Exposing Potent Pot Myths

"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 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