Reporters are missing a key part of the story on marijuana legalization

Published on
August 30, 2016

In November, California will consider whether to legalize marijuana and seems ready to approve the idea.

But the question itself is out of date, and derives from the mistaken idea that all pot is the same, and that most of it is fairly weak.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 irresponsible.

I believe lower-potency marijuana should be legal. Pot has spawned some of the most toxic forces in our hemisphere. It is the gateway into business for most Mexican cartel traffickers. Chapo Guzman was a marijuana trafficker first. In California, illegal pot is an environmental nightmare. Humboldt County forests have smog due to generators running night and day, powering lights and air flows through illegal indoor marijuana grows. I also believe that legalization would allow for far greater scientific study of the potential medical benefits of marijuana.

But we are only now forming an idea of what a new massive supply of 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 ER visits since that state legalized recreational marijuana in 2014.

For journalists, the effect of a massive new supply of high-potency pot is the issue that must be covered. It is not, and I suspect that’s because reporters, like many others, buy the idea implicit in the question — should we legalize marijuana? — that all marijuana is the same. 

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 of those addicted to low-dose narcotic painkillers moved on to heroin. Then high-potency 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.

The pot issue poses many challenges for reporters that few have stepped up to.

Too often reporters seem to believe the idea, repeated often, most notably in the Sean Penn interview with Chapo Guzman in Rolling Stone, that demand is what starts a drug scourge, and that no progress is possible until demand ends.

That’s wrong. Supply is the crucial igniter of drug scourges. Our national opiate epidemic shows that brilliantly. Plus, 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.

For journalists, the effect of a massive new supply of high-potency pot is the issue that must be covered. It is not, and I suspect that’s because reporters, like many others, buy the idea implicit in the question — should we legalize marijuana? — that all marijuana is the same. No. The question is which marijuana should we legalize? And which should we wait to legalize until we know far more about its effects and have a functioning and funded regulatory bureaucracy? Why, after all, should we go fast?

There are scientists around who can explain what’s known today about the effect of powerful drugs on a young and developing brain. I haven’t seen too many of these folks quoted, nor their ideas explained, in the media.

Meanwhile, reporters need to remember history. We went through this already with alcohol, just in reverse. With alcohol, first, everything was allowed; then, for 13 years, nothing was permitted. Neither worked. Finally, we figured out that a relatively happy medium involved, among other things, regulating the potency of alcohol. With marijuana, for decades nothing has been allowed; now it appears we’re ready to permit most everything.

As we stand poised to create another massive legal supply of drugs, the potency we allow is crucially important.

The proposition most likely to come 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. Why, in a time of climate change, is a state regulation allowing people to use energy wantonly for a plant that grows very well under the sun?

The proposition is out of step with countries that now understand that caution is needed. The Netherlands (a country cited by many in favor of drug legalization) and Uruguay, for instance, are readying proposals to cap THC levels of legal marijuana at 15 percent.

Furthermore, the money needs examination. How much revenue will pot taxation create? What are the costs of starting a new regulatory system from scratch?

Pot culture – and the failings of the drug war and Prohibition – push us to view things simplistically: The current system doesn’t work, so it should all be legalized. I believe the small details of legalization will determine whether it functions or fails – and reporters need to be asking specific questions about how it would work, and how it would be funded, as these measures go before voters across the country.

Regulating potency, by the way, would have little effect on any of pot’s medical benefits, which are derived not from THC, but mostly, it’s believed, from a companion element, cannabidiol – CBD – that does not produce the high. (As an aside: Why cities don’t regulate medical marijuana dispensaries to sell only high-CBD/low-THC pot is another question all reporters should be asking. After all, if it’s really intended as medical marijuana, what does it matter if the THC content is low?)

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 or email him at