The myth of potent pot.

The myth of potent pot.

The myth of potent pot.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Nov. 19 2002 10:33 AM

The Myth of Potent Pot

The drug czar's latest reefer madness: He claims that marijuana is 30 times more powerful than it used to be.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Marijuana lost big on Election Day. Nevada's pot legalization proposal took only 39 percent of the vote. An Arizona decriminalization initiative did little better with 43 percent. And a mere 33 percent of Ohioans voted for a measure to treat instead of incarcerate minor drug offenders.

One reason for the ballot-box failure may have been the full-throttle, anti-marijuana campaign tour by White House Drug Czar John P. Walters. Walters, whose official title is director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, inveighed against the demon weed in campaign swings through Ohio, Arizona, and Nevada (twice). At the heart of Walters' sermon: "It is not your father's marijuana." Today's users, he claims, confront pot that's up to 30 times stronger than what aging baby boomers smoked.

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In an early September op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Walters wrote: "In 1974, the average THC content of marijuana was less than 1 percent. But by 1999, potency averaged 7 percent." This is plain wrong. According to the federal government's own Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, 1999's average was 4.56 percent. Referring to Walters' 7 percent figure, Dr. Mahmoud A. ElSohly, who runs the project, says, "That's not correct for an overall average." (THC is tetra-hydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in pot.)

Walters also wrote that the THC level in "today's sinsemilla … averages 14 percent and ranges as high as 30 percent." (Sinsemilla is the highest-quality pot.) He concluded, "The point is that the potency of available marijuana has not merely 'doubled,' but increased as much as 30 times."

A couple of weeks later in the Detroit News, Walters gave even more alarming numbers about regular pot, claiming that "today's marijuana is 10 to 14 percent [THC]. And hybrids go up to 30 percent and above."

Walters' figures are grossly distorted. For starters, his figures for "today's sinsemilla" actually come from 1999. He ignores data from 2000 and 2001. That's presumably because sinsemilla potency spiked in 1999 at 13.38 percent (which, incidentally, rounds off to 13 percent, not 14 percent). But the most recent full-year figure available, 2001, shows a potency of 9.55 percent. Yes, sinsemilla's THC count has been increasing, but its average over the past decade is only 9.79 percent. More important, the potency of sinsemilla has little to do with quotidian reality for most pot-smokers. Sinsemilla comprises only 4.3 percent of the University of Mississippi's sample over the years. It's prohibitively expensive for casual (and young) users: On the East Coast, the very best stuff is $700 an ounce.

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The pot that most people, especially most kids, smoke is nowhere near as powerful as sinsemilla: The THC content of all pot last year was 5.32 percent; during the past decade, it averaged 4.1 percent. In other words, the marijuana that most kids smoke is about 5 percent THC—not 14 percent and certainly not 30 percent.

As to Walters' claim that all those '70s hippies were getting goofy on the 1-percent stuff—the basis for his 30-fold increase claim—the number lacks credibility. No one smokes 1-percent dope, at least not more than once. You make rope with it. The industrial hemp initiative approved by state election officials in South Dakota this year defined psychoactively worthless hemp as a plant with a "THC content of 1 percent or less."

Avowed marijuana enthusiast Keith Stroup, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says: "One percent is not smokeable. That's really industrial hemp or ditchweed left over from World War II. All you'll get from that is a headache." In fact, in its formal reports, the Potency Monitoring Project even refers to 1-percent marijuana as "ditchweed." And in Understanding Marijuana, Mitch Earleywine, a University of Southern California psychology professor, writes, "[C]annabis with this little THC has no impact on subjective experience."

Pot is better, just not the 30 times better that Walters cites to scare today's voters. Walters is disingenuously comparing the best pot of today with the worst of yesterday, rather than comparing average marijuana of a generation ago with average marijuana now. He's ginning up the figures he wants by contrasting stuff you might line your cat's litter box with to the alleged 30-percent pot—the likes of which a lucky (or rich) smoker might encounter once every several years.

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Nor are Walters' fudged figures consistent from day to day or even consistent with what his own office says. Now he's talking a 30-fold increase, but just last May, Walters wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that pot is "10 to 20 times stronger" than it was a generation ago. (He made his more modest claim before news broke of the legalization push in Nevada and before he started his heavy campaigning.)

ONDCP contradicted the boss's 30-fold nonsense in its own anti-drug media campaign, which features an essay titled, "Kids and Marijuana: The Facts." It states that THC levels "rose from under 2 percent in the late 1970s and early 1980s to just over 6 percent in 2000." (It was actually never under 2 percent in the '80s and was 4.88 percent, not 6 percent, in 2000, but hey—close enough for government work.)

Those minor exaggerations aside, such were "The Facts" when I checked the ONDCP site this fall. But as the campaign season heated up, and Walters' potency claims jumped from 7 percent to October's superpot of 10 percent and 14 percent, these "facts" faded away. The ONDCP essay now states simply: "Today's marijuana is more potent and its effects can be more intense."

The original ONDCP "Facts" correspond with estimates from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman that marijuana has roughly tripled in potency. Kleiman also notes that there is no evidence at all that marijuana is getting kids more stoned than it used to. Writing on his own blog, Kleiman cites the respected annual University of Michigan study that asks respondents about levels of intoxication. Writes Kleiman: "The line for marijuana is flat as a pancake. Kids who get stoned today aren't getting any more stoned than their parents were. That ought to be the end of the argument." Kleiman points out that the average joint is now half its former size, so even if kids are smoking more powerful pot, they are smoking less of it. " 'Not your father's pot' is a great way to convince [boomer parents] to ignore their own experience, personal or vicarious, and believe what they are told to believe."

Of course, the Walters scare campaign is nothing new. Back in 1994, City University of New York professor and marijuana advocate John Morgan cited three New York Times articles warning of alarming increases in marijuana's potency. They were published in 1980, 1986, and 1994.