Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Myths About Marijuana

"In all affairs it is a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark 
on the things you have long taken for granted."

-Bertrand Russell

Ah, the Devil's Weed.

Puff the Magic Dragon

The Legend: The Peter, Paul & Mary song, "Puff the Magic Dragon," is about smoking marijuana.

Status: False


It can't be false! Puff = how you smoke pot. Jackie Paper = rolling papers. "Autumn mist" = clouds of smoke. "The Land of Hanah Lee" = Hanalei, Hawaii, where they grow marijuana. It's all there. It must be true!

Sorry. Despite what you heard in high school, "Puff the Magic Dragon" is not about smoking pot or any other type of drug. It is simply a song about the innocence of childhood lost, as its writers have always claimed.

The original poem, which later became the popular song, was written in 1959 by Leonard Lipton, a 19-year-old Cornell student. Lipton passed his work on to his friend Peter Yarrow, who put a melody to the words and created the song, "Puff the Magic Dragon." The song was recorded by Peter, Paul & Mary and reached Billboard charts in 1963.

The 1960's, being what they were, led us to believe that many songs with vague lyrics were "drug songs," Puff included. This was further fueled at the time by a 1967 Newsweek story about hidden drug messages in popular music. This Newsweek article, about songs with drug references in their lyrics, selected innocent songs to show that any song could be interpreted to be about drug use if you really made the effort. It was intended as a tongue-in-cheek analysis of harmless songs, but spawned the rumors that are now shared widely as "known facts." The puff rumor even resurfaced in the 2000 film Meet the Parents.

Smoking marijuana wasn't that popular in 1959, so why write a song about it? Besides, contrary to rumors about the 1960's being such a drug-soaked decade, the Monitoring the Future survey reports that lifetime marijuana use in this country peaked in 1979 at 60%, (Monitoring the Future Study, 1996), not during the 1960's. Sorry kids, Puff was just a dragon.

Seeing Red!

The Legend:  An allergic reaction to marijuana is what makes your eyes red when you smoke it.

Status:  False


To really appreciate this particular legend you have to imagine a group of young people sitting around in someone's basement, in a circle, smoking pot.  They become intoxicated and look across the circle at each other, noticing that some of them have bloodshot eyes. 

"Whoa, dude, you should see your eyes, they're like SO bloodshot!" 
"I know, dude, so are yours!" 
"You know, I heard it's caused by an allergic reaction to the pot. Your eyes are red because you're both allergic, we all are!" 
"No way!" 
Riotous laughter ensues.

If you are a stoner reading this and are offended by the characterization of pot smokers saying lame things, it will be hard for you to mount a defense. A brief read through some online forums and chat rooms looking for answers explaining why marijuana causes bloodshot eyes yielded the following fascinating variations:
  • Marijuana increases your heart rate and that means your blood pumps more vigorously which causes red eyes.
  • Your brain calls for more blood because it heats up.
  • It's the coughing and laughing that leads to the bloodshot eyes, not the pot.
  • Marijuana dries out your eyes like a decongestant.
  • It's because you're forgetting to blink.
  • When you smoke marijuana your tear ducts relax and produce lubricants at a slower rate.
  • Weed gets into your bloodstream and when it goes through the blood vessels in your eyes it irritates them which turns them red.
  • Smoke makes them dry and stings them.
  • "Because pot messes with the nerves of your bran and that triggers your eyes."

What really happens is not nearly as interesting as these theories. Marijuana has a mild vasodilating effect. That means that it relaxes the smooth muscles within the walls of the blood vessel. This widens the blood vessel making it more visible. As a result, the eyes appear bloodshot.

You may have heard the rumor that marijuana is used to treat glaucoma, a condition where the fluid pressure in the eye increases and causes damage to the optic nerve. This is true, there has been some experimental activity in this area, (Tomida, et. al. 2006). When blood vessels relax and expand one of the results is reduced vascular pressure.

Getting Lucky

The Legend: Some packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes contain a marijuana cigarette.

Status:  False


It's been said that every so often in a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, the consumer would find a marijuana cigarette as a little bonus. In fact, they were called Lucky Strikes because the smoker would "strike it lucky" by finding this marijuana cigarette.

