The Perils of Potent Pot

Is better marijuana really worse for you?

According to federal drug czar John Walters, the marijuana available in the United States is better than ever. Well, that's not quite the way he put it, but it's closer to the truth.

Last week, as part of its ongoing effort to convince baby boomers that today's "Pot 2.0" is much more dangerous than the stuff they smoked when they were young, Walters' Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) announced that "levels of THC—the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana—have reached the highest-ever amounts since scientific analysis of the drug began in the late 1970s." The University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project reports that the average THC content of the seized marijuana it tests was 8.1 percent last year, up from 3.2 percent in 1983.

That increase is much less dramatic than the one Walters alleged a few years ago. In a 2002 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed piece, he asserted that "the potency of available marijuana has not merely 'doubled,' but increased as much as 30 times" since 1974, when "the average THC content of marijuana was less than 1 percent."

Since 1 percent is the threshold at which experimental subjects can detect a psychoactive effect, if Walters were right it would mean that people who smoked pot in the mid-'70s, when marijuana was even more popular than it is today, typically did not get high as a result. This rather implausible claim is based on a small, nonrepresentative sample of low-quality marijuana that probably degraded in storage.

Worse, to get his impressive 30-to-1 ratio, Walters compared the weakest pot of the '70s to the strongest pot of this decade. As a review of research on marijuana potency in the July 2008 issue of the journal Addiction notes, "There is enormous variation in potency, within a given year, from sample to sample," such that "cannabis users may be exposed to greater variation of cannabis potency in a single year...than over years or decades."

Even when the ONDCP is comparing annual averages, it's not clear that the government's samples, which depend on whose marijuana law enforcement agencies happen to seize, are comparable from year to year or representative of the U.S. market. Still, it's likely that average THC content has increased significantly during the last couple of decades as growers have become more adept at meeting the demands of increasingly discriminating consumers. The question is why Walters thinks that's a bad thing.

With stronger pot, people can smoke less to achieve the same effect, thereby reducing their exposure to combustion products, the most serious health risk associated with marijuana consumption. Yet the ONDCP inexplicably warns that higher THC levels could mean "an increased risk" of "respiratory problems."

It also trots out warnings about reefer madness reminiscent of anti-drug propaganda from the 1930s, conflating correlation (between heavy pot smoking and depression, for example) with causation. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, worries that stronger pot might be more addictive, although she concedes that "more research is needed to establish this link between higher THC potency and higher addiction risk."

By contrast, the Australian scientists who wrote the Addiction article say "more research is needed to determine whether increased potency...translates to harm for users." Unlike our government, they are open to the possibility that the link Volkow seeks to establish does not in fact exist.

To bolster the idea that marijuana is more addictive today, the ONDCP notes that "16.1% of drug treatment admissions [in 2006] were for marijuana as the primary drug of abuse," compared to "6% in 1992." But referrals from the criminal justice system account for three-fifths of these treatment admissions, and marijuana arrests have increased by more than 150 percent since 1990.

By arresting people for marijuana possession and forcing them into treatment, the government shows why it has to arrest people for marijuana possession. That's our self-justifying drug policy in a nutshell.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Elemenope||

    Well, this is the *third* marijuana advertisement article in the last week. I should have known that Reason was in the pocket of Big Ganja.

    For my part, though, I can't figure out just why the ONDCP finds it necessary to do drug-dealers' advertising for them. "They're producing a higher-quality product! Oh noes!"

  • Kevin Colby||

    People can perform these so-called scientific studies and skew the numbers to say whatever they want.

    As for this whole smoking more or less is better or worse for you thing: Guess What? Smoking anything is probably not going to be good for your lungs.

    Then getting into the topic of our drug enforcement system at work, well, that's a whole other issue I could go on and on about. I've voiced my opinion on my blog however about my pro-legalization of drug stance.

  • JMR||

    The great thing about this pot "science" is how conservatives swallow it, no matter how contradictory it is, while at the same time (legitimately) attacking AGW "science" as biased because it's financed by THE SAME GOVERNMENT. The leaps of "logic" are astounding.
    JMR

    PS I'm an expert, and

    http://www.russmo.com/03_08_25.html

    reliably infuriates 'em, every time, because it's TRUE.

