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.