September 14, 2011

Reefer madness

The factoid of dramatically increasing cannabis potency has popped up again, with a claim that cannabis used to be 1-2% THC and is now up to 33%.    The most comprehensive and consistent data on cannabis potency come from a long-term project at the University of Mississippi. Their 2010 paper is based on analysis of 46,000 confiscated samples from 1993 to 2008.    Over this time period, the percentage of THC in marijuana (leaves and buds with seeds) increased from about 3.5% to about 6%.  The percentage in sinsemilla (buds without seeds) increased from about 6% to about 11%.   Since the more-recent samples were more likely to be sinsemilla, the percentage over all confiscated samples increased a bit more, from about 3.5% to about 9%.  A small fraction of the samples had much higher concentrations, but this fraction didn’t change much over time. So, yes, the average used to be about 3% in 1993 and may have been as low as 2% in earlier decades, and, yes, the concentration is now ‘up to‘ 33%, but the trend is nothing like as strong as that suggests.   A New Zealand paper , by ESR researchers (who are hardly pot-sympathising hippies), says that there was no real change in THC concentration in cannabis plant material from 1976 to 1996, and the concentration in cannabis oil actually fell.

The Southland Times article also reports a claim that 90% of first-term methamphetamine users continue to use the drug. If this just means that 90% of them go on to have a second dose at some time it might well be true, but if it is implying long-term addiction the figure seems implausible. It’s certainly not what is found in other countries.  For example, the most recent results from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) estimate that 364000 people in the US had dependence/abuse of illegal stimulants in 2010. If we assume that all of these were methamphetamine, and that the other illegal stimulants didn’t cause any dependence/abuse problems, that’s still only 20% of the estimated 1.8 million people who first tried methamphetamine in the period 2002-2010. In fact, since NSDUH has a nice online table generator we can do a more specialized query and find out that an estimated 118000 people currently had dependence on stimulants out of the estimated 10 million people who had ever tried methamphetamine. That’s more like 1% than 90%.   Amphetamines are clearly something you want to stay well away from, but there’s no way that they addict 90% of the people who try them. In any case, if we believe the drug warriors, New Zealand’s P epidemic has already been solved by banning pseudoephedrine without a prescription.

I’m all for getting teenagers to appreciate the risks of drug use, but we need to remember teenagers can use Google too.



Thomas Lumley (@tslumley) is Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Auckland. His research interests include semiparametric models, survey sampling, statistical computing, foundations of statistics, and whatever methodological problems his medical collaborators come up with. He also blogs at Biased and Inefficient See all posts by Thomas Lumley »


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    I’m waiting for the next time the NZ Police cites their drug harm index for harms avoided by their next big pot bust. That whole thing is insanely dodgy: the vast bulk of their tallied costs are a mix of the costs of prohibition (costs of interdiction efforts) and the costs of growing weed.

    6 years ago