There is a stunning amount of ignorance about pot in American society: some of it genuine, some of it willful, some of it politically and socially constructed. It’s the focus of misguided moral panics, and the reason why millions of Americans are incarcerated. What strikes many cannabis smokers is just how perversely, intentionally wrong the mainstream media’s portrayal of the drug is – and how saddening the consequences and repercussions of this can be. So let’s break down the hysteria surrounding pot one brick at a time and uncover the truth.

Yes, pot it is a drug. But what else is a drug?

This is for those people who hear the word “drug” and automatically ascribe it pariah status. Ironically, Americans are the highest consumers of drugs per capita in the world – mainly due to eye-watering levels of prescription drug use and abuse – so this should be easy to debunk. Alcohol is a drug. Nicotine is drug. Caffeine is a drug. Even sugar falls under the definition of a drug. And, of course, so do the hundreds of prescription drugs that 48.7% of Americans regularly consume. Like it or not, we are all drug addicts in our own way – so it could be argued that demonizing one particular (very non-addictive) drug is borderline hypocritical.

It is far healthier than alcohol, tobacco, some prescription drugs and even sugar.

This is something the media consistently – some would say intentionally – misrepresents. Let’s look at the facts. Alcohol is responsible for almost 4% of deaths worldwide – a worryingly high percentage, when you think about it – and is also responsible for millions of non-fatal injuries, battered spouses, neglected children, physical assaults and more. Tobacco is responsible for roughly half a million deaths in America per year – the nation’s leading cause of preventable death. Deaths from Type II Diabetes – directly related to excessive sugar intake – stands at 1.5 million a year worldwide. Even some prescription drugs – deemed “safe” by the FDA – caused over 11,000 deaths between 1997 and 2005.

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Pot, on the other hand, has caused exactly zero recorded deaths. It has never been the cause of “rampages” or “accidental deaths” as some of the world’s more tawdry media outlets suggest, and does not correlate to lung cancer, unlike smoking. In fact, as medical usage implies, its effects can be beneficial.

It was originally outlawed for racist, political reasons

Everyone has heard of the War On Drugs. What many people don’t realize is that its origins were racially motivated. Take this charming quote from Henry Anslinger, the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which would go on to become the DEA:

“There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the U.S., and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz and swing result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

Or this corker:

“Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men.”

All this against a political context of increasing Mexican immigration to the US, and a hysteria surrounding the “miscegenation” of white women sleeping with black men. Eighty years later and we have a runaway train worth $15.6 billion annually that results in black people being incarcerated at ten times the rate of white people for drug offenses – usually on minor marijuana possession charges – despite weed use being five times higher among the white population. There are few things more deplorable, ugly and saddening than racism, yet even today it forms the cornerstone of American drugs policy.

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Its status as a “gateway drug” is purely cultural

This is a big one. People can admit the veracity of all of the above, but still consider weed a danger due to its “gateway” nature. However, this is an entirely de facto cultural construct born out of its criminalization: not only is it therefore categorized along with truly nasty substances like heroin and crystal meth, it means it is only produced and accessible via criminal means, disseminated by criminal networks who deal not just in weed but in far worse things too. As a counter-example, let’s look at other cultures. To certain Sufi Muslims, cannabis is an aid to religious experience, but alcohol is haram – a gateway drug to vice, immorality and godlessness. A similar dynamic exists in northern India, and in Rastafari tradition. Looking at the above statistics, you can see why that belief would arise.

Ultimately, as a society we owe it to ourselves to be aware of the cultural, social and political contexts for the illegality of cannabis. Only armed with knowledge and skepticism can we cut through the fear, hysteria and misinformation, and be able to create a fairer, healthier and more just world.