Rumors of the frequency vary. Were they stashed one per pack, one per every hundred, or one per carton? Lore also says that it was legal to do this since marijuana had not yet been criminalized.

In 1942, five years after marijuana was criminalized through the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, Lucky Strike changed its packaging from green to red and white. They said that the green ink they were using required copper that was being diverted to the war effort. By discontinuing the green color they were supporting the war effort. The resulting white pack with the red circular logo was rumored to be in honor of the US bombing of Japan - a red circle on a white background being the pattern on the Japanese flag.  One variation of this rumor claimed that the marijuana cigarette was hidden in the Luckies as a boost for US soldiers during World War II.

As is often the case, there is a grain of truth to this rumor. In 1952, a seaman aboard the SS Hibueras, Maguel Angel Pina, was found in possession of a pack of Luckies that contained 18 hand-rolled cigarettes. Later analysis determined that they were all marijuana. Obviously this had nothing to do with Lucky Strike manufacturing protocol and was simply Seaman Pina's way of transporting his marijuana, a method still used with great frequency today.

Packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes do not contain a marijuana cigarette and never have. If this had ever been true we would be hearing this rumor from sources other than school kids and chat rooms. We'd be hearing about it from our fathers and grandfathers who served in World War II.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

420 is the Number of Chemicals in Marijuana

The Legend:  There are 420 chemicals in marijuana.

Status:  False

  • '420' in drugspeak is the time to light up a joint.
  • '420' is the penal code section for marijuana use in California. (Nope. Section 420 of the California Penal Code refers to obstructing entry onto public land.)
  • '420' is the Los Angeles and New York police radio code for marijuana smoking in progress. (Nope, again.)
  • '420' is the number of chemical compounds in marijuana. (The number of chemical compounds in marijuana is around 315.)
  • April 20 is the date that Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin died. (Nope once more. Morrison died on July 3, Hendrix on September 18, and Joplin on October 4.)
  • The 20th of April is the best time to plant marijuana.
  • Albert Hofmann took the first LSD trip at 4:20 or on April 20, 1943. (Actually, Hofmann's first LSD trip, which was accidental, took place on April 16, 1943.  Coincidentally, his lab notes from that day say it was at 4:20 p.m.)
  • '420' is the code you send to your drug dealer's pager.
  • When the Grateful Dead toured, they always stayed in Room 420. (Untrue, says Grateful Dead Productions spokesman Dennis McNally.)

Just about everyone has heard that '420' (said "four-twenty") has something to do with pot smoking, but they never seem to know what the term actually signifies.

It is said that '420' originated in 1971 as a slang term used by a small group of high school kids, reminding each other of the time they planned to meet after school to get high, 4:20 p.m.  This was supposedly started at San Rafael High School in California, but there is no way to verity this.

'420' is now widely accepted pot-smoking lexicon. Cities celebrate "hemp fests" on April 20. There's a 4:20 record label, a band called 4:20, a snowboard company called Four 20, and texting '420' means marijuana. Atlanta's Sweetwater Brewing Co. sells its 420 Pale Ale in supermarkets and opens its doors to the public at 4:20 p.m. New York's 420 Tours sells low-cost travel packages to the Netherlands and Jamaica. Highway 420 Radio broadcasts "music for the chemically enhanced," and so on. 420s are also routinely slipped into popular movies and television shows, and can probably be found in your local graffiti, so keep your eyes peeled. It's everywhere.

As amusing as it is to tie 420 to pot smoking and hunt for it in popular movies, the number has its dark side. Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, and the massacre of 13 victims at Columbine High School in Colorado took place on April 20, 1999.

Pot Smoking Males May Grow Breasts

The Legend:  Men who smoke a lot of marijuana may grow breasts.

Status:  False

  • Smoking marijuana will reduce a man's testosterone levels.
  • Smoking marijuana will reduce sperm count.

Where did this information come from?  Back in the olden days, before we had such resources as chat rooms and message boards, one of the ways for people to share ideas was by writing letters to newspapers and magazines. That way many people would see their letters and could respond.

