The Lies Are Starting in Massachusetts

Sep 09, 2008

decriminalization, drug warriors, law enforcement, marijuana, potency, science

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.