Just as marijuana reform advocates predicted, marijuana in a legal market will be safer for users. In response to Colorado and Washington’s legalization laws, laboratories are springing up that test marijuana for its safety, purity, potency, and active ingredients.
Like alcohol, the regulatory boards in Colorado and Washington will require marijuana products to carry health warnings, ratings for potency, and certification that the product meets safety standards. The regulations are designed to control for adverse health effects that could result from a consumer’s lack of knowledge or from a producer’s poor growing techniques.
Labs are also moving into Oregon, following the state legislature’s recent approval of a bill to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries. Medical experts, politicians, and marijuana research groups have chimed in to support the proposed state requirements for testing.
From the Washington Post:
“This does demonstrate a shift in how we are beginning to treat marijuana in this country,” said Mason Tvert, a spokesman for MPP. “Legal products are regulated and sold in a controlled marketplace. And that’s what we are going to see – are already beginning to see – with marijuana, be it for medical purposes or simply for adult use.”
In what may be some sort of modern record for fact-free grandstanding on drug issues, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from the suburbs north of Chicago, has introduced a bill to ratchet up penalties for so-called "super pot". Under Kirk's proposal, penalties would be massively increased for those producing or selling marijuana with THC levels 15% or higher -- to the point where a single plant could land someone in jail for 25 years.
Small problem: THC is, for all practical purposes, nontoxic. Higher-THC marijuana is not more dangerous. People simply smoke less, just like they drink less vodka than they do beer. That's not just my opinion. Scientists who have examined the issue have concluded that the evidence simply isn't there to sound alarm bells over so-called "super pot." See, for example, this detailed review from the journal Addiction.
Congressman Kirk, it feels safe to say, has no intention of letting mere facts get in his way.
In mid-May, spurred by a press release from the drug czar's office, the American news media reported with varying levels of hysteria that average marijuana potency had soared past the 10% THC level for the first time. Clearly the sky was falling, or at least was about to.
Small problem: According to the actual report, from the Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, average marijuana potency is only 8.52% -- a fact easily determined by doing something most journalists apparently didn't bother to attempt: reading the report, which is based on tests of samples seized by police. The way they got to the claimed rate of 10.1% was by including samples of hashish (average potency 20.76%) and hash oil (15.64%).
There's more. While the potency of marijuana samples did increase a bit from the comparable period a year ago, the overall proportion of samples represented by hash and hash oil also increased. That is, a greater percentage of the cannabis products seized and sent in for testing was the high-strength stuff.
But are these police seizure samples tested representative of what's actually available to marijuana consumers? There is absolutely no way to be sure, but every indication is that they aren't.
First, the number of samples tested dropped markedly, from 1290 a year ago to 818 in the current period. Why such a big drop? The MPMP report doesn't say.
Second, as with prior years, the domestically produced marijuana tested tended to be significantly weaker than the imported stuff, but domestic cannabis only represented 29.7% of the samples tested. No one seriously believes that less than a third of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. is produced here. Indeed, a 2005 State Department report suggests that the real proportion is almost the exact reverse: "More than 10,000 metric tons of domestic marijuana and more than 5,000 metric tons of marijuana cultivated and harvested in Mexico and Canada is marketed to more than 20 million users in the United States. Colombia, Jamaica, and Paraguay also export marijuana to the U.S.” Those last three countries, though, represent a tiny fraction of what comes here from Mexico and Canada.
Is the average potency of marijuana inching upward? Probably, though there isn't the slightest evidence that this makes it more dangerous. Is the real average potency over 10%? Only if you believe in the tooth fairy.
Global Cannabis Commission: "No Justification For Incarcerating an Individual For Cannabis Possession"
"If something is not legal, you can't regulate it very effectively."
-- Prof. Robin Room, School of Population Health, University of Melbourne
On October 2, the Global Cannabis Commission, a group of top scientists commissioned by the Beckley Foundation, issued its groundbreaking report, "Cannabis Policy: Moving Beyond Stalemate." Your faithful correspondent was able to attend the daylong seminar in which the report was discussed, held in the distinctly imposing Moses Room of the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster.
The report was written by five leading marijuana and drug policy researchers: Benedikt Fischer of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, and three Australians: Wayne Hall of the University of Queensland, Simon Lenton of the National Drug Research Institute at the Curtin University of Technology, and Robin Room of the University of Melbourne. A number of other important researchers joined the discussion (and contributed advice and research to the report).
RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH MARIJUANA USE:
Marijuana is not harmless. Intoxication "increases the risk of motor vehicle crashes 2-3 times" -- not trivial, but "far more modest than that of alcohol." There is clearly an increased risk of bronchitis among heavy marijuana smokers, but no evidence of increased rates of emphysema, while the evidence regarding lung cancer is mixed, the report states.
Marijuana almost certainly exacerbates symptoms of schizophrenia in vulnerable individuals, but epidemiologic evidence argues against it causing psychosis in healthy people. As for worries about increased potency, more research is needed. If users adjust their intake in relation to potency, dangers are minimal. Perhaps most important, "All of these trends [toward increased potency] have been encouraged by prohibition, which favors the production of more concentrated forms."
Overall, the report finds the risks of marijuana use are "modest" compared with those of legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco.
POLICY AND REFORM:
While causing obvious harm to those arrested and convicted, criminalization of marijuana possession has not succeeded in preventing marijuana from being widely available. Contrary to wild claims being made in Massachusetts right now, decriminalization measures have not increased use rates. "If a nation chooses to use the criminal law for controlling cannabis use, there is no justification for incarcerating an individual for a cannabis possession or use offense, nor for creating a criminal conviction," the report concludes.
While not firmly advocating one policy alternative, the report lays out many advantages to a system of legal regulation like that used for alcohol. As report co-author Prof. Robin Room noted succinctly, "If something is not legal, you can't regulate it very effectively."
It was probably inevitable: Lacking actual facts to make their case, opponents of Question 2 in Massachusetts have begun spinning fictional scare stories in order to frighten voters out of reforming that state's marijuana laws.
Question 2 would replace the current criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults with a civil fine. Marijuana would still be illegal, but simple possession of a small amount wouldn't require arrest, booking, and all the time and expense that entails, and would not generate a criminal record. Eleven other states already have such "decriminalization" laws on the books, and they're working just fine. Notably, they have not produced an increase in rates of marijuana use, as the National Research Council has noted.
So opponents trying to frighten voters about Question 2 have no choice but to make stuff up. For example, a story in Monday's Cape Cod Today describes claims being made by local District Attorney Michael O'Keefe: "'This is not your father's marijuana of 20 or 30 years ago,' the district attorney said. He said marijuana now is far more potent, and contains substances designed to addict the user."
Research indicates that O'Keefe's claims are false.
Can marijuana be contaminated? Sure, as can any product. But no one has produced evidence that contamination is increasing, much less that sinister forces are intentionally introducing "substances designed to addict the user."
The issues of marijuana potency and contamination were addressed in a study by a group of Australian researchers, published earlier this year by the journal Addiction. They note that reported changes in potency are based on samples seized by law enforcement, which may or may not be representative of what's actually being used by marijuana consumers. But even if one accepts evidence of a rough doubling of average marijuana potency in the U.S. over the last 20 years or so, that doesn't mean users are getting more stoned: "More recent studies have reported that certain types of users may adjust the amount of cannabis smoked depending on potency," the researchers write.
One is tempted to say, "Well, duh." Drinkers consume smaller amounts of bourbon than they do of beer. Why would anyone expect marijuana users to be any different?
Let's be serious. Even a doubling of potency is far less than the difference in alcohol content between beer and wine. Could anyone claim with a straight face that wine is an entirely different drug than beer because of its higher alcohol content?
The bottom line, according to the Australian scientists, is that there is no solid evidence that any of this represents an actual danger: "Claims made in the public domain about a 20- or 30-fold increase in cannabis potency and about the adverse mental health effects of cannabis contamination are not supported currently by the evidence. ... [M]ore research is needed to determine whether increased potency and contamination translates to harm for users..."
But you can bet that the scare stories will be flying thick and fast in Massachusetts from now till November. We'll see if the voters are persuaded by science fiction.
I promise, we will not do a new post every time an ONDCP official lies. We'd never get any work done. But the falsehoods uttered by deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns in this interview in the Arcata Eye, a small northern California paper, are so blatant that they deserve mention. To avoid having to write a War and Peace-length tome, I'll focus on just two:
LIE #1: Tough laws and enforcement are reducing marijuana use: Burns says, "drug use is down in the United States dramatically since 2001 ... So we know that when we push back, the problem gets smaller."
Actually, virtually every expert analysis has found this to be untrue. In 2001 the National Research Council, in a White House-commissioned study, found "little apparent relationship between the severity of sanctions prescribed for drug use and the prevalence or frequency of use." Just weeks ago, a new World Health Organization study found that drug laws have little if any relationship to use rates -- and that the rate of marijuana use in the U.S. is over double that of the Netherlands, where adults are permitted to possess and purchase small amounts of marijuana from regulated businesses.
LIE #2: Marijuana belongs in Schedule I, with drugs like LSD and heroin that are banned from medicinal use. Burns says, "Because of the higher potency, it is the same as cocaine and methamphetamine and heroin. ... I say you should try crack, because from what I hear, crack cocaine will make you feel really good as well. This is not about making people feel better. ... physician after physician, and scientist after scientist have said, 'You have to be kidding me.'”
Oh dear. First, does Burns really believe that relieving suffering (making sick patients "feel better") is somehow inappropriate for medicine? Is he unaware of the mass of clinical research documenting that marijuana does indeed relieve symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and neuropathic pain?
Second, methamphetamine and cocaine are in Schedule 2 -- that is, they are legal medicines. And no, the approximate doubling of average marijuana potency over the last 20 years doesn't make it a whole new drug -- no more than wine is a whole different drug than beer because it has three times the alcohol level. Indeed, there is no proof that higher potency marijuana poses any danger at all. A recent analysis in the journal Addiction stated, "more research is needed to determine whether increased potency and contamination translates to harm for users."
As for what doctors think, the American College of Physicians -- 124,000 neurologists, oncologists and other internal medicine specialists -- recently called for marijuana to be taken out of Schedule I "given the scientific evidence regarding marijuana’s safety and efficacy in some clinical conditions."
Did Burns' nose grow longer as he was speaking?
An editorial in the July 18 New York Times worries about rising drug overdose deaths among young people, but misleadingly brings marijuana into the picture, for no good reason.
While the Times is right to raise alarm over rising drug overdose deaths among youth, references to marijuana in that context are both puzzling and misleading.
Marijuana has never caused a medically documented fatal overdose. Because THC does not suppress vital functions such as breathing, the consensus among researchers is that it is literally impossible to fatally overdose by smoking marijuana. So why does the Times even bring up marijuana in the context of overdose deaths?
The editorial sounds the alarm over increased marijuana potency, but government scare stories about potency are red herrings. There is no evidence that higher-THC marijuana is more addictive or in any way more dangerous. There is, however, considerable evidence that when potency increases, marijuana users smoke less, just as drinkers drink less vodka than they would beer -- thereby minimizing their risk of bronchitis or other lung issues related to smoking.