This is just what happened in this case. Two anecdotal case history letters to reputable medical journals, a 1972 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (Harmon, 1972) and a 1980 letter to the Journal of Pediatrics (Copeland, 1980) discussed patients who were young males with breast enlargement or delayed puberty who were also marijuana smokers. The intent of the letter was to see if other doctors had seen this pattern. Instead, the story that "smoking pot grows breasts" began and has floated around for 30 years.

Breast enlargement caused by marijuana smoking has never been confirmed through research. If a marijuana user grows breasts it is likely a result of inactivity and a high calorie diet.


The Legend:  By legalizing hemp cultivation we could solve many environmental problems, such as deforestation.

Status:  False

  • Growing hemp will yield more cash per acre for farmers growing other crops.
  • Hemp is easier to grow than cotton because it is very low maintenance and requires fewer pesticides.
  • Big businesses like DuPont lobby to keep hemp illegal because it threatens their synthetic fiber market.
  • Hemp is a weed that can be grown anywhere.
  • George Bush was saved by a hemp parachute.

Earlier in U.S. history, Americans cultivated hemp for its fiber content, producing hemp-based products such as rope, paper and cloth. During the 1930's an anti-hemp movement led to passage of the Marijuana Tax Act (1937) effectively ending the U.S. hemp industry.

Is hemp marijuana? Is marijuana hemp? Hemp is made from the cannabis sativa plant, the same plant that gives us smokable marijuana. There are many different varieties of this plant. The psychoactive cannabis sativa that gives us smokable marijuana is a bushy plant with THC content between 3% - 15%. Industrial cannabis sativa is a tall, spindly plant with almost no THC, less than .5%, which makes it useless as a recreational drug.

It is illegal to grow hemp in the U.S. the reasons given by the government for this is that by legalizing hemp we are one step closer to legalizing marijuana. They fear the two varieties of hemp will be grown side by side which would be undetectable by air-based enforcement. Marijuana growers say they would never plant industrial hemp near their marijuana plants because it would cross-pollinate and lower the THC content, and therefore the value of their marijuana.

Funny thing is, at the height of hemp production in the U.S. there were only a few thousand acres being cultivated. It just wasn't that profitable or desirable of a crop when legal, so what do proponents think has changed? Yes, hemp can be used to make paper and cloth, but not great paper or great cloth. Hempseed and hempseed oil are nutritious, but so are many other seeds and seed oils.

Re-legalizing hemp will not end deforestation, which is more about lumber and agricultural land, two things unrelated to hemp or hemp-based products. Hemp is also not a threat to synthetic fiber manufacturers as the two materials are used for different things.

The Canadian ban on hemp cultivation was lifted in 1998, so let's watch and see what happens there.

One Will Get You Twenty

The Legend:  Smoking just one marijuana cigarette, or joint, does the same amount of damage to the respiratory system as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes.

Status:  False

  • The number of cigarettes equal to one joint has been reported from 4 to 20.

This is a widespread piece of misinformation. You might have even heard it in health class when you were in school. Marijuana critics have been known, on occasion, to exaggerate or misuse statistics to support their "evil weed" agenda. That is the case with this rumor.

In 1980, Dr. Donald Tashkin of UCLA, one of the leading experts on the health effects of marijuana, published an article that described large airway damage in marijuana smokers greater than that seen in persons smoking 16 cigarettes a day, (Tashkin, 1980). You can see how this rumor started.

Dr. Tashkin's point was that marijuana smoke was more damaging to large airways while tobacco smoke was more damaging to smaller airways. Largely ignored the same study was information that suggested 1) marijuana smokers had overall better lung health than cigarette smokers, 2) that unlike tobacco, pot does not appear to cause emphysema, and, 3) that hand-rolled joints can have significant variation in size and weight when compared to standard sized tobacco cigarettes.

Additional research has observed that marijuana smokers tend to smoke their product differently, inhaling deeper and holding smoke in their lungs longer. They also smoke less on a daily basis, (Tashkin, 2005; Wu et. al., 1988). All of this additional, and conveniently overlooked, information makes comparing joints to cigarettes difficult.

