Tastes Crappy, Less Carcinogenic


A new federal anti-pot ad that started running in newspapers this week revives an old canard and gives it a new twist. Under the headline "Introducing a Really High-Tar Cigarette," it says:

Quite a few people think that smoking pot is less likely to cause cancer than a regular cigarette. You may even have heard some parents say they'd rather their kid smoked a little pot than get hooked on cigarettes.

Wrong, and wrong again.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one joint can deliver four times as much cancer-causing tar as one cigarette. So if your kids smoke a joint, their lungs are being filled by far more carcinogens than if they smoked a cigarette.

It's true that a typical joint delivers more carcinogens than a typical tobacco cigarette. But the comparison is highly misleading because the typical pot smoker does not consume even as much as one joint a day, whereas the typical cigarette smoker consumes nearly a pack (four-fifths of cigarette smokers light up every day, with an average daily consumption of about 18 cigarettes). Given the relatively low doses involved, it's not surprising that an association between pot smoking and cancer has yet to be clearly demonstrated, as the Marijuana Policy Project points out.

MPP plausibly argues that the new anti-pot ad could easily be read as suggesting that a marijuana habit is more likely to cause cancer than a cigarette habit, which is clearly not true. If parents are mainly concerned about long-term health effects (as opposed to, say, the risk of arrest), it's perfectly reasonable for them to say "they'd rather their kid smoked a little pot than get hooked on cigarettes." In short, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is wrong, and wrong again.

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  1. “In short, the Office of National Drug Control Policy is wrong, and wrong again.”

    No… You’re kidding, right? 😉

  2. Let’s not forget that there are zero carcinogens present if the pot is vaporized.

  3. Oh man, I … those fucks … dag nasdfljffj f$#^* &^%*$#^ @$#(*$!!!!

    I picked a hell of a day to quit heroin

  4. In these types of “studies”, they always assume that most pot users smoke a joint. The reality is that most pot smokers use water bongs because it goes down smoother, easier to use, & it’s less wasteful.

  5. Next they’ll blame second hand pot smoke for high cancer rates in bodega owners.

  6. Mr. Sullum doesn’t mention that those print ads (at least in the Washington Post) also include a picture of a white, teenaged girl (who might as well be in pig tails) very awkwardly holding a fattie. She also looks depressed.

    Maybe she’s pissed off over the ditchweed.

  7. As I recall, in 1997 after two year of hearing a DEA Administrative Law Judge ruled that “marijuana is one of the safest therapeutically active drugs known.” Someone should dig up this ruling. It was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association in the same year.

  8. Francisco,
    Less wasteful? I always thought it was slightly more wasteful because of the small amount that dissolves in the water.

  9. Mo,
    All you have to do is put a fine mesh screen at the bottom of the bowl and the precious stuff won’t go in the water. If you use what’s called a “snap bowl” which has no screen, then it is a bit more wasteful than a regular bowl. But a constantly burning joint is the most wasteful – well, next to a hookah that is.

  10. In bio lab in college we had to put everyday materials in pertrie dishes with small amounts of bacteria which had been mutated so they could not produce some amino acid (histimine?) on their own to test the mutation factor by seeing how much of the bacteria grew (details are fuzzy, it’s been a long time).

    Anyway, people had samples of water with tobacco in it, diet pepsi, etc. My lab parter brought in a testtube of bong water. Turned out it was the most mutagenic substance in the whole class. The professor was impressed with the zone of inhibition it produced, and didn’t know what to say when we told him what our sample was.

    After that, I figured I’d stick to water pipes to filter out the bad stuff.

  11. This is so hypocritical! I was goofily sending my friends anti-drug pamphlets as a joke whilst working in my high school guidance office, and one of those “Cigarettes–Don’t do them” explicitly stated that cigarette smoking is way more harmful than pot. When will they make up their minds?

  12. When will they make up their minds?

    My Leige,

    Currently, one party is in the pocket of Big Tobacco, and the other party contains a lot of people ideologically opposed to the very existence of large companies selling tobacco. As long as those two parties keep rotating power, I suspect the government will remain unable to make up its mind on that issue.

    Anyway, is smoking pot healthier than shooting heroin? Yes. Is smoking pot healthier than smoking tobacco? Depends on how often you use them. Is smoking pot healthier than not smoking pot? Unless you’re living in constant pain and you’re having problems with other painkillers, I doubt it. Of course all of these questions are completely irrelevant to whether or not the substance should be illegal, if you believe individuals and not the government are responsible for making our lifestyle choices. People should be allowed to inject themselves with HIV or cyanide for all I care. The health effects of a substance don’t seem to be government’s primary motivator either, or else they wouldn’t be caught continually lying about the effects of illegal drugs.

  13. Actually, they don’t have to make up their minds; it’s more entertaining to watch all the “little people” arguing among themselves over whose vice is better or worse. They’ll continue stirring the pot until it fails to give a return.


  14. the typical pot smoker does not consume even as much as one joint a day

    You must hang out with a bunch of lightweights, then.

  15. My favorite argument is that pot is really bad because it is much stronger these days. They conveniently forget that if the pot is more potent, one smokes less to get high. I’ve seen this argument with tobacco as well, but couldn’t higher nicotine ciggies reduce the cancer risk by reducing the number of smokes smoked? (By the way, I chose to quit both pot and tobacco because I couldn’t keep my usage down to “reasonable” amounts. It’s sad, but I just like THC and nicotine far too much, especially in combination. I guess I’ll just have to get high from sex or something.)