  • BakedPenguin||

    As someone whose been addicted to both, I'd say marijuana addiction is easier to beat than caffeine addiction. That is, if you want to get off these drugs. I sometimes hope that they expand the WoD to caffeine - it might finally wake up some people to the stupidity of arresting people for possession of foliage. Then again, probably not.

    The "potency" issue is also one of the stupidest arguments I've heard. What are they going to say next? "If these trends continue, we might start seeing marijuana overdose deaths by the 23rd century!" Oh noes...

  • JohnD||

    JMR's assertion that he is an expert is a little confusing to me. Is it because he has been a druggie all his life?

    Frankly, it seems to me that the major tenent of the typical Reasonoid is unlimited access to drugs. Al least you all have an excuse for some of your more asinine views.

  • BakedPenguin||

    JohnD - so you think the 18th amendment was a great idea, huh? Worked out well, did it?

  • JMR||

    Now there's a way to debate! Ad hominem accusations. Anyway, and I think your comment makes it obvious, the expertise is in upsetting sputtering conservatives, who are attempting doublethink & don't want it pointed-out by a cartoon.
    JMR

  • Elemenope||

    You should see JohnD the 'Enforcer' over at the Habeas thread.

    "Lock 'em up and throw away the key!"

    "Who?"

    "Everyone."

  • JMR||

    I did. The right to ask for a hearing = the right to demand a trial. Such impressive intellectual depth, it's no wonder I'm always such a fountain of respect...
    JMR

  • ||

    What was the question?

  • ||

    BakedPenguin, you were "addicted" to marijuana and caffeine? Maybe I'm one of the lucky ones, but when there's no pot around it's no big deal to me. Likewise if I miss my morning or noontime cup of joe.

    Yeah, maybe I'd like some, but I don't feel any anxiety about it or have any withdrawl symptoms.

  • Elemenope||

    BakedPenguin, you were "addicted" to marijuana and caffeine? Maybe I'm one of the lucky ones, but when there's no pot around it's no big deal to me. Likewise if I miss my morning or noontime cup of joe.

    Yours is a fairly common experience, but not universal. Some people have psychological dependence issues on the weedz. I've been lucky on the front, like you. On the other hand, caffeine withdrawal gives me a wicked headache and the shakes. Man, that shit should be illegal!

    I keed, I keed...

  • ||

    Alcohol.

    One word defeats all WOD arguments.
    This *displays bottle of beer* is about 4% alcohol (the psychoactive ingredient in booze).
    This *displays bottle of whiskey* is about 40% alcohol.
    This *displays pint mug* is a single serving of this *points to beer*
    This *displays shot glass* is a single serving of this *points to whiskey*
    This *beer mug* is about ten times larger than this *shot glass*

    It works the same with pot.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Rabbit - At one point in my life, I had a hard time going without pot, and spent a lot of time looking for it. I suspect that would be defined as "addiction" - certainly for ONDCP purposes. For whatever reason, I started to not enjoy smoking pot - it only made me anxious and depressed. Once that started happening, quitting was easy enough. It was entirely psychological.

    If I had kids, and found out they were "addicted" to pot, the thing that would really worry me is that they could be arrested. I don't think I'm telling anyone here anything new by saying it's the most dangerous thing associated with pot.

    As LMNOP said, A lot of people get caffeine headaches, and it's a tough couple of days to get through. Caffeine addiction actually has a physical component. (Still, it's not very scary, either).

  • BakedPenguin||

    Ugh. I suppose it's possible to write worse than I did in my last post, but it would take some effort. Maybe if I added the word pot a couple more times in the first & second paragraph.

    Anyway, I have a friend who I'm sure also would qualify as an "addict". He works full time, owns his condo, has a wife & kid, etc. The irony is he comes from a family with a long history of drinking problems. He once told me that he was certain, without pot, he would have become an alcoholic.

  • ||

    Frankly, it seems to me that the major tenent of the typical Reasonoid is unlimited access to drugs.

    Of course not. We're libertarians. We think you should have access to all the drugs you can pay for.

  • ||

    BakedPenguin,
    I agree, people who say weed is "not addictive" because you don't develop a chemical dependency are way wrong - I found in the past that if uh someone I know and am talking about that is not me ran out, he would just get really irritable, especially over the fact that he can't just walk down the street to the 7-11 and buy a new sack of weed rollies or something similar. But yeah, stopping smoking is waaaaay easier than dismounting the black dragon (caffinated coffee).

