In November, California will consider whether to legalize recreational marijuana, and voters seem ready to approve the idea.
But the question of legalization is out of date, and is derived from the mistaken idea that all pot is created equal and that most of it is fairly weak.
A question we ought to ask ourselves is just as important if legalization is to succeed: What kind of marijuana should we legalize?
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The hyper-potent mutant strains that pass for marijuana today have little relation to naturally grown pot associated with Northern California hippie growers of the 1970s. Levels of THC – tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that creates the high – in pot now reach 20 to 30 percent, which is seven to 15 times the potency of a few decades ago.
This freakish weed emerged precisely because pot is illegal and unregulated. These strains have been brought to life by underground botanists in basements and trailers, hybridizing and dousing their creations with chemical fertilizers and steroids.
Legalizing this kind of mutant marijuana for commercial sale would be irresponsible.
I lived in Mexico for many years and I know illegal pot is the gateway into business for most traffickers. Drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was a marijuana trafficker first. Illegal pot is also an environmental disaster in this country. Humboldt County forests have smog due to generators, running night and day, powering lights and air flows through illegal indoor marijuana grows. Legalization would allow for far greater scientific study of the potential medical benefits of marijuana.
But, we are only beginning to form an idea of what this new high-potency pot will do to a young person’s brain. A 2014 New England Journal of Medicine study, co-authored by Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, showed emergency room visits due to marijuana increasing in correlation with pot potency over an eight-year period. Colorado’s Department of Public Safety found an increase in emergency room visits since that state legalized marijuana in 2014.
At the end of Prohibition in 1933, the United States did not legalize for commercial sale the wood alcohol and other unregulated poisons then passing for liquor and causing paralysis and blindness. High-THC pot is their modern counterpart.
Our nationwide epidemic of opiate addiction, meanwhile, ought to give pause to anyone interested in drug legalization. The opiate scourge started with legal drugs – narcotic painkillers – massively prescribed by doctors, creating a vast new supply of opiates and opiate addicts nationwide.
What’s more, the opiate epidemic shows that potency matters. For years before high-potency OxyContin came out, very few addicts to low-dose narcotic painkillers moved on to heroin. Then OxyContin increased pill users’ tolerances and daily cost, thus pushing them to switch to cheaper heroin. The country would not have this new serious heroin problem without it.
In researching and writing a book on this epidemic, I came to believe that, though the story is complicated, drug scourges start with supply, not demand. We had no great demand for cocaine until the Colombians started funneling tons of it into south Florida in the late 1970s. The most abused drug in America is alcohol, because the supply is cheap and ever-present.
As we stand poised to create another massive legal supply of drugs, the potency we allow is crucially important.
With alcohol, we have a legalization template. The idea of regulating potency first emerged in the 1930s after first allowing unfettered alcohol production and then prohibiting booze outright were shown to be failures. Since then, regulating alcohol potency for commercial sale has become accepted as common sense: with levels in beer and wine today of between 3 and 15 percent. Pot should be no different.
The proposition before California voters in November has some good in it – describing a regulatory approach and a state agency tasked with overseeing pot production and sale. Sadly, though, it makes no mention of limiting the potency of marijuana for commercial sale. And it specifically permits indoor grows, where much of high-potency marijuana is produced with high doses of pesticides and great amounts of energy. This places the proposition out of step with countries that now understand that caution is needed. The Netherlands and Uruguay, for instance, are readying proposals to cap THC levels of legal marijuana at 15 percent.
Given the problems created by our experience with legal opiates, I’d suggest caution and humility: an initial limit of, say, 5 or 7 percent THC pot for commercial sale until we know much more and have a regulatory structure in place that’s working. Regulating potency, by the way, would have little effect on any of pot’s medical benefits, which are derived not from THC, but from a companion element, cannabidiol – CBD – that does not produce the high.
Legalizing marijuana needs to happen and will be tricky to do well. It will be doubly difficult if we inflict on ourselves the kind of damaging pot that would never have emerged had the weed been legal and regulated all along.
Sam Quinones, a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, is the author of “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” Follow him on Twitter @samquinones7. firstname.lastname@example.org