Cannabis Can Be Harmful, But That Doesn’t Mean It Should Be Banned

Why are tabloid prohibitionists obsessed with harm? It’s a question I find myself asking more and more often, as the defenders of the status quo of cannabis prohibition continue to clutch at straws to defend their position. Take a look at any of the recent scare stories published about cannabis by the likes of the Daily Mail, and you’ll likely find some variation of the same line – that cannabis is harmful after all, and, by extension, should stay banned.

The most recent example, perhaps, can be found in the Mail’s reporting of the study into how cannabis and cannabinoids affect memory, undertaken at Osaka University, Japan. The headline states – “Why cannabis is bad for you: World first study identifies exactly how the drug stunts your brain development.”

Aside from the fact that the study in question showed no such thing, there is another reason why this headline, and the may others like it, are troubling. What they seem to suggest is that the only reason some people think that cannabis should be legalised is that it it somehow harmless. I don’t for one second believe that the writers of these headlines and articles actually believe that to be the case, but rather that they are constructing a straw man argument with which to attempt to defeat proponents of legalisation.

Whilst this straw man should be obvious to anyone actively involved in this policy area, it does seem to hit home with a significant number of the general public. Luckily, however, it is easily refuted.

The truth is that cannabis, like every other substance under the sun, has the potential to cause harm. The harm it can cause may be tiny compared, say, to alcohol, but it still exists, and is precisely the reason why it, along with every other drug and every other potentially harmful activity, should be legal and regulated. For the best way to keep people safe from harm is to put safeguards in place, and to do everything you can to minimise the risk of harm, rather than sweep it under the carpet with the broom of prohibition and pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

Leaving potentially harmful drugs in the hands of criminal gangs whose only motive is profit, rather than the wellbeing of their customers, does the opposite. It maximises the harm. Cannabis consumers would be far better served by a regulate market that allowed them to choose the strains that best suit them, be they high THC, high CBD, indica, or sativa.

It should hardly need to be pointed out that should the ‘logic’ that leads the Mail and others to harp on about cannabis not being completely harmless be applied to anything else, the results would be absurd. Alcohol, as I already mentioned, is far more harmful than cannabis. As is tobacco. Those two are obvious. But it could also be very easily argued that unhealthy food does far more damage than cannabis, and the risks of sky-diving, skiing, and horse riding all outweigh those posed by the consumption of the odd joint. Should all of these things be banned because they are dangerous? Or would that in fact make them far more dangerous than they already are? The answer is clear.

The best example of why the argument that cannabis should be illegal because it can cause harm is fallacious comes from looking at tobacco. Smoking causes huge harm to the individual, and comes at a massive cost to society, but at no point have we considered banning it outright. Instead, we as a country took a series of steps to reduce harm. The legal smoking age was increased, and smoking in public places was banned, as was advertising. Penalties for supplying tobacco to anyone underage were increased, and a huge increase in education about the harms of smoking took place. As a result, smoking rates in this country have plummeted, and fewer people than ever are taking up the habit. Regulation has worked, brilliantly.

What the tobacco example shows is that as a country, we are excellent at regulation, and should apply the same logic to cannabis. But there is another area where the insistence on focussing on potential harms is holding back the reform of cannabis law – medicinal cannabis.

Despite the mountains of research into cannabis’ efficacy as a medicine for a number of illnesses and ailments, it is consistently held to an unattainable standard of safety which is not applied to other medicines. Indeed, the government still insist that cannabis has no medical uses, even as that position becomes more and more untenable by the day. It seems as though no matter how much evidence there is of cannabis’ medical benefit, its potential harms are always blown way out of proportion and used as evidence as to why cannabis medicine should not be used, even when we know it will be effective.

This is in stark contrast to just about every other medicine out there. If you’re prescribed any kind of drug at all, you will no doubt have noticed that the information you are given alongside your prescription contains a – usually very long – list of potential side effects. Some of them are common, some very rare, but they are all risks that have deemed necessary because the medicine works. As an example, once a month I go to hospital for two injections of something called Omalizumab. After the shots are given, I have to wait – under observation – for at least an hour, sometimes more (after the first dose it was four hours) because one of the risks of taking this medication is that I could go into anaphylactic shock. I also carry two epi-pens at all times now for the same reason.

The risk of anaphylaxis is, thankfully, low, but in the past I have been prescribed a plethora of drugs, all of which were more than capable of doing serious harm. Unlike those drugs, cannabis has been singled out as something which must apparently be considered harmless before it can be used as a medicine. It is an absurd state of affairs when you compare the risks from cannabis use – that it may impair short-term memory, for example – to those posed by everyday medicines like paracetamol.

The only reason that this continues to be the case is because of the stigma that is still attached to cannabis, because of its history as a banned substance. That stigma is slowly but surely being eroded, but the narrative being peddled by certain parts of the tabloid press – that cannabis can cause harm and is therefore evil and should be banned – is, frustratingly, holding back reform, and should be challenged at every opportunity. Knowing how to argue against it, and accepting that there are potential harms even when it comes to cannabis, is key to winning the argument and pushing reform forward.

Deej Sullivan
Deej Sullivan is a writer and activist from the UK. He regularly writes on drug policy and politics for NORML UK, the UKCSCs, London Real, and his own blog,


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