  • ||

    Only slightly related, on the subject of hysteria. There's a really great comic about DEA reactions up on http://www.toothpastefordinner.com/ today.

  • ||

    Maybe I've gone AWOL in the cause of righteousness and reefer. When I hear people discussing the ONDCP talking points about the evils and dangers of good ol' fashioned ganja, I immediately consider them too fuckin' stupid to engage in intelligent discourse on the topic.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Well, this is the *third* marijuana advertisement article in the last week.

    That is four by my count.
    All pretty lacking in content.

    As usual JS's content is the mirror of the ONDCP, and just as credible (if you are generous to JS).

  • TallDave||

    Well, this is the *third* marijuana advertisement article in the last week.

    Hey, this topic needs a lot of coverage! And research!

    I will selflessly volunteer to do some research into these claims of more potent marijuana.

    I agree, people who say weed is "not addictive" because you don't develop a chemical dependency are way wrong

    Depends how loosely you define addiction. Some people with OCD are "addicted" to washing their hands. Should we therefore make handsoap illegal?

  • TallDave||

    By arresting people for marijuana possession and forcing them into treatment, the government shows why it has to arrest people for marijuana possession.

    It's the perfect self-licking ice cream cone self-smoking water bong!

  • ||

    Talldave, you should have read the rest of my post - I didn't say anything about making it illegal, just that it is addictive. You can accept the negatives of a substance along with the positives and still use it.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Depends how loosely you define addiction. Some people with OCD are "addicted" to washing their hands. Should we therefore make handsoap illegal?

    No. And that is why the proper response to the real problems that drug abuse creates for individuals and society at large should not be from the judicial system (for the most part), but from the public health sector.

    You can accept the negatives of a substance along with the positives and still use it.

    And if that use leads to abuse, there should be a way for you to get help. Whether a publicly funded or private solution is the most pragmatic solution for society is debatable, but that debate requires an honest discussion from both sides. Pretending those negatives don't exist is just as disingenuous as overselling those negatives to make them look like the coming apocalypse.

  • ||

    You can accept the negatives of a substance along with the positives and still use it.

    And if that use leads to abuse, there should be a way for you to get help. Whether a publicly funded or private solution is the most pragmatic solution for society is debatable, but that debate requires an honest discussion from both sides. Pretending those negatives don't exist is just as disingenuous as overselling those negatives to make them look like the coming apocalypse.



    Lying or covering up/ignoring facts to make your point lowers you to the drug warrior mentality. If pot were legalized similat to alcohol, teen use will go up. Life is often like that. You make decisions on what is the best/least bad of possible choices. In the long run, credbility matters in policy debate.

  • Neu Mejican||

    If pot were legalized similat to alcohol, teen use will go up.

    My own experience was different.
    Alcohol was much harder for me to get than pot, so I smoked more dope than I drank alcohol in HS...until I looked old enough to pass for 21, then things balanced out. I could see regulation of marijuana on the level of tobacco/alcohol being sold to the public fairly readily to the general public, if an honest debate were done seriously. Let adults decide, keep the decision for kids in the realm of parents.

    Or something along those lines.

  • ||

    If pot were legalized similat to alcohol, teen use will go up.


    JsubD,
    I am not too sure about that. Use in general may increase but most of the surveys I have read indicate that teens have a much easier time obtaining marijuana (and other illicits) than they do alcohol.

    I suspect it's because a licensed liquor store stands to lose its legal ability to sell if caught selling to a minor whereas the drug dealer has no similar incentive. Also, illicit drugs in a non-liquid form are easier to handle and conceal than a fifth of whiskey making "in school" deals more plausible. IOW, I am not sure there would be a decrease in teen use but I am equally not convinced there would be an increase.

  • Gene Trosper||

    I despise the ONDCP, but I have to wonder if marijuana really IS more potent these days. I stopped smoking a few years ago simply because the weed I bought knocked me on my ass and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. One particular batch was that hydroponic "chronic" shit going around South Central LA. Apparently, I'm not the only one who has noticed this either. I have a friend who gets massive migraine headaches from some strains of weed and he cannot finish a joint anymore because it's too powerful.

  • ||

    It makes sense that stronger marijuana would decrease the amount inhaled. If one martini (am I the only person left on earth that thinks a martini is made with gin and a whiff of vermouth?) relaxes me, why drink two? Drugs certainly aren't going away, so why not celebrate small 'health' victories?

