Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2002 / 4 Tishrei 5763
Without mentioning me by name, a column by John P. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, in the Sept. 1 San Francisco Chronicle held up one of my columns as an example of how journalists can be "fed misleading advocacy information that they swallow whole."
The result is "a lack of accurate information" that plagues the public debate over marijuana. Walters recounts how a columnist described his claims of increased potency in today's marijuana as wildly overstated "whoppers."
I knew he was talking about me. A database search turned up nobody else's essays that have used the words drug czar and "whoppers" in the same column.
I found this amusing, since my efforts to get "accurate information" out of the drug czar's office while writing my column back in May were unsuccessful.
I was writing, ironically enough, in response to an earlier Walters column that opposed an effort to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes in the District of Columbia.
In that piece, printed in The Washington Post and reprinted in other newspapers, Walters tries to frighten us baby boomer parents by warning "today's marijuana is different from that of a generation ago, with potency levels 10 to 20 times stronger than the marijuana with which they were familiar."
As a Woodstock-generation parent of a worldly wise 13-year-old boy, I took great interest in that statement. Unfortunately, as I noted, Walters didn't say where he got that "whopper" of a statistic.
I had cited a federally funded study, published in the January 2000 Journal of Forensic Science, which found the average THC (that's the active ingredient that makes people high) content in confiscated marijuana had only doubled to 4.2 percent from about 2 percent from 1980 to 1997.
That brought a response from Walters claiming that I had not covered a long enough period. THC content averaged less than 1 percent in 1974, he says, but, "by 1999, potency averaged 7 percent." "The THC of today's sinsemilla (a high grade of marijuana) averages 14 percent and ranges as high as 30 percent," he says.
Wow, as my Deadhead friends might say, that must be some killer weed, dude.
Eagerly, I tried once again and happily reached Walters this time. After conversations with him and some of his advisers, we agreed to disagree on the key question: What are the chances that your little Johnny or Jane will latch onto some of that knockout grass?
That depends on how you interpret the available data. The latest quarterly report by the University of Mississippi's Potency Monitoring Project (which examined 46,000 samples of seized marijuana nationwide) found an average potency of 6.68 percent. Actual potencies ranged as high as 33.12 percent THC content for some extraordinarily potent sinsemilla confiscated by the Oregon state police to as low as 1 percent THC or no THC at all (somebody apparently got burned) for grass confiscated elsewhere in the country.
But it is hard to estimate based on available data how common or how rare the high-octane dope is. Purchasing weed is an art in itself. Everyone seeks the potent "preemo" stuff. Every dealer promises it. Fewer actually deliver.
Nor is it at all clear that the marijuana commonly available in the 1960s and 1970s really was all that weak. Potency studies at the time were plagued by such problems as small samples and poor storage in police lockers.
In his "Understanding Marijuana" (Oxford University Press, 2002), Mitchell Earleywine, a University of Southern California associate professor of psychology, observes that it "makes little sense" that marijuana with less than 1 percent THC would have enough potency to have increased in popularity as dramatically as it did in the 1960s and 1970s.
Either way, the killer-weed scare tactic avoids the serious issue of the medical marijuana debate. Higher potency actually is quite desirable for those who are seeking relief from pain, nausea and other symptomatic misery associated with HIV, glaucoma, chemotherapy, migraines and multiple sclerosis, just to name a few conditions for which marijuana has been found to be effective.
I did not use "whoppers" to mean lies, just exaggerations. Warnings that exaggerate the dangers of marijuana undermine one's credibility in the way that "Reefer Madness," the hyperventilating 1936 anti-pot movie, found new audiences after the 1960s as a laugh-riot, cult-comedy hit.
That's what the Bush administration risks with its multimillion-dollar effort to link street marijuana to international terrorism. Last week the Drug Enforcement Administration raided a legitimate medical marijuana health co-operative that was treating more than 200 patients, some of them terminally ill, in Santa Cruz, Calif., one of eight states where voters or legislators have legalized medical marijuana.
Snatching medicine out of the hands of seriously ill patients sounds like terrorism to me. In this case it was federally sponsored and taxpayer-financed. Put that in your bong and smoke it.
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09/06/02: A year later: A reality-check