From the Archives: Killer Weed (2009)

Perhaps you’ve heard: Today’s marijuana will blow your mind. Not in a good way, either. In fact, it could kill you. That’s what the Feds say—and they’re always right. Right?
Courtesy High Times

“This ain’t your grandfather’s or your father’s marijuana…. This will addict you. This will kill you.” -US DEA Special Agent Mark Trouville, as quoted by the Associated Press.

If lying about pot has become the Feds’ national pastime, then lying about the supposed dangers posed by the increased potency of cannabis is an annual tradition.

Every spring for nearly three decades, government officials and prohibitionists have taken to the airwaves alleging that today’s pot is five, 10 or even 100 times more potent than the herb of yesteryear—all the while failing to explain why, if the weed of the past was so weak and innocuous, police still arrested you for it.

Of course, lawmakers and cops aren’t the only ones with a flair for the dramatic when it comes to the subject of “skunk’’; both pot dealers and consumers are equally likely to propagate mythic tales of the “killer bud” they sell and smoke.

The trend is hardly surprising. I mean, who among us is going to admit that they sell or smoke schwag?

But is there any truth to the oft-stated claim that today’s weed is fundamentally different from your father’s pot? And more importantly, is there any merit to the dire warnings that more potent herb is inherently more dangerous to the consumer? The answers may surprise you.

Pot Potency: Then and Now

Despite prohibitionist claims that the pot of the 1960s averaged under 1 percent THC—an allegation that, if true, would indicate that the entire Woodstock generation experienced nothing more than a giant placebo effect—US government researchers didn’t begin measuring marijuana potency until the early 1970s, when a team of investigators at the University of Mississippi received federal approval to initiate the Potency Monitoring Project.

Early samples tested by the PMP consisted almost entirely of old, improperly stored Mexican weed, infamous for its shitty quality. Varieties of more potent herb available on the commercial market, such as sinsemilla and Thai stick, were ignored by the project. As a result, the baseline data produced by the PMP during the early to mid-’70s—during which time federal researchers absurdly claimed that pot averaged less than 1.5 percent THC—bore little resemblance to the marijuana available on the actual consumer market of the time. Yet this hopelessly incomplete and misleading data continues to be cited by prohibitionists in the reports they release.

By the 1980s, law-enforcement officials from around the nation began directing samples of confiscated pot to U-Miss for quality testing, a practice that continues to this day. As the number of samples received by the PMP increased—from a few hundred in the early 1980s to several thousand by the mid-’90s—the reported potency of pot also began to increase, though hardly by the dramatic leaps claimed by anti-pot forces. In fact, a year-by-year assessment of PMP’s published data from 1982 through 2002 indicates that pot’s average THC content increased only marginally, from A percent to 6 percent, a jump in quality that’s arguably less than the difference between a cup of tea and an espresso.

‘This Is Pot 2.0’

Beginning in 2002, PMP researchers began reporting a rapid rise in average potency, from 6 percent THC in 2002 to 8.5 percent in 2006. Predictably, this reported spike led Drug Czar John Walters (“We are no longer talking about the drug of the 1960s and 1970s. This is Pot 2.0!”) and his “Mini Me” at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow (“This could explain why there has been an increase in the number of medical emergencies involving marijuana!”), to demand that US Department of Homeland Security raise the marijuana “terror threat level” from orange to red.

“Marijuana today is a much more serious problem than the vast majority of Americans understand,” the Drug Czar warned. “If you told people that one in five of 12-to 17-year-olds who ever used marijuana in their lives need treatment, I don’t think people would remotely understand it.”

The anti-dope crusaders repeated their doomsday diatribes again this past summer, after the most recent PMP report charged that average pot potency had risen yet again, purportedly reaching a record high of 9.6 percent THC.

“Today’s report makes it more important than ever that we get past outdated, anachronistic views of marijuana,” Walters told the Associated Press, alleging that stronger weed could increase one’s risk of psychological, cognitive—and most bizarrely of all—”respiratory” problems. Not to be outdone in the lack-of-credibility department, Dr. Volkow announced that more potent pot was “acutely toxic” to the user.

However, a closer review of the 2008 PMP report reveals that the supposed record increase in pot potency is more likely the result of statistical manipulation rather than any actual spike in US marijuana quality. Notably, page 12 of the U-Miss report states that the average THC content of “domestic cannabis” is, in fact, well under 5 percent—a figure that has held steady for over a decade and would hardly merit national headlines.

The PMP report also asserts that the average THC content of non-domestic pot has more than doubled in recent years, from 4 percent in 1990 to nearly 10 percent today. Yet imported marijuana comprises only a fraction of the domestic market.

