Pubdate: Sun, 21 Aug 2016
Source: Sacramento Bee (CA)
Copyright: 2016 The Sacramento Bee
Author: Sam Quinones
Note: Sam Quinones, a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist, is the 
author of "Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic."


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But the question of legalization is out of date, and is derived from 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?

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 

I lived in Mexico for many years and I know illegal pot is the 
gateway into business for most traffickers. Drug lord Joaquin "El 
Chapo" Guzman 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.

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.

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.

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 

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.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom