14 May States’ Supply Chains Blamed for Increased Marijuana Potency
Medical marijuana is the common term for marijuana issued via prescription by a licensed physician. Although federal statutes prohibit the use of marijuana in this (or any other) context, roughly a third of all U.S. states have laws that permit doctors to prescribe the drug. In a study published in March 2014 in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from two U.S. institutions sought to determine if state-level laws permitting doctors to prescribe medical marijuana have contributed to a sharp increase in marijuana potency that has occurred over the last 20-plus years.
Marijuana derives its status as an addictive drug from its main active ingredient, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which can substantially alter brain function when used repeatedly over time. Current estimates from the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicate that one or two out of every four people who use the drug every day will develop a clinically diagnosable cannabis addiction. In the 1980s, the average available batch of marijuana had a THC content of approximately 4 percent. By 2012, the average THC content of commonly available marijuana had risen almost fourfold to 15 percent. This increase in potency may have contributed significantly to a rise in the number of new users of the drug who had adverse reactions and ended up in an emergency room. It may also directly or indirectly boost the odds that any given habitual marijuana smoker will become a cannabis addict.
Medical Marijuana Legalization
Federal law allows doctors to prescribe purified, standardized doses of THC for people affected by certain medical conditions. However, for a number of reasons, there is no federal law that permits doctors to prescribe marijuana instead of isolated THC. Despite this fact, as of early 2014, 18 states across the U.S. have passed laws that make it possible for doctors to write marijuana prescriptions for adults who go through a screening process. The District of Columbia also has a law that permits the prescription of medical marijuana. In addition to making the move toward legalization, some states have laws that permit third parties to open up retail establishments devoted to the sale of medical marijuana. These medical marijuana dispensaries operate in a manner roughly analogous to a pharmacy, although licensed pharmacists do not typically work in them.
Is There a Connection?
In the study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from the University of South Carolina and the RAND Drug Policy Research Center used a large-scale, long-term analysis to determine if the rise in marijuana potency over the last couple of decades has any connection to the rise and spread of medical marijuana during roughly the same period of time. The researchers looked at 39,157 samples of the drug confiscated throughout the U.S. between 1990 and 2010. They measured the THC content of each of these samples and compared the drug potency in states that allow medical marijuana to the drug potency in states that don’t.
In an initial finding, the researchers concluded that, in any given state that passes a medical marijuana law, the THC content rises by an average of about 0.5 percent. They did not view this rise in potency as statistically meaningful. Next, the researchers compared the specifics of the marijuana supply chains that make the drug available for use in states that have passed medical marijuana laws. After completing this comparison, they concluded that the details of any given state’s supply chain have a greater effect on the THC content of the marijuana used in that state. The single biggest related boost in potency, 1 percent, can be found in states that permit third-party dispensaries to sell marijuana to prescription holders.
All told, the authors of the study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy did not conclude that the legalization of medical marijuana directly contributes to a rise in marijuana potency in any given state. However, they did conclude that, in states that pass medical marijuana laws, market forces tend to lead to a rise in drug potency. The study’s authors believe that their work can help public health officials improve their understanding of the connection between increased marijuana potency and heightened risks for marijuana-related harm. They also believe that their work can contribute to a critical re-assessment of the impact of medical marijuana laws.
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