Exposing Potent Pot Myths

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"The
truth is, there are laws against marijuana because marijuana is
harmful. In fact, given the new levels of potency… a case can
be made that marijuana does the most social harm of any illegal
drug. Marijuana is currently the leading cause of treatment need:
Nearly two-thirds of those who meet the psychiatric criteria for
needing substance-abuse treatment do so because of marijuana use.
For youth, the harmful effects of marijuana use now exceed those
of all other drugs combined."

~
US Drug Czar John Walters,
writing in the September 2004 issue of National Review

Debates regarding
marijuana policy too often rely on distortion and hyperbole rather
than science. As a result, certain "myths" concerning
marijuana and its potential harms have become pervasive in the public
discourse. One of the more prominent of these is the allegation
that marijuana today is far more potent, and therefore more addictive
and dangerous, than ever before.

Let's
be clear: marijuana is not a harmless drug. All drugs, including
legal ones, have risks and may be abused. That said, there is little
to the notion that today's pot is exceptionally stronger than in
years past, and even less evidence that this purported rise in potency
poses any significantly increased dangers to consumers.

First,
the potency issue. According to the WhiteHousedrugpolicy.gov
website (last updated on October 16, 2004), pot's average potency
today stands at approximately 5 percent THC. (THC is short for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol,
the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.) Indeed, this
figure is an increase over past years – pot's THC content averaged
4 percent in the 1990s and just under 3 percent for the 1980s –
but it's hardly an alarming one. Marijuana poses no risk of fatal
overdose, regardless of THC content, and studies indicate that recreational
pot smokers readily distinguish between high and low potency weed
and moderate their use accordingly – just as an alcohol consumer
would drink fewer ounces of (high potency) bourbon than they would
ounces of (low potency) beer.

Moreover,
even with pot's mild rise in THC content, scientific reviews have
consistently found that it possesses a low risk potential relative
to other drugs, including alcohol and tobacco. Supporting this assessment
is the well-established fact that marijuana lacks the so-called
"dependence liability" or addictiveness of other licit
and illicit drugs.

According
to the US Institute of Medicine, which at the behest of the White
House released a voluminous scientific review in 1999 of marijuana
and health, "Millions of Americans have tried marijuana, but
most are not regular users … [and] few marijuana users become
dependent on it." In fact, authors of the report found that
less than 10 percent of marijuana users ever exhibit symptoms of
dependence (as defined by the American Psychiatric Association's
DSM-III-R criteria.) By comparison 15 percent of alcohol users,
17 percent of cocaine users, and a whopping 32 percent of cigarette
smokers statistically exhibit symptoms of drug dependence.

The
Institute of Medicine further concluded, "Experimental animals
that are given the opportunity to self-administer cannabinoids generally
do not choose to do so, which has led to the conclusion that they
are not reinforcing or rewarding." It should come as little
surprise then that most pot users voluntarily cease their marijuana
smoking by their late 20s or early 30s, often citing health or professional
concerns and/or the decision to start a family. Contrast this pattern
with that of the typical tobacco smoker, many of whom begin as teens
and continue smoking daily for the rest of their lives.

That's
not to say that some marijuana smokers do not become psychologically
dependent on marijuana or find quitting difficult. But a comprehensive
study released last year by the Canadian Senate concluded that this
dependence "is less severe and less frequent than dependence
on other psychotropic substances, including alcohol and tobacco."
Observable withdrawal symptoms attributable to marijuana are also
exceedingly rare.

According
to the Institute of Medicine, these symptoms are "mild and
short lived" compared to the profound physical withdrawal symptoms
of other drugs, such as alcohol or heroin, and unlikely to persuade
former smokers to re-initiate their marijuana use.

So
what about the Drug Czar's claims that a record number of teens
are seeking help for so-called "marijuana addiction?"
As usual, the devil is in the details.

Few
marijuana smokers, including teenagers, ever voluntarily seek treatment
for their pot use. Simply put, most marijuana smokers in drug treatment
are there for one reason: because they were arrested.

Since
1995, approximately 5.5 million Americans have been arrested on
marijuana charges. Nearly 90 percent of them were charged with possession
only, and approximately one out of three were first-time, youthful
(age 14 to 19 years old) offenders. Naturally, most judges are hesitant
to sentence these defendants to jail or saddle them with a criminal
record. Their alternative? Drug treatment.

The
end result? Admissions to drug rehabilitation clinics among adolescent
marijuana users have increased dramatically since the mid-1990s.
However, this rise in marijuana admissions is due exclusively to
a proportional increase in teens referred to drug treatment by the
criminal justice system. In fact, since 1995, the proportion of
admissions from all sources other than the criminal justice system
has actually declined, according to the federal Drug and Alcohol
Services Information System (DASIS). Consequently, DASIS
reports
that today, "over half (54 percent) of all adolescent
marijuana admissions [are] through the criminal justice system,"
with an additional 25 percent coming from referrals from schools
and substance abuse providers.

Like
many government claims, fear that today's marijuana is more dangerous
than the pot smoked by legions of baby-boomers in the 1960s and
70s is unsubstantiated by the scientific evidence. Nevertheless,
the rhetoric plays well in a nation full of former pot-smoking politicians
and voters, many of whom are searching for an explanation to excuse
their own "youthful indiscretions" while simultaneously
voicing support for today's prohibitionist policies. (See President
George W. Bush, former Vice-President Al Gore, Supreme Court Justice
Clarence Thomas, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, etc.)
As a result even though the Drug Czar's latest hyperbolic pot allegations
fail the proverbial stink test, much of the public and the media
appear more than willing to believe the hype.

October
21, 2004

Paul Armentano [send him mail]
is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
in Washington, DC.

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