    Like Kwix, I see that teens turn to illegal substances because they can't easily purchase alcohol or tobacco products.

    You can get blown up in Iraq or buy a handgun at age 18 in Texas (gotta have a clean criminal record, etc). Can't remember where it is (way out in West Texas) where beer is no longer served on base to under 21s. Don't know about you folx, but I'd give the shirt off my back and buy a six-pack and a carton of smokes for any military member regardless of age. In Texas I can incur a fine for same -- well, not the shirt off my back.

    Disclosure: I have a daughter who served in Iraq and a son-in-law who just got back from his 3rd TDY.

    If the do-gooders ever had to do hard duty, they'd melt away like Little Black Sambo (showing my age and political incorrectness).

  • ||

    JsubD,
    I am not too sure about that. Use in general may increase but most of the surveys I have read indicate that teens have a much easier time obtaining marijuana (and other illicits) than they do alcohol.


    The polls I've seen (TLTG) show that teens drink more than they inhale. I suspect that unlike me as a kid, some have respect for the law and the possible consequences of getting busted. For example, if you get busted for reefer government guaranteed scholarship loans get much harder to obtain.

    I know! Let's legalize it for a decade and compile the results. When the stats come in one of us will then eat crow while the other smirks.

  • ||

    You realize that the drug warriors don't have honest disagreements like this about what might happen if pot prohibition was repealed.

    Because that honest thingee gets in the way.

  • Neu Mejican||

    You realize that the drug warriors don't have honest disagreements like this about what might happen if pot prohibition was repealed.

    Because that honest thingee gets in the way.


    You have to define drug warriors for me, but I think there are "warriors" on both sides of the issue that prevent honest discussion.

    So if warriors are those that are more concerned about promoting their agenda than the truth, then I agree. Those who see it as black or white will never discuss the shades of gray that may exist on the issue.

  • Famous Mortimer||

    The problem is, many things can be considered "Psychological" addictions that most people wouldn't even associate with addiction.

    Food, relationships, feminine emotions...

    You get the idea.

  • TallDave||

    Talldave, you should have read the rest of my post - I didn't say anything about making it illegal, just that it is addictive.

    I'm not sure you understood my point. Just because someone is addicted to something doesn't mean that thing is necessarily addictive. It may just be something like a security blanket.

  • ||

    Tolerance and abuse levels vary from smoker to smoker, of course, but for me the effects are very predictable. When I first get it, it only takes a hit or two to do the job (most of the pot in the Seattle area is pretty darn good). Then it takes steadily more and more to do the same thing. And I will use it every day until it's gone. Then for two to four days I'm irritable, down in the mouth, etc. Then I'm fine until I score again.

  • TallDave||

    Research! We need (cough cough) more research!

    For science (cough)!

  • ||

    Two points that are never made in discussing this bogus potency issue: 1) In the 60s and 70s hashish, essentially a concentrated form of marijuana, was fairly available. It became more adulterated in the late 70s and beyond and is seldom seen today, but it was more powerful than all but the very best of the mj out there today. So i would dispute even that the average potency was lower then. 2) Domestic growers are wising up and growing LESS potent pot. Here's why. Growers, or sometimes middlemen, typically sell a few ounces each to a number of street-level dealers who then sell $30-$50 "bags" to the consumer. Medium strong pot will pass the user's taste test and bring him back for another bag in a week. Very strong pot takes more work to grow, and will bring the buyer back in more like 10 days because he has had to smoke less and thus extends his supply. True, there are discriminating buyers who will pay more for stronger pot, but the core of the market is the bag-a-weekers, and for this market there is a double incentive to grow only moderately strong product.

  • ||

    Does anyone know whether Jake Sullum's holding? Pass along his number.

    My guy's definitely not selling the 30:1 stuff.

    sh(A)ne

  • sh(Ane)||

    screw it. I can't use this thing -- I'm high.

  • Stan||

    I agree with JohnD. You all stink of drugs.

  • No, not really Stan||

    I actually miss Stan. Don't you? He was so reliably overheated and unreasonable. Like a slightly less insane Michael Savage.

  • ||

    I was just wondering.... there seems to be a bit of an argument about how stronger pot means less smoked means less lung damage. Whatever happened to brownies ?

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