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The 'Potent Pot' Myth

Repeated claims that newer types of marijuana are far more dangerous than pot of the past create more harm than good.
 
 
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Recently, the media have repeated dire warnings about alleged "super pot." In an attempt to frighten parents who may have dabbled in their day, our government claims that new strains of potent marijuana are far more dangerous than the innocuous grass of the 1960s or '70s.

Many media reports repeat these claims uncritically. For example, a July 19 Reuters story warned, "Pot is no longer the gentle weed of the 1960s and may pose a greater threat than cocaine or even heroin."

Such claims are utter nonsense, and may create more harm than good.

First, high-potency marijuana has always existed. The average potency has increased slightly, but only because higher-potency marijuana has become a little more common. It is not a new phenomenon.

Second, there is precisely zero evidence that marijuana with a higher level of THC – the component that produces the "high" – is more dangerous. Indeed, a close look at the news accounts shows that claims of greater danger are based on speculation piled on top of conjecture.

To put this in perspective, the average potency of marijuana that has fueled this fire is seven percent THC. This is the marijuana that White House Drug Czar John Walters warns is horribly dangerous because of its super-strength. In contrast, Dutch government standards require medical marijuana sold in pharmacies in the Netherlands to be more than twice that strong. So a country where teens are actually less likely to use cocaine and heroin than in the U.S. wouldn't even use our marijuana to heal their sick. A recent report from the European Union noted that "a slight upward trend" in potency means little because the potency of U.S. marijuana "was very low by European standards."

Third, unlike the speculative claims of increased danger, peer-reviewed scientific data show that higher potency marijuana reduces health risks. Just as with alcohol, people who smoke marijuana generally consume until they reach the desired effect, then stop. So people who smoke more potent marijuana smoke less – the same way most drinkers consume a smaller amount of vodka than they would of beer – and incur less chance of smoking-related damage to their lungs.

Official warnings about "super pot" often accompany claims that huge numbers of teens are in treatment for marijuana "dependence and abuse," and that those numbers have risen dramatically. Such claims are utterly misleading. According to the U.S. government's own statistics, most teens in marijuana treatment are there because they were arrested, not because of actual evidence of abuse or dependence. Virtually all of the vaunted increase in marijuana treatment admissions stems from these arrests.

So, we arrest kids for smoking marijuana, force them into treatment and then use those treatment admissions as "proof" that marijuana is addictive. Somewhere, George Orwell is smiling.

This wave of marijuana treatment has nothing to do with actual dependence. According to the latest government report on drug treatment, called the Treatment Episode Data Set, more than a third of these marijuana "abusers" did not use marijuana at all in the month prior to admission. Another 16.1 percent used it three times or less.

So more than half of marijuana "abusers" used marijuana three times or less in the month prior to entering treatment – and this, we are told, is proof that we must be fearful of highly addictive "super pot"!

There is a real story here, but it's not about the dire effects of potent marijuana. The real story is the misuse of science by government officials seeking to justify current policies and hold onto their jobs. The administration's misuse of science in this area is, if anything, more blatant than in fields that have generated far more controversy, such as reproductive health.

And with the administration now talking openly about shifting prevention and law enforcement resources toward marijuana and away from drugs like heroin and cocaine, which actually kill, this dishonesty is putting America's young people at risk.

Mitch Earleywine, Ph.D., is associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and author of "Understanding Marijuana" (Oxford University Press, 2002); Bruce Mirken is communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C.