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Public Opinion and Cannabis…an Actual, but Fixable Doom Loop

Good intentions do not address the "cannabis shrug" dance.

In Dr. Beth Cohen’s recent piece on pbs.org, “​​Many people think cannabis smoke is harmless. Here’s how that belief can put health at risk,” the main objective of the writing seems to be to help readers understand the possibility of potential health risks associated with smoking cannabis and how public opinion influences the perception of those risks. This article appears to have been built around the recent simultaneous decrease of tobacco use and increase of cannabis use in adults.


First things first - setting something on fire and inhaling the resulting smoke can have effects on different areas of the body, especially the mouth, throat, and lungs. This makes absolute sense. Whether it’s cannabis or tobacco or any other substance, this is a certainty. The impact is determined by a variety of factors, like frequency and quality of substance and/or additives, and the individual making the choice to smoke.


The CDC reports that cigarette smoking is responsible for at least 480,000 American deaths each year (not to mention the 16 million people living with tobacco-related disease). The CDC does not report any deaths attributed to cannabis use. Furthermore, the CDC goes on to state on cdc.gov that “a fatal overdose caused solely by marijuana is unlikely.” This distinction (or anything even remotely similar) is not acknowledged in the pbs.org article.


While the writing draws attention to real health effect possibilities, what this article really does is muddy the waters and increase confusion and mistrust when it comes to the topic of cannabis in the medical community, which is a significant factor in public opinion. By putting this two substances side-by-side and selectively comparing them and then conveniently relying on vague conclusions and eventually wrapping it up by urging a medical consultation that’s likely to result in the same ambiguity, this piece likely heightens skepticism for current or prospective patients who are on the hunt for accurate and reliable cannabis use guidance.


This article, like countless others, does the "cannabis shrug” dance, a maneuver of common inconclusive cannabis dialogue that follows a predictable pattern, which often includes only presenting partial truth. It's a result of the frustratingly cyclical nature of cannabis conversations. The cycle always includes the following:


  • There's not enough good, reliable data because research (and funding) are held hostage by federal prohibition. Federal prohibition stops the acquisition of credible knowledge through scientific process. It’s not just limited to educational institutions either. Think intersections with taxes and banking and criminal justice and finance and insurance and so many other impact areas…

  • Public opinion matters greatly. Decisions about cannabis are heavily influenced by bias/perception and emotion, especially since clear and reliable research results are unavailable.

  • Public opinion has been shaped by decades of misinformation. The state-by-state legalization work around exacerbates this, especially as legalization continues to be a polarizing political topic.

  • Direct statement of benefit(s) from cannabis consumption is always intentionally absent, a result of the federal prohibition.

  • Encouragement regarding talking with health care professionals is sensical, but impractical, as many health care providers lack accurate education and avoid the topic.

  • Planting fear (no pun intended) about potential health risks is somewhat valid, however because of the necessary “cannabis shrug” dance, the weak warnings widen the divide, as it can't be validated because of lack of reliable data and conclusions.

Round and round and round we go. The existing public opinion doom-loop is slowly changing, but at glacial speed. The medical community tends to be stuck too, which is why education-based information - think history first! - is the ideal path forward. Public-friendly education that goes beyond safety warnings and political platforms is how to break the cycle. In order to understand where we’re going, we have to acknowledge and understand where we’ve been and where we are. The writing of Dr. Cohen and countless others in the medical field are often well-intended, but lack the nuance that would be required to move the public opinion needle when it comes to cannabis.


Contact Elucidation Strategies for cannabis educational services.

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