Dr Tashkin, whose research is always sited to support this one-to-sixteen ratio rumor has rejected the idea that smoking one joint is equal to smoking 16 cigarettes.

Monday, March 2, 2009

It's Not Your Daddy's Pot

The Legend:  The marijuana that kids are smoking today is 20-40 times stronger than the marijuana that was smoked just 20 years ago.

Status:  False


Claims of escalating marijuana potency, intended to scare the public, go back to the mid-1970's, and they are always started and fueled by the federal government. It is a sad truth that our own government's drug policy is so agenda-heavy that press releases lack accuracy to the point of becoming urban legend material.

The most recent Annual Press Release on this, notable because it is now an annual news event, came from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) on June 12, 2008. Their message, as it always is, was, "Oh no! Pot is getting stronger! Danger! Danger!"

The DEA, basing their information on research conducted at the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project, reports that THC content for commercial grade marijuana increased from 3.7% in 1983 to 5.57% in 1998, and is now at 9.6% in 2007.  Is 9.6% 20 to 40 times greater than 3.7%? You do that math.

The next question is just how accurate are these potency numbers and how were they determined? There is some discussion in the research that earlier marijuana seizures of the 70's and 80's were improperly stored so those samples had lost their potency more than a decade later when they were analyzed. This suggests the low potency numbers of the 70's and 80's were inaccurate and more about stale pot, not weak pot. A more careful analysis of marijuana seizures indicates that marijuana potency increased during the 1970's by a factor of two, not 40, (Mikuriya & Aldrich, 1988).

Now let's break down these numbers and have a look at U.S. pot on the international stage. In 2004 the average THC content in homegrown Dutch marijuana was 20.4%, (Pijlman et. al., 2005). In England in 2005 the potency of local indoor grown cannabis averaged 13.9% (Potter, Clark & Brown, 2008). Interestingly, in Amsterdam, where medical marijuana is legal, a minimum THC level of 12% was established for medical marijuana because higher potency meant the patient would smoke less.

U.S. pot might be getting stronger, but we still lag behind other countries in potency. It is safe to say that there is no teen in Amsterdam sitting in a basement saying to his buddies, "Wow, that is some great New Jersey bud!"  Which brings us back to the teens, which is what all this hoopla is supposed to be about. Stronger pot is dangerous because it hurts kids. That is the message.

"Proof" of this claim is also included in the ONDCP report and the follow-up report released by the The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. Their press release is even more alarming with headlines claiming "175% increase in THC since 1992!" And, "492% rise in treatment admissions!"  492%, now there is a number that gets my attention.

It make sense that if teens are being hurt by something that we would see increases in admissions for treatment, hospital stays or ER visits. So what is this 492% increase in teen treatment admissions really about? Were that many more kids really hurt by marijuana between 1992 - 2006, or does this number reflect something else? Maybe there was a change in the way numbers were collected, or a change in the way the treatment system is used. 

In fact, the way adolescent substance abuse treatment programs have been used for the past 15 years seems to be partially responsible for this inflated number. Prior to  1992, if a student was caught with a joint, or failed a urine test at the probation office, he was sent on to jail, or fined, or probation was extended, or he went to a "residential school" affectionately called "juvie."

But the 80's and 90's brought us a growing and humane industry designed to help rather than punish kids who where involved with drugs. Rather than get sent to jail, kids were sent to treatment. Everyone liked this option because it was helping kids with a medical problem and giving them a real second chance. Sending kids to treatment or rehab was the right thing to do, so we did it, and the resulting numbers are staggering. We did it 492% more than we did it in the 1980's. Good for us and good for kids. But is this really proof of more potent pot hurting kids?

No. This is simply a correlation. One number changes up at the same time and in the same direction as another number. That does not mean that one thing caused the other thing. Between 1992-2006 the price of gas increased over 200%, did that cause the rise in marijuana potency? Or did the potent marijuana cause that increase in gas prices? No and no, obviously. But when you compare two numbers that seem like they should be related, like potent pot and adolescent treatment admissions, then it is not so obvious.

