Lowering the Risks of Cannabis Use

As we move toward greater acceptance of cannabis use, and possibly decriminalization or legalization down the road, it is important to recognize cannabis is not a benign drug. While it has benefits, like any other drug, there are also risks involved. Whenever we choose to use cannabis, it is helpful to know what steps we can take to ensure that our use is the least harmful possible. Here are some things to think about to help reduce the risk of harms and bad experiences.

Some of the risks around cannabis are related to its production. Since cannabis is illegal and unregulated, it is often produced in conditions where products are not tested for quality and potency. One way consumers can lessen the risk of experiencing harms is to purchase cannabis from someone who knows about the drugs they sell. Another precaution is to carefully inspect the cannabis for visible contaminants such as molds and mildew. And, since levels of THC (the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis) can vary, starting with a small amount helps adjust the dosage to achieve the desired effect. Using as little as is necessary also helps prevent inhaling unnecessary smoke and toxins.

The method used to consume cannabis also influences the risk of harmful consequences. Using a vaporizer is safer than smoking, since cannabis smoke contains tar and toxins. But, if smoking cannabis, research suggests joints are safer than bongs or pipes. Bongs filter out more THC than tars since water tends to absorb THC. This requires puffing harder, increasing the amount of tar that is inhaled. If using a bong or a pipe, consumers should avoid those made of materials (such as plastic) that may be toxic when heated. (Bennett, 2008; Gieringer, 1996, Rev. 2000).

Other ways to lessen risks include taking shallow puffs rather than deep inhalations, and if sharing joints or other devices, avoiding touching the lips (this helps decrease the risk of spreading germs and viruses). When eating or drinking cannabis, consuming a small amount and waiting at least one hour to feel the effects before using more helps avoid getting higher than intended.

Making informed decisions about where, and with whom, cannabis is used is another way to reduce adverse consequences. For instance, staying in the company of trusted friends in a safe place helps manage potential uncomfortable effects such as feeling too high or anxious. If going out, it is important to avoid driving. Cannabis can impair motor coordination, judgment and other skills related to safe driving (Mann, et al., 2008; Ramaekers, et al., 2004).

People sometimes mix cannabis with other drugs to experience different effects. But the effects of cannabis are intensified and may last longer than expected or wanted if combined with alcohol or other drugs at the same time. Cannabis in combination with even small doses of alcohol impairs driving ability more than either drug used alone.  And, tobacco contains many cancer-causing toxins, so it’s safer to use cannabis by itself.

All of the above practices are important to keep in mind when choosing to use cannabis. While all drug use involves risk, being clear on safer ways to use the drug helps to minimize harms, both acute and over time.


Author: Bette Reimer, Research Associate at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC

The Unlikely Story of Cannabis Legalization in Washington State

On November 18, Washington State will open a thirty-day window for would-be cannabis producers, processors, and retailers to submit applications for licenses that would allow them to begin shaping a new, legal market – under state law – for a substance that remains prohibited under U.S. federal law and throughout most of the rest of the world.  Washington voters passed Initiative Measure No. 502 (I-502) on November 6, 2012, with a 56% majority, thereby legalizing, taxing, and regulating cannabis for adults 21 years of age and older.  The measure passed in twenty of Washington’s thirty-nine counties, in conservative Eastern Washington as well as the liberal West, and in rural areas as well as urban.

And yet, less than a third of Washington’s electorate expressed positive feelings about cannabis before taking this historic vote.  Many expressed concerns about increased use, especially among youth, and increased impairment on roadways and in workplaces.  Cannabis prohibition in the U.S., and the use of the criminal sanction to enforce this prohibition, was premised on the idea that making the production, distribution, and use of the substance illegal would promote public health and public safety.  How could the state’s voters reject this policy, and seemingly embrace cannabis use, by a double-digit margin?

The answer is that while voters do not necessarily like cannabis, they like the results of cannabis prohibition even less.  Much as the U.S. experiment with alcohol Prohibition ended not because people changed their minds about gin but because they changed their minds about the policy approach, I-502 passed because Washington voters believed marijuana prohibition had failed and it was time for a new approach.

I-502 is not a “free the weed” proposal.  Several policy features were included to maximize the chances that I-502 would deliver better outcomes than prohibition has.  A new excise tax will be dedicated to prevention, education, treatment, research, monitoring, and evaluation.  The tax level will be reviewed regularly and adjusted to promote the goal of undercutting the black market while discouraging use among price-sensitive youth.  Cost-benefit evaluations, to be conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in 2015, 2017, 2022, and 2032, will consider factors impacting public health, public safety, the economy, the criminal justice system, and state and local administrative budgets.

The number and location of cannabis stores will be limited, and banned within 1,000 feet of places frequented by youth.  Advertising will be restricted to minimize exposure to minors, and cannabis will be packaged in opaque, childproof containers bearing labels that provide information regarding THC concentration and cannabinoid profile.  Information regarding chemicals used on the plants during cultivation and harvest must be made available to consumers on demand.

It’s too soon to know how cannabis use will change once stores have opened.  The goal is to promote public health and safety without criminalizing consumers and enriching a black market.  Undoubtedly, rough patches lie ahead, and adjustments will be necessary.  But the outlook is promising.


*Please note that the material presented here does not necessarily imply endorsement or agreement by individuals at the Centre for Addictions Research of BC


Alison Holcomb, Criminal Justice Director at American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State and primary author of I-502