It’s a common refrain heard from opponents of marijuana policy reform: Weed is so much stronger than it was back in the day, and that means our nation’s kids are in more danger than ever.
This claim is supposed to forestall arguments by reformers that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol and “hard” drugs such as heroin and meth. Pot farmers, the story goes, are now competing to grow the newest strains of “superpot.”
So what’s happening? Why would weed be so much stronger than it was back in the 1960s? Is it really?
First off, the cannabis you smoke today is no different, biologically speaking, than the stuff dealers sold in the ‘60s – or that the pharaohs used in Ancient Egypt. It all descends from the same original pot plants that grew on the slopes of the Himalayas millennia ago.
Selective Breeding Produces Special Effects
The hemp plant has been subjected to selective breeding for a very long time, with specific varieties grown to produce specific effects. But it’s true that the crossbreeding process has accelerated dramatically in recent years.
That means today’s strains are much more diverse than they were back in the “good old days.” And yes, some of them are stronger. And yes, there are even international competitions encouraging cultivation of the most potent pot possible.
“The unfortunate aspect of this arms race is that they’re finally turning the drug into everything the U.S. government once said it was,” said Robert MacCoun, a behavioral scientist at UC Berkeley who studies drug policy. “It used to be we could say the government exaggerated the threat of this ‘crazy weed,’ but these new potent strains belie that.”
But it’s important to put dramatic claims like this into context. For one thing, pot is only slightly more potent than it used to be.
THC Content Has Almost Doubled
Before weed started going legal in the mid 1990s, most recreational cannabis contained no more than 15 percent THC. Today, the strongest strains measured by competition contain less than 30 percent THC. Some growers say they’ve produced pot with 40 percent or more, but they have little evidence to back their claims.
The increase may appear pretty substantial: a doubling of THC within the last few decades. So surely addict potheads are throwing their lives away over the stuff, right?
Well, that’s just the thing: Pot opponents can’t point to any real proof that strong weed is especially bad for you, or that it’s leading to increased addiction. The risk of side effects – including panic attacks – may increase, but strong pot isn’t going to kill you or give you any health problems you couldn’t get from weaker pot.
Even if the strong stuff was particularly dangerous, it’s not exactly easy to find. Some legal dispensaries sell the award-winning weed, but otherwise it’s scarce. You certainly won’t find much of it on the black market.
Most stoners are stuck with less potent strains, including some varieties that have been around for a very long time, such as Kush and Haze. These can be quite potent, though they don’t pack the punch of the high-THC strains.
It’s also important to remember that there are already ways to get a much more potent delivery of THC. Hash oil has been around since at least the 1970s, though it only gained wide popularity within the past 10 years. Edibles are often very strong, too.
So yes, the strongest weed is stronger than it once was – but not nearly as strong as critics claim. That doesn’t mean potheads cause more problems or suffer any especially bad effects. Pot is pot, and strong pot is just that.