Not your grandma's weed: Why potency limits must be part of any push to legalize cannabis
Cannabis products are far more potent today than what baby boomers and Gen X may have used. The drug's reputation as 'harmless' needs to confront the harmful realities of its increased potency.
No drug has undergone such a transformation in the court of public opinion and state legislatures as marijuana. It is illegal under federal law and listed as a Schedule I drug, deemed to have little medical value and high potential for abuse.
States have taken a different view. Medical marijuana is now legal in 37 states, while recreational marijuana is legal in 19 states plus two territories and Washington, D.C.
This sea change of perception is a consequence of three related considerations:
►Based on anecdotal evidence with moving testimony by patients and their families, state legislators became convinced of marijuana’s salutary effects. The federal government had instituted a near-categorical prohibition on marijuana research, so the absence of studies helped the case for medical marijuana because of limited evidence about whether it was harmful.
►Marijuana has enjoyed a reputation of being harmless. Many assume that marijuana is not addictive like drugs that have been culturally and morally coded as "bad" or "dangerous," such as heroin or methamphetamine.
►Many recognize that the Controlled Substances Act and its enforcement through the war on drugs were conceived and implemented in racialized and racist ways. There’s no denying the fact that Black Americans have been disproportionately arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced for drug crimes.
Measures to decriminalize cannabis
Now, members of Congress are considering wide-ranging legislative proposals that would eliminate criminal penalties for individuals who manufacture, distribute or possess cannabis. The House of Representatives passed a bill in April. Now the Senate is considering a bill of its own.
I am in favor of the provisions that would establish a trust fund for communities impacted by the war on drugs and an expungement process for individuals with marijuana convictions. I have deep reservations, however, about the push to decriminalize cannabis without restrictions on the potency of the products.
OUR VIEW: Editorials on cannabis legalization
- Time for change. Federal ban on marijuana use causes more harm than good.
- Senators introduced a bill to legalize marijuana. Congress should pass it.
- He's serving 40 years in prison, while legal marijuana makes others rich.
How potent can cannabis be in 2022?
Marijuana’s reputation as "harmless" needs to confront the harmful realities of its increased potency. Today’s marijuana products are far more potent than what baby boomers and Gen X might have used.
Potency is best measured in terms of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, content:
►From the 1960s to the 1980s, THC content in the flowers or buds was less than 2%.
►In the 1990s, the percentage increased to 4%.
►By 2017, the average range was 17%-28% for the most popular strains at Colorado dispensaries.
►Now there are concentrates with up to 95% THC content that are used in vaping devices.
This is not your parents’ or grandparents’ marijuana.
At present, marijuana is generally regulated by weight, not potency. There is no standard measure for a serving of marijuana as there is for a serving of alcohol.
Of the states that have legalized recreational marijuana, only Vermont has imposed caps: 30% THC content in flower products and 60% in concentrates.
Any state or federal legislation that does not specify maximum levels of THC is gravely inadequate.
Learn from missteps on tobacco rules
There is an important lesson to be learned from the lack of limits on nicotine in cigarettes.
Only in 2009, with the passage of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, did the Food and Drug Administration become authorized to cut the amount of nicotine in smoking products. Even so, the FDA may neither eliminate nicotine nor ban cigarettes.
And only this June did the FDA announce a plan to put a cap on nicotine to reduce youth use. We know the risks of nicotine use. We’ve seen the harms unfold throughout generations. We know the power of the tobacco industry. The FDA is trying to unring a bell rung long ago.
Cap the potency of pot
We still do not know the risks of marijuana, though physicians are starting to get a much clearer picture. Chronic vomiting, psychosis, addiction, and increased anxiety and depression follow from the regular use of high-potency marijuana in teenagers.
Legislators on the state and federal levels have an opportunity to make better laws about marijuana than they ever had with tobacco products. They need to cap the potency of pot.
Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., author of "Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering," is a professor of philosophy and gender, women and sexuality studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.