"Not Your Father's Marijuana" Canard Again Exposed -- This Time by DEA 2/4/05

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The refrain is familiar: The marijuana of today is worthy of increased concern because it is so much more potent than the pot smoked by the hippies of yore, who are the parents and grandparents of today. Today's marijuana is eight, 16, 25, or even 50 times as potent as in the good old days, warn public health web sites and "experts." All of these "experts," as well as a whole army of anti-drug crusaders who continue to promote the "not your father's marijuana" line, took their cue from Office of National Drug Control Policy head John Walters, who a little more than two years ago warned that "the potency of available marijuana has not merely 'doubled,' but increased as much as 30 times."

Drug czar Walters and the ONDCP have since backed away from that wildly exaggerated claim. According to the ONDCP web site now, "the average potency of samples of all cannabis types increased from 3% in 1991 to 5.2% in 2001... The concentration of THC in sinsemilla was about 6% in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and averaged more than 9% in 2001."

But such lies, distortions, and half-truths have a long shelf life, so it is worth noting that this particular myth has again been essentially debunked, this time by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In its annual Drugs of Abuse report released last month, the DEA reported on the potency of marijuana seized between 1998 and 2002. While the anti-drug agency attempted to use the findings to make the case that domestically grown marijuana is becoming stronger, the real news is the overall potency findings:

"Although marijuana grown in the United States was once considered inferior because of a low concentration of THC, advancements in plant selection and cultivation have resulted in higher THC-containing domestic marijuana," the report argued. "In 1974, the average THC content of illicit marijuana was less than one percent. Today most commercial grade marijuana from Mexico/Columbia and domestic outdoor cultivated marijuana has an average THC content of about four to six percent. Between 1998 and 2002, NIDA-sponsored Marijuana Potency Monitoring System (MPMP) analyzed 4,603 domestic samples. Of those samples, 379 tested over 15 percent THC, 69 samples tested between 20 and 25 percent THC and four samples tested over 25 percent THC."

Leaving aside the astounding claim that the pot that stoned the hippies was less than one percent THC, what the MPMP figures cited by the DEA show is that less than 10 percent of the seized samples came in above 15 percent -- a somewhat arbitrary dividing line between commercial and high-grade, high-dollar boutique marijuana. This is not to say that high-THC marijuana doesn't exist -- it certainly does -- but it is not the stuff smoked by the vast majority of marijuana consumers in the US, and is even less likely to be the weed of choice for penny-pinching teenage pot-smokers.

Chris Conrad in Holland, 2002
(courtesy chrisconrad.com)
"This is not at all surprising," said Chris Conrad, an internationally known cannabis consultant who has testified as an expert witness in dozens of California marijuana cases. "It is consistent with the reports from NIDA that show most marijuana seized as average potency, with a small percentage that is fairly strong. These government claims of wildly increased potency being widely consumed just don't have much credibility."

Still, Conrad suggested, government marijuana testers are skewing the results vis a vis older samples to hype the "stronger marijuana" threat. "They manipulate the numbers to get the higher THC percentages," he told DRCNet. "They originally included stems, seeds, and leaf in the samples they tested, but now they're just testing the buds, so the percentage is naturally increasing."

Be that as it may, another expert marijuana cultivator, Philippe Lucas of the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, told DRCNet the DEA figures were similar to those reported by the Canadian Royal Mounted Police. "These stats are a little bit older than the DEA figures," he said, "but out of more than the 3,000 samples, only eight came in at more than 20 percent THC. It is simply ridiculous to assume a tripling of potency in mass market marijuana since then."

What the figures mean, said Lucas, is that "sadly, around 90% of Americans are still smoking schwag."

Conrad concurred. "I still talk to a lot of people who are consuming the Mexican brick weed," he said. Conrad lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area, a hotbed of high-grade marijuana production, but even there, Mexican still reigns supreme.

