Potent Argument

The latest marijuana scare


The Office of National Drug Control Policy is so happy with a recent Reuters story about marijuana that it has a prominent link to the article on its Web site. It's not hard to see why.

"Pot is no longer the gentle weed of the 1960s and may pose a greater threat than cocaine or even heroin," writes Reuters health and science correspondent Maggie Fox. That's her talking, not the ONDCP. More precisely, it's Fox dutifully parroting what the ONDCP has told her in its latest attempt to scare people about marijuana.

Because so many Americans have decided, based on direct experience or by observing pot smokers they know, that marijuana is no big deal, the government's anti-pot propaganda has taken on a decidedly defensive tone. "Marijuana today is a much more serious problem than the vast majority of Americans understand," ONDCP Director John Walters tells Fox. Or, as he put it during a visit to Seattle last month, "This is not the substance you joked about in the '60s. We have a greater reason for concern."

Such assertions are based on the premise that marijuana is much stronger than it used to be. In a 1995 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Clinton drug czar Lee Brown claimed "marijuana is 40 times more potent today than was the case 10, 15, 20 years ago." Lately the ONDCP has been warning that "today's marijuana is twice as strong" as the pot of the mid-1980s.

Either the marijuana people smoked in the 1960s and '70s was not psychoactive at all, and its perceived effects were a mass delusion, or someone is exaggerating. Otherwise, we'd have to believe that the level of THC (marijuana's main active ingredient) in today's pot exceeds 100 percent.

In fact, the ONDCP says the current average is something like 7 percent, up from 3.5 percent in 1985, based on analyses of marijuana seized by federal agents. But seizures are not necessarily a representative sample, and if the focus of anti-pot efforts has shifted in the last two decades, the 1985 data may not be comparable to more recent measurements.

Still, marijuana probably is somewhat more potent, on average, than it used to be, because growers have gotten better at producing high-quality cannabis. Contrary to what the government says, however, there's little reason to believe stronger pot is worse for you. If anything, it's healthier, since people smoke less of it to achieve the effect they want.

To her credit, Reuters' Fox allows someone from the Marijuana Policy Project to make that point toward the end of her article. But she provides no rebuttal for the government's insinuation that stronger pot has caused a dramatic increase since 1992 in the number of teenagers "in treatment for marijuana dependence and abuse."

The government's own data show that most teenagers treated for "marijuana dependence and abuse" are referred by the criminal justice system. Since the annual number of marijuana arrests in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1992, it's not surprising that treatment admissions have gone up as well. Even those that do not stem from arrests can be the result of pressure from misguided school officials or panicked parents.

Getting caught with pot does not mean you're an addict. As Mitch Earleywine, author of Understanding Marijuana, and Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project noted recently in the Hartford Advocate, most marijuana "abusers" entering treatment have used the drug three or fewer times during the previous month.

Marijuana's legal status clearly has an impact on decisions about who should receive "treatment." Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain why, as Fox 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.

In case the prospect of addiction is not enough to scare the public, Fox adds that stronger pot "could make children and teenagers anxious, unmotivated or perhaps even psychotic" (although she concedes "the research so far is inconclusive"). The story closes by saying that 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," Walters says. At last, he and I agree about something.