Marijuana is the most acceptable but least accessible recreational substance in the United States. This is the inescapable conclusion from the Civilized Cannabis Culture Poll which found that most Americans think that cannabis - legal in only a handful of states - is safer than legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
The online poll of 1,050 adult Americans, conducted by Environics Research Group, found that only 12 percent of Americans believe marijuana is more harmful than alcohol and tobacco. Tobacco was considered the most harmful by 49 percent of respondents while 38 percent saw alcohol as the biggest health risk of the three.
And that's not just a case of cannabis consumers preaching to the choir. The poll found that 52 percent of non-cannabis users considered tobacco the most harmful substance, even though the highly addictive substance isn't listed in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Public opinion is onside with cannabis science
For clarification, puffing a joint carries risks, which is why many people are turning to vaping and edibles. Anything that involves inhaling smoke has potential health risks. But there's "no comparison" between the dangers posed by tobacco and marijuana, according to Dr. David Hammond, a professor at the University of Waterloo's School of Public Health and Health Systems.
In Canada, tobacco kills more Canadians every year than alcohol, motor vehicles, firearms, other illegal drugs and HIV. Combined. In America, tobacco was ranked the most preventable cause of death in 2015.
Meanwhile, a comparative study of recreational substance use published in the January 2015 issue of "Scientific Reports" confirmed that "the risk of cannabis may have been overestimated in the past" whereas "the risk of alcohol may have been commonly underestimated."
Researchers found that marijuana is 114 times less deadly than alcohol. Indeed, their research suggested that alcohol could potentially be considered more dangerous than heroin in certain circumstances.
That's why Dr. Mark Kleiman - a specialist in drug policy working at New York University - told The Huffington Post that "alcohol and tobacco would be Schedule I" if the CSA were written from scratch today.
Today's consumers are changing perceptions
The poll results are still surprising because the federal government still stresses the supposed dangers of marijuana to the public. To find out how the average American came to be more progressive than their politicians on this subject, we reached out to Tom Angell - a longtime legalization advocate and founder of Marijuana Majority.
"It's a pretty low bar to be more progressive than the federal government," he laughed, and added that changing perceptions likely stem from who today's cannabis consumers are, and how they're starting to be portrayed in pop culture.
"We've started to see more sympathetic and realistic depictions of marijuana in popular culture," said Angell. "The only depiction we used to see was Cheech and Chong - lazy, forgetful stoners. Now you see more movies and television shows where people just happen to be smoking marijuana. It's not a joke and it's not the focus of the scene. They just happen to be enjoying cannabis. Those depictions normalize who marijuana users are."
Angell also said legislative gains have changed perceptions as people see marijuana as a medicine that their parents might use, instead of simply as a cheap thrill for college students.
"We've seen that cannabis is a medicine that can help people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer's, AIDS, and a number of other ailments. And many of those people are grandmothers and grandfathers. I think that has helped to change the perception of what this drug is and what it's used for."