According to the US government, and despite the hype about the threat of the dreaded (or much vaunted, depending on one's perspective) "BC Bud," only about two percent of US marijuana imports are coming from Canada. Mexico is the dominant marijuana exporter to the US, with annual seizures in the hundreds of tons, compared with much smaller numbers from Canada.

But while experts like Conrad and Lucas argue convincingly that most marijuana consumed in the US is commercial grade Mexican or American outdoor with similar potency levels, by no means do they deny the existence of superior strains. Quite the contrary. "At the Vancouver Island Compassion Society," said Lucas, "we have had over 100 tests done on about 35 different genetics we are currently producing, and only one of our strains (a Blueberry) has consistently tested below 15 percent THC. Our strongest strains (Sweet Skunk, Romulan, God, and varied crosses) have all tested over 20 percent, although we have yet to break the 25 percent barrier."

That marijuana is destined for medical users, and for them, high-potency marijuana is a good thing, said Lucas. "When it comes to medical use, stronger cannabis is better cannabis. People self-titrate to achieve the desired dose. With stronger cannabis, they get the amount of THC they need by using less cannabis. Similarly, I have seen studies that show stronger cannabis has a lower tar to weight ratio than weaker cannabis," he said. "An increase in cannabis potency may be viewed as a threat by the US government, but it is a boon for medical users." That's right, said Conrad. "You want to get the THC compounds while minimizing the amount of smoke and exposure to potentially carcinogenic matter. It is an odd thing to argue that medicines should be weaker."

Still, the "not your father's marijuana" argument remains an oft-used arrow in the prohibitionist quiver -- one that must be blunted as long as it continues to be made, and not merely by denying that high-potency pot exists. "This argument is one that just keeps circulating and coming back. As with other debunked theories like the stepping stone theory, it just keeps popping up every few years," said Lucas. "It's amazing that we are still rehashing this. In terms of scientific research, there is absolutely no suggestion that we should be concerned about greater potential for dependency, no indication it is more addictive, no suggestions that a higher level of cannabinoids are more harmful. This stronger cannabis is somehow more dangerous is a straw man argument."

-- END --
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Issue #373 -- 2/4/05

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Drug War Chronicle's Phil Smith Featured in New Book -- "Under The Influence" Available as DRCNet Premium | Editorial: DEA Has Stepped In It This Time | "Not Your Father's Marijuana" Canard Again Exposed -- This Time by DEA | Never Say Die: Nevada Marijuana Regulation Initiative is Back After Favorable Federal Court Ruling | DRCNet Interview: Roger Goodman, King County Bar Association Drug Policy Project | Blogging: Mobile, Alabama Police Chief Stuck "Inside the Box" Over City's Rising Drug Trade Violence, and More | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Newsbrief: DEA Pain FAQ Retract Flap Fallout Continues -- Criticism Comes from Unexpected Direction as Agency Seeks Comments | Newsbrief: HEA Repeal Picking Up Steam -- Congressional Advisory Committee, Arizona Legislators Urge Rescinding of Souder's Law | Newsbrief: DEA Must Pay Hemp Industry Plaintiff's Legal Bills, Court Rules | Newsbrief: Indiana Official Calls for National Agency to Provide Drugs to Addicts | Newsbrief: In Swan Song, Ashcroft Calls for Harsher Sentences, Chastizes Foes | Newsbrief: Man Bites Dog! Arkansas Bill to Lower Meth Sentences Moves Forward | Newsbrief: London Top Cop Warns He Will Target Casual Cocaine Users | Newsbrief: Belgian Cannabis Clarification Now in Effect | Newsbrief: Spanish Pharmacies to Begin Selling Medical Marijuana | Newsbrief: Safe Injection Site Opens in Oslo | Newsbrief: Rastas, Watch Out At Ethiopian Marley Fest, State Department Warns | Newsbrief: India Narcs Set Off Prescription Drug Panic | This Week in History | The Reformer's Calendar |

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