Hit & Run

Pot Worse Than Heroin! But Don't Panic!

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A recent Reuters story about marijuana, the URL for which aptly includes the phrase "reefer madness," reads like a press release from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Pot is no longer the gentle weed of the 1960s," it asserts, "and may pose a greater threat than cocaine or even heroin." That's Reuters talking, not an ONDCP flack.

The article uncritically accepts the government's claim that 1) pot is much more potent than it used to be and 2) greater potency makes it more dangerous. Only toward the end do we get an alternative view, from someone at the Marijuana Policy Project who suggests that the federal government's estimate of THC levels in the 1970s is implausibly low and that stronger pot is in fact safer, since people tend to smoke less of it.

Reuters does not even make a gesture toward balance in its discussion of marijuana addiction. "The number of children and teenagers in treatment for marijuana dependence and abuse has jumped 142 percent since 1992," it says. CNN, which posted the Reuters story on its site, played up the treatment angle with a headline announcing "Kids Treated for Marijuana Dependency Up 142 Percent" and a subhead referring to a "Jump in Pot-Related Detox."

Reuters assumes that every teenager who is forced into treatment after getting caught with a joint is ipso facto an addict. Yet the government's own data indicate that about half of teenagers treated for "marijuana dependence" in the 1990s were referred by the criminal justice system, and that percentage probably has gone up in recent years, given the increase in marijuana arrests. Even those who are not actually arrested may be threatened with expulsion or other disciplinary action at school, or simply pressured by misguided parents.

That does not mean none of these kids has a serious problem with marijuana. But the drug's legal status clearly has an impact on decisions about who should receive "treatment." Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain why, as Reuters reports, "children and teenagers are three times more likely to be in treatment for marijuana dependence than for alcohol." Not only is alcohol more widely used, but survey data indicate that addiction is more common among drinkers than it is among pot smokers.

While noting that "the research so far is inconclusive" (it always is when it comes to marijuana scares), Reuters suggests the new, ungentle pot "could make children and teenagers anxious, unmotivated or perhaps even psychotic." The story closes by saying that drug czar John Walters, who is doing his best to whip up a pot panic despite declining use by teenagers, "does not want to overreact." "We shouldn't be victims of reefer madness," he says. At last, Walters and I agree about something.

[Thanks to Tom Vier for the link.]