What the media, and our government, would like us to believe is that potent pot caused increases in treatment admissions. What they are not saying is that this was a relatively new option for courts and local law enforcement to use during this same 15-year period. They're not saying what percentage of that 492% increase in referrals were voluntary referrals and what percentage were attending treatment because they had to, because they were caught in possession, because they passed dirty urine, because it was required to avoid expulsion from an academic program or dismissal from a job, because it was an alternative to incarceration, or because they were otherwise court-ordered. If all of that court coercion could be separated out and we could look just at voluntary admissions for treatment with a primary drug problem of marijuana, and then compare that number alongside the increasing potency numbers, then we might have a correlation worth examining more closely.

The rise in treatment admissions doesn't support the argument that stronger pot is more dangerous. In fact, no one has even explained how potent pot can be dangerous. The standard answer is that strong pot will lead to more people becoming addicted to marijuana, as proved by increased treatment admissions. This is circular reasoning.

The other argument about why potent pot is more dangerous is that stronger pot is more addictive. The problem with that argument is that a physical addiction to marijuana has never been proven, at least not at the time of this writing. Current research on marijuana addiction is focused on finding a physiological, measurable, withdrawal syndrome. If physiological symptoms of withdrawal can be identified and measured then it can finally be said that marijuana is addictive. Without a withdrawal syndrome of some type, then there is no addiction.

With other addictive drugs there is a clear symptom pattern of withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal includes vomiting, sweating, tremors and shakes, even seizures and is often called "The DTs." Heroin withdrawal includes vomiting and diarrhea, body pain and misery that can go on for days, and is often called being "Dope Sick." But with pot all we have so far is a condition called Stems and Seeds Blues, or being out of weed.

The most recent piece of research on this (Milin et. al., 2008) identified symptoms experienced by most regular pot smokers when they quit cold turkey. Those symptoms included restlessness, appetite change, thoughts if cannabis, cravings for cannabis, irritability, depression, twitches and perspiration. These symptoms peaked during the first week of withdrawal, tapering off to nothing after 30 days.

Now don't get me wrong, it's very important that we study and identify any type of withdrawal syndrome that might exist with pot smokers so that we can provide the best types of treatment for those who want to quit. But honestly, irritability? Thoughts of cannabis? If I were without my computer for a week I would have thoughts of computer, cravings for computer, irritability and restlessness caused by computer withdrawal. I would feel the same if I were separated from my dog. The point being, those symptoms aren't really proof of physiological addiction or withdrawal, are they? With no proof of addiction, the whole argument that stronger pot will cause more addiction seems silly.

One point that remains absent from these potent pot claims is that high THC pot is expensive, much more expensive than locally grown weed. So expensive, in fact, that few high school students can afford to buy it. High quality marijuana, female unpollinated, can cost more than $8,000 a pound. Most students don't have that type of case. $500 for an ounce of this potent pot is too high a price. Potent pot is cost-prohibitive for most young people.

There is no good evidence that pot today is 40-times stronger than it used to be. No one has shown that potent pot has hurt anyone. It has not been proven that potent pot is addictive. Our potent pot isn't even up to par with the average pot found in other civilized societies, so things will most assuredly become more potent in the next 5-10 years. Marijuana smokers are saying that if they have stronger pot they self-regulate, inhale less deeply and smoke less of it, and this has been supported by research, (Korf, Benschop & Waters, 2007). They argue that the stronger the pot the less they have to smoke and the better it is for their health.

Despite the popularity of this potent pot claim, the average potency of marijuana that is seized today is around 5%, the same as that seized 20 years ago.  Bottom line, stronger marijuana products like sinsemilla, hash or hash oil may be more available now that 20 years ago, but average ditchweed, or whatever they call it in your neighborhood, is just as it ever was.

New York White

The Legend:  An especially potent strain of pure white marijuana is growing in the New York sewers.

Status:  False


In America in Legend, folklorist Richard Dorson tells about an especially potent strain of pure white "albino" marijuana growing in the New York City sewer system. Where did this come from? Why, all those seeds in all those baggies of all that pot that was hastily flushed down toilets during drug raids of course!

