer. Many popular sources state that only “heavy smokers” experience an increase in lung cancer risk, but fail to explain what “heavy smoking” actually means. To the average person, heavy usage probably means smoking multiple times a day for years. What if I told you that the scientific literature describes heavy smoking as smoking only 50 times in a lifetime? Smoking just once a week for a single year is enough to cause significant damage and double the risk of lung cancer.

When I search for the key word “cigarettes” on Youtube, the only results are documentaries warning me about their harmful effects. But when I search for weed, the results are  hundreds of uncensored videos, even from reputable media companies like Netflix and Jubilee, typically with a target audience of teens, encouraging weed consumption and portraying it as something easy and fun. The videos are usually lighthearted and funny: a popular celebrity trying differently priced strains or nuns smoking weed for the first time. So then who wouldn’t think this drug is fun and harmless? It’s especially insidious that these videos are specifically marketed to teens, given that weed increases the risk of improper brain development and psychosis in young people.

What does medical marijuana even mean? 

Not only is weed harmful, but its benefits are questionable as well. The FDA has not actually approved weed to treat any one medical condition. Even “medical marijuana” is not an entirely clear term; all that is needed is a physician’s approval and some form of symptomatic relief. Even the “dosage” is up to the patient to decide. We already know that symptomatic relief  (simply feeling better) is not justifiable grounds for a prescription, or else physicians could hand out fentanyl for a broken finger. Just beecause fentanyl helps with pain doesn’t mean it’s appropriate or necessary to prescribe. 

The same goes for cannabis. Just because something makes someone feel better doesn't mean it's safe or even effective, and it definitely doesn’t mean that the benefits outweigh the risks. No one is encouraging heroin use because it “helps some people feel better,” so I don’t understand why this reasoning has been accepted for weed. If anything, people have become more confident in supplementing or even completely replacing their medical treatments with different plants and alternative treatments, cannabis being very popular, which fuels greater skepticism in science and medicine and even conspiracy theories about physicians and the pharmaceutical industry.

The Proper Way to Decriminalize and Legalize Drugs

Properly decriminalizing drugs requires a nuanced approach that prioritizes public health and safety. In many countries where the possession of small amounts of schedule I (illegal with NO accepted medical use; habit-forming drugs are categorized in five schedules with I being the most habit-forming and V being the least habit-forming) drugs for personal use was decriminalized, there has been a notable reduction in overdoses and a shift from punitive measures to medical treatment. Drug addiction is an illness, not a crime, but decriminalizing or even legalizing drugs shouldn’t be actively creating more (ab)users as is the case with cannabis right now. 

Expanding access to addiction treatment, harm reduction services, and increasing education are also important aspects of drug decriminalization.  If properly implemented, drug decriminalization can lead to more effective and humane drug policies that reduce the burden on the criminal justice system while addressing the public health aspects of substance abuse. Yet, I feel as though  every aspect of effective and safe drug decriminalization is just thrown out of the window when it comes to cannabis.

I’m a huge proponent of drug decriminalization, but this isn’t the way to do it. I don’t understand how, despite so much evidence, weed is actively being marketed to young adults as completely harmless. Surely weed is a better alternative to cocaine, but it’s definitely not a better alternative to nothing, and yet it’s still being encouraged to young people who have never used any substances to begin with. The cannabis debate demands a sobering reality check. It’s not about politics. It’s not about freedom. It’s not about age. It’s not about money. It’s about the health of millions of people—children and adolescents—and the responsibility of healthcare professionals, parents, teachers, and fellow teenangers to reveal the truth.