(According to the most recent US National Drug Intelligence Center Threat Assessment report, “Most of the marijuana available in the domestic drug markets is lower potency commercial-grade marijuana.”)

Nevertheless, “non-domestic cannabis” seizures comprised nearly 70 percent of all the samples measured by the PMP in 2007—a percentage that is neither reflective of the US pot market nor indicative of the varieties of marijuana seized by law enforcement (over 98 percent of which is, ironically, 0-percent-THC ditch weed). As a result, the supposed ”9.6 percent THC” average hyped by the PMP and the Drug Czar is anything but.

So Potent … So What?

Obviously, abnormally strong strains of cannabis are available for those who want to buy them—and who are willing to pay top dollar (though, according to a recent DEA report, less than 2 percent of all pot confiscated in the US averaged over 20 percent THC). But the question still remains: Is there any truth to the Drug Czar’s allegations that these high-potency strains pose a unique danger to cannabis connoisseurs?

Not a lick. In fact, just the opposite may be true.

According to numerous studies, the most significant difference between “kind bud” and schwag is that users of the former smoke far less per session than do users of the latter (much as consumers of high potency liquor drink less volume per serving than do consumers of low potency beer).

Specifically, a 1989 John Hopkins University study reported that cannabis users readily differentiate between pot strains of varying strength, taking “smaller puff and inhalation volumes and shorter puff duration for the high marijuana dose compared to the low dose.” Most recently, a 2007 University of California study assessing patterns of cannabis vaporization reported that users self-regulate their pot consumption based on the drug’s potency. Hence, the stronger the herb, the less consumers inhale into their lungs. You’d think the Drug Czar would be celebrating.

Moreover, unlike booze, sleeping pills or even aspirin, pot is remarkably nontoxic—sorry to disappoint you, Ms. Volkow—and poses no risk of fatal overdose regardless of THC content. In fact, doctors may legally prescribe a FDA-approved pill (Marinol) that contains 100 percent synthetic THC—and, curiously, nobody at the PMP or the Drug Czar’s office seems particularly concerned about it. Nor at the US Food and Drug Administration: In 1999, FDA officials downgraded Marinol from a Schedule II controlled substance to a Schedule III drug, a change made largely because of its impeccable safety record.

But what about the claim—alleged most recently by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University and repeated nearly verbatim by the talking heads at CNN—that stronger pot is fueling an alarming rise in drug-treatment admissions?

As usual, the devil is in the details. Notably absent from CASA’s fanciful press release—and CNN’s subsequent hatchet job—is the fact that marijuana arrests have skyrocketed since the early ’90s: from a modern low of 288,000 in 1991 to a record 830,000 in 2006.

What do these arrest figures have to do with marijuana-treatment admissions? Everything.

According to the most recent state and national statistics, nearly 70 percent of all individuals in drug-treatment programs for pot—and an estimated 60 percent of all adolescents enrolled in rehab for weed—are ordered there by the criminal-justice system. These numbers represent a more than 50 percent increase since 1992—during which time, the US Department of Health and Human Services acknowledges, “the proportion of [pot-treatment] admissions from [all] other referral sources declined” (emphasis added). In other words, marijuana defendants, not marijuana addicts, are driving the highly publicized spike in drug-treatment admissions.

Finally, it should be noted that some cannabis consumers actually prefer less potent weed, just as the majority of those who drink alcohol prefer beer or wine rather than 190-proof Everclear or Bacardi 151. According to one recent study, published this year in the International Journal of Drug Policy, marijuana consumers in Amsterdam gravitate toward pot of “mild” to “moderate” strength, even though more potent varieties are readily available. By contrast, the authors report that consumers in regions where the drug remains illegal are “more apt to feel they can never be certain of potency and [therefore] are more likely to choose stronger strains.”

In short, it’s drug policy rather than drug preference that often encourages the use of stronger pot. Consequently, if US lawmakers and bureaucrats are really concerned about the alleged health risks posed by more potent marijuana and truly wish to steer consumers away from it, they would support regulating the drug so that its potency would be readily known to the consuming public. Needless to say, no one at U-Miss, NIDA or the Drug Czar’s office has suggested any such thing.

So Why All the Fuss?

If today’s pot is essentially the same plant it’s always been, why is the government going out of its way to claim otherwise? Primarily to scare parents—particularly those millions of adults who experimented with marijuana without incident in the 1970s, when they were about the same age as their children are today. In short, the Feds’ latest reefer rhetoric may sound alarming, but just like schwag, it ain’t nothin’ to get excited about.

High Times Magazine, January 2009

Read the full issue here.

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