New York White is also mentioned in The Anarchist Cookbook, (Powell & Bergman, 1971), and is described as being 12 feet tall and white due to the lack of sunlight.

Has anyone ever seen this albino marijuana? Of course not. No one can find or harvest it due to the danger from all the alligators in the NYC sewer system.

This is one of those stories where it helps to know a little about botany. And I mean just a little, like what you learned in 6th grade. Green plants require sunlight. Without sunlight they do not simply morph into a fungus so that they can live in the darkness. No matter how passionately your friend insists that this can and does happen, it does not.

Smoking Seeds Makes You Sterile

The Legend:  Marijuana seeds contain some substance that, when smoked, will leave a man sterile.

Status:  False


Exactly what is it in those seeds that would leave a man sterile? According to Michael Tierra in his book Planetary Herbology, marijuana seeds are 19% protein, 31% lipids, choline, trigunelline, zylose, inositol, phytin and various enzymes. There is virtually no THC in cannabis seeds, which is why they remain legal to buy and sell. Lipids are fats and oils. Choline and inositol are part of the B Vitamin complex, they're nutrients. Zylose is a sugar. Trigunelline and phytin are types of salt. There doesn't seem to be anything there that would inhibit sperm production or health.

There seem to be many pot-smoking cultures with healthy birthrates, including our own here in the U.S. As marijuana use, and presumably the practice of smoking seeds, steadily increased in this country, peaking in 1979, there was a concomitant rise in the rate of teen pregnancy, (U.S. Teen Pregnancy Statistics, 2006). We would not see that trend if marijuana seed smoking was reducing fertility in males.

There is some research that suggests that sperm motility can be temporarily affected by the THC content of smoked marijuana, (Whan et. al., 2006), but other research shows that sperm motility is effected just as much by the tightness of a man's underwear, (Sanger & Friman, 1990).

Smoking Pot Kills Brain Cells

The Legend: The active ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol, kills brain cells.

Status:  False


As discussed earlier in this blog, this myth came from a poorly done piece of research in which brain changes were observed in Rhesus monkeys who had been exposed to high doses of marijuana smoke, (Heath et al, 1980).

Subsequent research done on animals and humans has found no evidence of physiological changes in brains exposed to daily marijuana smoke, and further, no evidence of mental decline or lowered IQ in these regular users, (Castle & Ames, 1997).

Heavy users report a pattern of short-term memory impairment that can persist for months into abstinence, but this does not appear to be caused by physical damage to the brain.

In order to kill brain cells you have to use legal drugs, such as alcohol.

That's Why They Call It Locoweed

The Legend:  Smoking marijuana increases the risk for developing schizophrenia or other mental illnesses.

Status:  False


Research connecting marijuana use to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is a good example of how media reports confuse correlation with causation. Correlation means observing that two variables seem to occur together. Causation means that changing one variable always causes changes in the other variable. A correlation would be noticing that there seems to be a higher rate of schizophrenia among marijuana smokers. Causation would be saying that marijuana smoking causes schizophrenia. Correlation is where research begins; causation is where you hope your research will end.

In the late 1980's, a piece of research published in the medical journal Lancet observed that chronic marijuana smokers were twice as likely to be schizophrenic - a correlation, (Andreasson et al, 1987). The study did not suggest that smoking marijuana had caused the schizophrenia. In fact, scientists have pointed out that there has been no increase in the rates of schizophrenia in those areas where there is heavy marijuana use, an increase you would expect to see if marijuana smoking did cause schizophrenia.

It is now believed that marijuana use may trigger an earlier onset of schizophrenic symptoms in those individuals that are already predisposed. It has also been reported, by the users themselves, that in some cases marijuana can ease their psychotic symptoms. This could account for the higher rate of marijuana use among people with schizophrenia.  The marijuana didn't cause their schizophrenia, the schizophrenia is what led to their self-medication of symptoms with marijuana, (Warner, 1994). big difference.

The greatest risk factor for schizophrenia is family genetics. If this type of mental illness is in your family you might want to reconsider your marijuana usage.