Story Updated: 12/23
By Alexis Madrigal
Image: Drug Enforcement Agency
Modern agriculture hasn’t just made beef cows beefier and corn cornier, it’s also made pot more potty.
The potency of marijuana, measured by the presence of its (psycho)active ingredient, THC, has tripled since 1987, according to the latest figures from the Department of Justice’s National Drug Intelligence Center.
The new data from the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project — which is not just a group of your college buddies talking about the differences between now and the old days — was released in the 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment.
The Department of Justice attributed the steadily rising numbers to "increased demand for higher-potency marijuana and improvements in cultivation techniques."
The new pot is certainly a superior product to the shake of the old days, but it’s nowhere near as strong as some war-on-drug advocates have contended. The old White House drug czar, John Walters, has said publicly that marijuana’s THC content has "increased as much as 30 times," which researchers say is not supported by the available evidence. UPDATE: The Office of National Drug Policy assistant press secretary, Rafael Lemaitre, contacted Wired.com to say that Walters was referring to the most potent samples tested by the University of Mississippi, which now reach over 37 percent THC (pdf).
The doubling of pot since the mid-80’s is a really big deal and should not be minimized," wrote Lemaitre. "What if cigarette companies doubled the amount of nicotine in cigarettes in that same amount of time? Wouldn’t that be cause for serious public health concern? We think so."
On the other hand, Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, an organization lobbying to change the drug’s regulation, said that the average American pot doesn’t stack up with the tightly-controlled cannabis in Amsterdam.
"In the Netherlands, where marijuana for medical use is sold in pharmacies and grown to government standards of purity and potency, the minimal allowable potency is 15 percent THC," Mirken wrote in an email to Wired.com.
He also noted that the potency of marijuana might not actually matter much, with smokers (and/or midnight tokers) adjusting their intake based on the bud’s THC content.
"A fair amount of data show that people who smoke marijuana adjust their smoking behavior in accordance with the potency of the material," Mirken wrote. "This is just like alcohol drinkers, who commonly consume a far smaller quantity of hard liquor than they do of beer."
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