News Articles

Marijuana reaches new potency, data shows

WASHINGTON (BP)–Marijuana continues to become more potent and to cause mental impairment and traffic fatalities, according to a report released by the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy May 14.

“[L]evels of THC — the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana — have reached the highest-ever levels since scientific analysis of the drug began in the late 1970s,” an ONDCP news release stated, sparking another round of marijuana-related media reports.

The federal agency also noted:

“According to the NIDA [National Institute for Drug Abuse], heavy marijuana use impairs a person’s ability to form memories, recall events, and shift attention from one thing to another. THC also disrupts coordination and balance by binding to receptors in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, parts of the brain which regulate balance, posture, coordination of movement, and reaction time. Through its effects on the brain and body, marijuana intoxication can cause accidents. Studies show that approximately 6 to 11 percent of fatal accident victims test positive for THC. In many of these cases, alcohol is detected as well.

“Other recent studies show marijuana use can be a risk factor for the onset of schizophrenia in vulnerable individuals, and may be associated with other mental disorders, including depression and anxiety,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy stated.

Federal data on the potency of marijuana is gathered through the Potency Monitoring Project conducted by the University of Mississippi’s pharmacy school.

“According to the latest data on marijuana samples analyzed to date, the average amount of THC in seized samples [numbering 1,500 from law enforcement raids and eradications] has reached a new high of 10.1 percent. This compares to an average of just under 4 percent reported in 1983 and represents more than a doubling in the potency of the drug since that time,” the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported.

Among the media reports sparked by the new federal data was an article in the New York Daily News titled, “Debunking the myths about marijuana: Experts share the facts about today’s stronger pot.”

The first myth addressed in the article: “You can’t get addicted to pot.”

The newspaper’s assessment:

“Truth: Though often portrayed as a gateway drug, marijuana is in and of itself an addictive drug, says registered nurse Sarah Kabalka, who specializes in addiction and works with kids who are addicted to drugs.

“‘If you’re genetically predisposed to becoming an addict and you start smoking pot, there is no way to know when the switch is flipped and you become an addict,’ she says. ‘Since the pot is stronger, that means you become more high and stay high longer.’

“Pot use is most common in people between the ages of 16 and 28, Kabalka says, and 90 percent of teens say they have been exposed to marijuana, either using it themselves or having a friend use it, by the time they are a senior in high school,” the newspaper recounted.

Also addressed in the article:

— Whether pot is harmful: The Daily News cited David Sack, a certified addiction psychiatrist, as noting that smoking marijuana several times a week results in “twice the rate of schizophrenia and other disorders,” as the newspaper put it, in addition to causing increased manic episodes among bipolar individuals. Marijuana use also can cause, as the paper put it, “decreased sperm motility that can lead to infertility.”

— Whether people should drive after smoking marijuana: “Truth: Besides impeding short term memory, marijuana, which is a hallucinogenic drug, interferes with hand-eye coordination and impedes the ability not just to operate a motor vehicle, but any other type of machinery,” the Daily News stated.

— Whether marijuana affects breastfeeding: The Daily News quoted Kabalka as reporting that studies have shown “a higher concentration of marijuana in breast milk than in the mother’s bloodstream so that these babies are getting a fair amount of marijuana.”

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws countered the Office of National Drug Control Policy with a posting on its website that included the headline: “Don’t Believe The Hype! Potent Pot, So What?”

The unnamed writer argued that federal officials often have issued “dire assertions” over the increasing potency of marijuana; that THC averaged 5 percent in domestically grown marijuana (the “bulk of the US market”), according to the government’s 2008 data; that a study in the Netherlands found that most marijuana users “prefer less potent pot”; and that the government’s potency reports give “free advertising” to marijuana growers that causes “tens of millions of Americans to head immediately to their nearest street-corner in search of a dealer…. The Feds then demand more of your hard-earned tax dollars so they can get more Americans ‘off the pot.'”

The writer, however, did not address such concerns as mental impairment and traffic fatalities stemming from marijuana use.

Other significant studies reporting harm from marijuana use include:

— Marijuana smoking may have a greater potential than tobacco smoking to cause lung cancer, and smoking just one marijuana joint is as harmful to the body as smoking 20 cigarettes, according to a study by researchers in New Zealand published in the European Respiratory Journal in February 2008.

“This issue is of major public health importance, due to the prevalent use of cannabis globally and lung cancer being responsible for over a million deaths in the world each year,” the researchers stated. Marijuana joints tend to be smoked without filters and at a smaller butt size, leading to higher concentrations of smoke inhaled, the researchers wrote, noting that marijuana smokers also inhale more deeply and hold their breath longer. Such factors “are likely to be responsible for the five-fold greater absorption of carbon monoxide from a cannabis joint, compared with a tobacco cigarette of similar size,” the researchers wrote. Public health efforts to reduce tobacco use, the researchers suggested, should be extended to reducing marijuana use “particularly [among] young people.”

— Teens who use marijuana are in danger of higher occurrences of such mental health issues as depression, schizophrenia, suicide and anxiety, government officials said in releasing a report on May 9 of this year. Teens suffering from depression, for example, are more than twice as likely to abuse or develop a dependence on marijuana, the study noted.

The president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Larry Greenhill, said at the May 9 news conference, “The benign quality of marijuana, which has been an assumption since the ’60s, is now seriously questioned by researchers, scientists and doctors.” Much of the problem, Greenhill said, stems from a tenfold increase in marijuana potency since the ’60s.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press. For recent commentaries in Baptist Press on the nation’s expanding marijuana problem, see http://bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=30148 and http://bpnews.net/BPFirstPerson.asp?ID=30379.