  16. pot is my anti-drug

  17. Aside from the absurd tar angle, the govt. seems to have abandoned trying to pursuade people that pot is inherently dangerous – conspicuously so (for me) because I grew up with anti-weed propaganda that said just that. My favorites among the new govt. anti-drug ads are those with stories about how pot ruined someone’s life – because they got arrested for posession. How can any half-intelligent person not recognize that these are obvious and unambiguous anit-govt. advertisements? As dumb as most people in this country must be, these ads must be working some unconscious magic in the collective mind of the U.S., so that a few years from now the stance these ads take will be untenable.

  18. Real Bill beat me to it. I’ve seen in the same article A) complaints about the dangers of lung cancer from pot smoking and B) dangers from pot being stronger than it was years ago.

    With impeccable thinking like that it’s no wonder the high people are winning the War on Drugs. This makes stoner logic look like an advanced Tarski Truth Table.

  19. So these guys refuse to believe that “the dose makes the poison”, huh?


  20. Do a lot of pot users smoke regular cigarettes too? Or is do the two tend to be either/or indulgences?

  21. The government ads about pot being ‘so much higher in THC’ bring to mind that the ONDCP actively touts Marinol as being a preferable alternative to ‘smoked marijuana’.

    Last I checked, Marinol was 100% THC content.

    the great god ZEUS aptly notes that virtually all carcinogens are eliminated when the pot is vaporized instead of combusted.

    POUSTMAN, we’ve read stats suggesting that the rate of tobacco use among cannabis users is about twice the norm of average bear.

    Thus about half of cannabis users also use tobacco, though most tell researchers they ‘want to quit tobacco if only they could’.

  22. And I’m further annoyed that this new government propoganda ignores all the previous Science which I was taught growing up in the 70s and in decades since….That being, “Marijuana smoke is TWENTY TIMES as bad as tobacco smoke.”

    Who can you trust these days?

  23. ira, I think you’re confusing two different types of experiments. a zone of inhibition would mean that pot has strong antibacterial properties, not necessarily that it induces mutations (and by implication causes cancer)

    considering the public’s fetish for antibacterial products, it seems pot ought to be gaining in popularity

  24. The statment is scientifically misleading in some other ways as well. It is well-established that one of the two most potent classes of carcinogens in tobacco smoke is the tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNAs), which are unique to tobacco. The other group of potent carcinogens is the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and they are indeed present in cannabis smoke. The bulk of the evidence to date suggests that cannabis smoking is not a major cause of any type of cancer. And more importantly, the evidence also suggests that cannabis smoking does not increase cardiovascular mortality or obstructive pulmonary diseases, which are responsible for much of the excess mortality associated with tobacco smoking.

    [quote]”Compared to tobacco and alcohol, cannabis smoking appears to have at most a small impact on overall disease and mortality. Cannabis use does not appear to be associated with increased risk of cardiovascular (Sidney, 1997a, 2002) or chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (Tashkin et al, 1997a), which are two of the three most important sources of smoking-associated mortality. Questions still remain, however, about the extent to which cannabis smoking may or may not increase the risk of respiratory cancers. For several reasons, even heavy cannabis smoking is a priori unlikely to increase the risk of lung cancer to the same extent as regular tobacco smoking. First and foremost, the association between tobacco smoking an cancer risk is dose-dependent, and cannabis smokers do not smoke nearly as much cannabis (by weight) as tobacco smokers smoke tobacco (by weight). Even a heavy cannabis smoker is not likely to smoke more than 2-3 grams/day, while an average tobacco smoker smokes approximately 20 grams per day of tobacco. Second, individuals tend to begin cannabis smoking later in life and end it earlier than they do tobacco smoking. So, the cumulative exposure of cannabis smokers to carcinogens from cannabis smoke is much lower than the exposure of tobacco smokers to carcinogens from tobacco smoke. Hall and MacPhee (2002, p. 245) note:

    [i]On current patterns of use, cannabis smoking will make, at most, a small contribution to the occurrence of respiratory cancers. This is so even if we assume that the risks of daily cannabis smoking are comparable to those of daily tobacco smoking (Hall 1998). The reason is that in most western societies there are many more daily tobacco (25?30%) than daily cannabis smokers (1?3%) (Hall 1995); most cannabis smokers stop in their mid- to late 20s (Bachman et al. 1997); and the 1% or fewer people who smoke cannabis daily over decades typically smoke 1?3 cannabis cigarettes per day rather than 10?30 tobacco cigarettes a day (Didcott et al. 1997). Among this minority, however, cannabis smoking into the fourth and later decades may increase the risk of respiratory cancer in tobacco smokers who concurrently smoke cannabis.”[/i][/quote]

    But even that is speculative at this point.



  25. In regards to smoking anything, “pipes” of any sort are not cleaner. Where as smoke travels a cooler delivery path, nicotine and cannabinoids condense out onto the pipe surfaces. Water pipes actually deliver a larger proportion of undesirable compounds to the lungs than a cigarette or joint.

    Smoking is a vestige of the past. The technology exists to greatly reduce health hazards of smoking and its enormous health costs. Vaporizing is not “smoking”. Vaporizers are not pipes. Properly functioning Vaporizers appear to reduce harmful compounds by over 90% + reduce secondary smoke hazards!… For more information about Vapor technology go to: http://www.lightwell.net

  26. But even if you decide to “smoke,” there are some common-sense ways for people to dramatically reduce their exposure to smoke carcinogens. Simplest way is to smoke a high-THC cannabis extract rather than plant cannabis. With an extract, the consumer can get his or her desired dose of THC from, say, one puff rather than 5-10 puffs.

  27. Joe,

    It was DEA Law Judge Francis Young and the year was 1988.

    Safer than potatoes.

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