Oct 2007

Pot again

With the obvious exception of elected politicians, a significant majority of the people who smoke cannabis will enjoy it. It’s a biochemical thing. Dopamine and what have you. It’s like eating chocolate… for most of us it’s an actively pleasurable experience. But you’ll meet people during your life who simply don’t like the taste of chocolate all that much. Which is fair enough… maybe it’s blue cheese that floats their boat. Whatever.

Of the majority who do enjoy a toke or a toblerone, almost all will do so in moderation — or at the very least know their limits. Very few will become chronic pot heads and/or morbidly obese due to yorkies. If you doubt this (with regards to pot anyways) then I suggest you read Tim Worstall’s fine examination of the statistics. Despite the large number of recent newspaper headlines warning of the sinister harm wrought by cannabis, it turns out that a tiny percentage of regular users experience that harm… somewhere between 0.01% and 0.2%. Now, I don’t know what percentage of regular chocolate consumers suffer serious ill-health because of chronic usage. Whether it be diabetes or high cholesterol or the myriad other problems we’re told are associated with bad diet. But I do know that nobody, quite rightly, is suggesting that possession of a bar of dairy-milk should be considered a criminal offence. Imagine sending someone to share a cell with a rapist because they were caught eating chocolate.

My chocolate analogy also has another aspect to it… there are those (the UK Conservative Party for instance) who still trot out the “gateway theory” as a rationale for criminalising cannabis. The theory being that those who use cannabis will be more likely to use harder drugs due to some undefined biochemical conditioning that occurs in the brain. This is simply absurd and — when taken to a logical conclusion — rests upon the assumption that our neurochemistry is aware of which drugs are legally proscribed and which can be legally prescribed.

Seriously… think about it…

– “Cannabis leads to heroin!”
Wow, really? So does alcohol lead to heroin?
– “Of course not!”
Well, does tobacco lead to cannabis maybe?
– “Not a bit of it! Cannabis leads to heroin which leads to speed, ecstasy and cocaine.”
Er… do any of them lead to prozac?

In reality the “cannabis gateway effect” (which does exist in many places) has been demonstrated to be sociological rather than biological. It is the prohibition of cannabis which places it into the same supply-system as the harder drugs. Those who smoke cannabis are more likely to have regular encounters with those who sell hard drugs than those who do not. It’s all quite easy to understand when you actually think about it rationally for a second.

But yeah, the chocolate thing. You see, there’s a very coherent and convincing argument to suggest that some kind of “psychological / biological gateway” theory may have merit, though not in the sense the tories would have you believe. Essentially our very early experiences with drugs will shape — not only psychologically, but also neurochemically — our relationship with drugs throughout our lives. And, so far as western culture is concerned, the first substance most of us encounter that can truly be considered a recreational drug… is chocolate. If you’re interested in this, I recommend Andrew Weil’s From Chocolate To Morphine which is very informative, though he does descend into polemic from time to time.

So much stronger

Another theme in the recent race to see which media outlet can publish the most one-sided drug-policy story, is the claim that today’s pot is vastly more potent than ever before. This claim is false and is a simple result of journalists failing to do any research and instead reprinting “the official line” as fact. Usually the claim rests upon data produced by the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project. However, as this project is funded by, and falls under the jurisdiction of, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse which is itself part of the government’s Drug Policy Office, it’s difficult to conclude that it constitutes “independent” research (the organisation funding it has a clear and overt bias after all).

I too have a clear and overt bias (I’m strongly in favour of significant reform of our drug laws and the controlled legalisation of all currently prohibited drugs) but I hope that the following discussion of cannabis potency will be transparent enough to make my claims relatively uncontroversial.

Firstly let’s establish what is meant by cannabis potency. The composition of any plant is extremely complex with many hundreds, if not thousands, of identifiable constituent chemicals. In the case of cannabis, there’s only one we’re interested in — Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. This is the primary active component; the chemical that gets you high; and the potency of a given sample of cannabis is expressed via the percentage of THC found in that sample.

Now, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA):

Marijuana is much stronger now than it was decades ago. According to data from the Potency Monitoring Project at the University of Mississippi, the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content of commercial-grade marijuana rose from an average of 3.71 percent in 1985 to an average of 5.57 percent in 1998. The average THC content of U.S. produced sinsemilla increased from 3.2 percent in 1977 to 12.8 percent in 1997.

Let’s take these figures at face value though, as Brian C. Bennett writes, the methodology used is extremely dubious (I urge you to read the first three paragraphs on that page). Not only that, the DEA have been very selective indeed in the figures used. The comparison of 1977 (3.2%) and 1997 (12.8%) seems extremely dramatic. But if we were to take the figures for 1978 and 1993 (i.e. much of the same period) there’s a clear decline in average potency (from 6.28% to 5.77%). What are we to make of that?

Anyways, taking the figures at face value as I promised to do, the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that they have restricted the study to “U.S. produced sinsemilla”. This is despite the fact that (according to the New York Times magazine, reprinted here):

Fewer than 20 years ago (article published in 1995 – Jim), virtually all the marijuana consumed in America was imported. “Home grown” was a term of opprobrium, “something you only smoked in an emergency,” as one grower old enough to remember put it.

So while modern US-grown cannabis is probably as strong as that grown anywhere else in the world (with perhaps the exception of Thailand), thirty years ago it wasn’t. However, cannabis grown elsewhere and then imported into the USA during the 1970s (or Ireland or the UK) was sometimes just as strong (or almost so) as these supposed new super-skunks* that everyone’s getting into a lather about these days. According to a United Nations survey, for instance, the average potency of Thai cannabis seized in the U.K. in 1976 was 9.3%. And in 1980 the average for both Thai and Indian cannabis (again, seized in the U.K.) was 11%. (source) Neither of these are far from the “new high strength” numbers trotted out by the DEA and subsequently parroted in the media, and as they are average values we can safely assume that some individual samples were even more potent.

Something has changed, however, and that’s the relative availability of stronger cannabis. It’s easier to track down super-skunk today than it was to get your hands on thai-stick in 1977. Thanks to prohibition however, it’s impossible for someone to be aware of the strength of the cannabis they are purchasing. So a person who tends to smoke low-strength ditchweed may get a far stronger batch than they’re used to without being aware of it. As a result their first smoke from it may well be extremely stressful (imagine drinking a pint of beer only to discover afterwards that it had the same alcohol content as wine). Subsequently, however, the smoker will be aware of the higher strength and will simply smoke less of it in a session. Just as a wine drinker consumes less (in fluid ounces) than a beer drinker but still gets the same buzz.

In fact, because a smoker will consume more weak cannabis to get the same buzz as they would from a stronger strain, it’s likely that the weak stuff will have a greater negative impact on their health (through inhalation of more particulates) than the strong stuff. It’s simply misleading to suggest that a person will get higher from smoking stronger pot. The tendency of almost every pot-smoker is to smoke just enough to get them to the comfortable high that they enjoy, and in order to reach that they’ll smoke more or less depending on the potency.

And finally

Unlike many commentators I am completely unsurprised by the news that the UK’s reclassifaction of cannabis from Class B to Class C has been followed by a very significant fall in the number of people using the drug; particularly young people. Nor am I surprised by the news that the government is planning to reverse that policy.

After all, just as elected politicians appear to have a specific brain-chemistry that prevents them enjoying pot, they are also well known to be unable to distinguish between sensible and nonsensical drug policies.

* Incidentally, “skunk” and “super-skunk” are just the new names (for sensi, thai-sticks and the various other strong strains that have been available for many years) and not new plants.

Posted in: Opinion