Yes, Marijuana Is Stronger Now, but It's Also Safer
The narrative around marijuana has gradually changed over the past two decades as more scientific research emerges regarding how tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, interacts with the brain.
Generally, what we've learned is that marijuana is far less dangerous than generations of yesteryear told us. In fact, weed is no more a "gateway drug" than nicotine or alcohol, according to recent studies published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Marijuana is legal, at least to some degree, in 38 states and fully illegal in only four. This means a significant amount of marijuana is purchased from dispensaries—the American cannabis industry is worth $61 billion—that sell specific strains grown for specific purposes in dedicated environments.
Stronger but safer, too
The development of legal dispensaries has fundamentally changed cannabis in the United States, both in the culture around cannabis and the product itself. Yes, it's stronger now, but because it's grown in a safe, controlled environment by trained professionals, that "strength" really means "more targeted."
"Cannabis has achieved new levels in both strength and consistency in the product as well as technological advances in use," said Jeffrey Lucas, general manager of Ethos Cannabis, a dispensary in Pittsburgh. "Many of the strains today are not only higher in THC content, but they may also now recognize higher levels of CBD content, which help balance and target entourage effects of the strain. Some strains really do target anxiety, while others are specific to mood elevation. Some strains are known to specifically treat pain and inflammation, while others might just put you to sleep."
To make an analogy to liquor: Think of dispensary marijuana as a trusted bottle of Jack Daniel's, whereas marijuana bought from dealers on a street corner is your cousin's moonshine.
'Medical strains are created with intention based on results and feedback from actual patients.'
"As a recreational user in the 1990s, I often found myself in precarious situations when attempting to procure weed," Lucas said, explaining the product he invested in was often spotty, dry, brittle, shaky, littered with seeds or any combination of these poor quality indicators. "Basically, there were very few trusted sources, and the good stuff went quickly to the right people."
That sentiment was echoed by another Pittsburgh native, Nick, who asked to be referred to by first name only to protect his privacy.
"It's night and day," Nick said. "The crumbling, stem-filled weed we got on the streets is nowhere near the stuff you can get at dispensaries now. Every once in a while you'd get something good, but it was a total shot in the dark."
"Street pot is always going to be less consistent," Lucas agreed. "Medical strains are created with intention based on results and feedback from actual patients. While it is not always the same from batch to batch, it is possible to maintain the actual intention of the strain and market it that way."
That first time you get high…
But this doesn't necessarily make marijuana a go-to substance. Nick likened pot to alcohol.
"Even though they are very different substances, they are still both drugs and should not be abused," he said.
Nick spoke from experience. A few years ago, he was pulled over at 1 in the morning driving back from a friend's house. It was a cold night, so he had kept his windows up. The problem was that he and his friend had "hotboxed" the car earlier that evening, and with the windows up, the odor of weed hadn't been aired out.
"The smell alone was incriminating enough to warrant a search, which led to the DUI since I was driving a vehicle," he said.
The judge was relatively lenient with him, but Nick had to attend weekly group meetings and submit to drug tests as a result—not ideal for a college student, by any means.
Nick noted that for years earlier, he didn't believe he even could get high. He tried smoking but never felt any effects. One time, however, it just clicked.
"When I realized I could get high, my mindset definitely shifted to the idea of getting high more often," he said. "If it felt good once, it should again."
The realization led him to become a frequent user—being high was an effective way of fighting off feelings of depression. The problem with using a substance as a coping method, though, is that the benefits are as temporary as the effects of the substance. Despite its medicinal uses, marijuana can still have negative effects.
"As far as affecting my daily life went, I was definitely lazier and my mind was clouded," Nick admitted. "It happened gradually, so I didn't really notice, but I guess that's the point."
"Smoking pot leaves patients at the mercy of too many factors that may give them too much or too little of what they need," Lucas said.
He noted that while patients might not become physically addicted to marijuana in the same way they might with nicotine, they can easily overuse it, especially when they're smoking it socially.
"One hit that's too big and it's good night," Lucas said.
As pot cleans up its act
From my personal experience, Lucas' statement is true. I once took a hit from a "MacGyvered" gravity bong in college that caused the hallway to spin full circles around me while my body moved in slow motion. I fell over trying to make a pot of Pasta Roni. After that, I passed out in a dining chair.
Lucas doesn't smoke cannabis anymore. Rather, he prefers to receive the benefits of certain strains through more precise, controlled methods such as tinctures, topicals and capsules. Instead of making him feel stoned, these methods allow him to target, for example, specific pain points on his body or reduce stress.
While many frequent smokers report anecdotally that marijuana isn't addictive, research suggests the opposite. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) identifies marijuana as an addictive substance. Dependency on marijuana is identified as a marijuana use disorder.
Does that mean pot is "bad"? Alcohol is similarly classified as an addictive substance, but most people don't consider having a drink or two after work a problem.
Marijuana has a long, complicated legacy to break free from in America. The War on Drugs, in association with gang violence, cartels and backstreet drug deals, tainted public perception of a drug that isn't actually the direct cause of those associations.
Buying pot today is safer than it's ever been. You know exactly what you're getting and you don't need to "know a guy" to get it.
"While THC contents are certainly higher, patients now have far more resources that make controlling that intake more reliable," Lucas said. "You no longer need to get completely gassed from a monster hit from a blunt."
Ultimately, the question shouldn't be whether today's pot is more addictive but rather whether legalization has made pot safer, and in that regard, the answer is a resounding yes.