Despite the fact that the use and even possession of cannabis is illegal under federal law for any purpose in the United States, there are 11 states that have legalized it for recreational use, while the medical use of cannabis has been legalized in 33 states and four U.S. territories. Fourteen of those 33 states do have laws that limit THC content.
Moreover, it is still illegal at the state level in Idaho, Nebraska and South Dakota – and notably it remains a Schedule I drug, even if the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment prohibits federal prosecution of individuals complying with state medical cannabis laws.
Where the legality gets even more complicated is that some derivative compounds of cannabis have in fact been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for prescription use – and this includes Marinol (THC), Syndros (THC), Cesamet (nabilone) and Epidiolex (cannabidiol).
All of this has caused no shortage of confusion, which has been made far worse by the spread of cannabis-related misinformation on social media.
“Unfortunately, the majority of information circulating in the popular media about cannabis is misinformation,” warned Carey Clark, director of nursing and the chair of the Medical Cannabis Certificate Program at Pacific College of Health and Science.
“That’s why it’s essential that healthcare professionals are educated to best support the patient’s safe and effective use of cannabis,” added Clark.
21st Century Snakeoil
It isn’t just users that are sharing such misinformation about the supposed “benefits” of cannabis either.
According to a new study – “Cannabis Surveillance With Twitter Data: Emerging Topics and Social Bots” – from the University of Southern California, which was published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, there are many unfounded claims regarding the health benefits of cannabis that are regularly posted on Twitter and other social media platforms.
The study found that bots are often posting false assertions and in many cases this includes information that contradicts scientific facts. As many Americans now rely on social media as their primary source for news this misinformation could range from simply misleading to downright dangerous.
“Social media has dramatically improved our ability to communicate with people across the globe but the dark side of social media is very concerning,” explained Thomas LaVeist, dean of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine at Tulane University.
“The amount of misinformation in social media is a very serious threat to the public’s health,” added LaVeist. “I have seen many claims on social media that are troubling.”
There is a lot of bad medical advice on social media, and because it is often presented as fact, or worse as news, many social media users believe it and even heed the advice.
We have seen the impact of people adopting believes that can be harmful to their health such as claims that vaccines cause autism or that cell phones cause brain cancer,” said LaVeist. “If people act on this false information, they might fail to take actions that protect health such as getting an annual flu shot. Last year more than 8,000 Americans died from the flu.”
More Than Inflated Claims
In many cases, what makes the information about cannabis dangerous is that much of it suggests it is a miracle cure for all forms of aliments, and many people are opting to use it instead of seeking medical advice from an actual doctor!
“If people believe all of the inflated claims about the health benefits of cannabis or CBD they might fail to adopt healthy strategies that actually have evidence of its efficacy,” noted LaVeist.
The actual “medical advice” presented on social media about cannabis also ignores any of the known negative traits linked to its extended use.
“While proponents of legalizing cannabis say that the drug is safer than alcohol, repeated cannabis use is associated with the potential for cannabis dependence, other substance use disorders and increased risk of schizophrenia, among individuals with a specific genetic makeup,” Dr. Jon-Patrick Allem, assistant professor of research at the University of Southern California and lead author of the study, explained via an op-ed for The Conversation.
Bad Advice On Social Media
As noted, such bad medical advice is far from limited to cannabis, but the trend is likely to get worse before it ever gets better.
“The reason is simple: people like to share – often without thinking/checking – things they view as ‘novel’ or ‘unique’ especially if it confirms something they already believe,” said Lawrence Parnell, associate professor and director of the Strategic Public Relations program at The Graduate School of Political Management at The George Washington University. “This explains the spread of fake news generally as well as outlandish conspiracy theories posted by people with strong political beliefs or views on social issues/problems.”
In the case of Twitter and cannabis there is the added danger due to the involvement of bots – likely as a way to lure in consumers – but misinformation really needs no help in going viral.
“These stories may originate from bots – but it is humans that are spreading them around for their own reasons,” added Parnell. “If it turns out that they are false, you can always take the post down or just let it get lost in the volume of posts/tweets online with little consequence. If it is true, then you get ‘credit’ for bringing it to your contacts’ attention.”
The sad part is that real news and legitimate “facts” can be drowned out by all the misinformation noted Parnell. “A recent study by MIT found it took the truth about six times longer than a falsehood to reach 1,500 people online.”