Cannabis is not a drug, or is it?

Published Nov 1, 2020 01:00 p.m. ET
iStock / Cristina Ionescu

A great debate that has had experts and consumers on both sides of the argument, but why is it even a question? The only real reason that an arbitrary label like this one would matter is if it was steeped in a deep dark history that leaves many misunderstanding the true nature of the cannabis plant, and this is something that we struggle with. One side claims that cannabis gets people high and that it's recreational consumption alone earns it the title of a drug, but the other knows that it's medicine.

What is a drug?

When we hear the word drug, our mind will go to some pretty dark places, but chances are pretty good that it won't necessarily bring about thoughts of cannabis unless there is context to make such an implication. The term drug instead makes us think about illegal drugs, like heroin, ecstasy, or cocaine. Practically anything that might get your thrown in prison, but cannabis is entirely legal now.

A drug, by definition, is a substance that is taken for its stimulant or narcotic effects, often illegally, but that is only the most popular way that this particular term is used. There are two other definitions for what makes a drug, and they include a substance or medicine that induces psychological effects when it is ingested or consumed or a medicine that is administered by a doctor.

Now, putting any previous biased that you might have had aside, it's easy to see how the term drug is all-encompassing and that it can mean several legal and illegal things. Still, in general, it's a word that is used to describe all psychoactive drugs regardless of the situation at hand. So why do cannabis enthusiasts cringe when they or the plant itself are referred to as drugs?

Drugs are bad, mkay?

If you recognize the slogan "Drugs are bad mkay," then you probably remember the very first time that you heard it, but for some, it's origin may be slightly different. Though, the phrase was made famous thanks to South Park, an animated series that has long advocated for cannabis use. Kids and their parents have been using it for as long as the War on Drugs lasted. It's a generalized statement that pokes fun at the old ways of thinking about cannabis, but it couldn't be further from the truth, and for some people, that is a harsh fact to swallow.

It might be catchy and funny, and it may have even been created with the best intentions in mind, but the reality is that there aren't very many drugs that should be labelled as bad. The majority of prescriptions that are provided by doctors is a form of drug, and they save millions of lives every single day. Then we have other psychoactive drugs like psilocybin that we know can benefit us significantly due to a tremendous amount of research, and yet it remains illegal in most countries.

Anything that you take that comes with an effect that could be considered to be mind-altering, be it illegal, legal, or strong enough to induce a stereotypical psychoactive experience, is a drug. Whether you are fond of the way, the word sounds or not is irrelevant because clinically and scientifically, cannabis and all other psychoactive substances are drugs. Despite knowing this, many still boldly claim that cannabis is not a drug, but they aren't defending the plant as much as they're hoping to alter society's perception of it.

The importance of smashing these stereotypes

When cannabis consumers are told they use drugs, it's offensive, demeaning, and it implies that there is some sort of either criminal or radical element to their decision. Now, we can't change the facts to make certain people feel better about their decision in life, but we can help those who don't know understand why this sort of terminology could be misinterpreted as a negative thing. We can also work towards a better understanding of what all substances are on a chemical level because the law doesn't differentiate between right and wrong all by itself.

Many view all drugs as a bane to human existence because they can impair, and that often leads to responsibilities being forgotten or neglected, and the effects leave the people who take them in a less than ideal state of mind to be productive and on point. This is a valid opinion and one that should be respected, as not everyone craves an altered state of mind. Still, it would be ignorant for them to hold such a distaste for a legal plant without knowing anything relevant about it.


Most drugs, in some way or another, have proven to be effective for managing various illnesses and symptoms. The problem is that many of them some with a wide range of adverse health effects, in particular, when they're abused.

Alternative terms that might be more suitable

Cannabis is most certainly a drug, but there are other, more socially acceptable names that don't inflict pain on consumers when they're heard. The trouble is that they aren't as popular because they aren't nearly as taboo, which seems to be what gets people's attention.

  • Substance

  • Medicine

  • Holistic therapy

  • Therapeutic element

  • Aid

In most cases, stoners are pretty accepting people, and they understand when someone refers to their beloved plant as a drug, as long as it isn't done to insult intentionally. Tone and intention is everything, so you don't have to worry about offending someone close to you. However, if you're having a conversation with mom while trying to convince her that cannabis is good or with a stranger who is on the fence about the idea, these lighter less triggering words can make a world of difference.

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