People are jumping to conclusions about the benefits of medical marijuana, according to Dr. Salomeh Keyhani of the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Keyhani is the lead author of a new study that suggests the average American's perceptions of cannabis aren't backed by hard science.

"The American public has a much more favorable point of view than is warranted by the evidence," Dr. Keyhani told Reuters. "Perhaps most concerning is that they think that it prevents health problems."

The Findings

Over one-third of respondents (36.9 percent) said they believed consuming cannabis edibles would prevent health problems, and over one quarter (29.2 percent) said the same about smoking or vaping.

Another finding Keyhani found startling was that 7.3 percent of respondents thought cannabis consumption was somewhat to completely safe during pregnancy.

"That 7 percent is a lot of people who think that it's OK during pregnancy," she noted.

Other findings include the fact that 27.6 percent thought driving while high is safer than driving drunk, and 22.4 believed cannabis has no addictive potential.

Why Is This?

People tend to erroneously link legality with safety, according to Dr. Ajay Wasan of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (who was not associated with the study). He explained that many people don't see cannabis as a controlled substance, but as something more akin to protein pills.

"People perceive it as more like a dietary supplement than as a Schedule I drug with addiction potential."

For her part, Dr. Keyhani thinks the growing size of the industry and its marketing efforts also play a key role in shaping people's opinions.

"It's a multibillion dollar industry. That's big business."

The fact that there aren't any deaths from cannabis overdoses also plays into the perception of cannabis as a benign substance, explains Dr. Timothy Fong—a faculty member of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. He stresses that there are other potential risks, however.

"People get intoxicated and they fall off roofs or they get into automobile accidents," Fong said. "Sometimes they show up in the hospital with a psychotic condition."

Education Is Key

Fong says that promoting more research is necessary to ensure the public is well-informed about the potential risks of cannabis consumption. Otherwise, people source their knowledge from "pop culture, television shows, celebrities, social media and cannabis conventions." He says Keyhani's study "shows we have a long way to go."

But much of that research is made difficult by federal regulations and the substance's Schedule I designation.

"We want to do more studies, but we can't do a darn thing if the federal government handcuffs us," said Fong, adding that when the science isn't present, regulations are based on politics.

"I like science based legislation."

With the recent FDA approval of a cannabis based medication it is possible that cannabis will be, at least in part, descheduled and cannabis research can move forward a little more quickly.

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