If you believe Florida attorney general Bill McCollum, weed is stronger than ever. It’s so expensive that you could trade hydroponic pot ounce-for-ounce for cocaine. It “is no Woodstock rerun.” In other words, the pot your parents inhaled a few decades ago pales in comparison to the potent, expensive and dangerous marijuana your kids are smoking.
McCollum was once more measured in his drug policy. As a congressman in the early 1980s, he co-sponsored legislation to legalize medicinal marijuana and helped introduce the bill at least twice. But by 1998, as he prepped an ultimately failed bid for Congress in 2000, McCollum was working to defeat the same laws he once supported. Now, as attorney general, he spends his time traveling the state railing against marijuana, touting sketchy statistics and writing columns with such shock-value headlines as “Target Marijuana McMansions,” the title of his Oct. 30 op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel. (That column has also been published in the Miami Herald, the Tampa Tribune and the Palm Beach Post.)
But his dire warnings are scarier than what the facts support. McCollum has little research to back up his claims, but there’s plenty of evidence that McCollum might be bending reality to manufacture a crisis. In his Sentinel op-ed, McCollum writes about pot’s new threat: “The most alarming aspect of marijuana’s resurgence is the much greater potency of today’s plant, particularly the hydroponic variety.” A generation ago, McCollum continues, pot had an average tetrahydrocannabinol content of 4 percent (THC, of course, being the ingredient that gets you stoned). Today, he says, hydroponic pot tests at up to 30 percent THC.
But the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that in 1974 the average THC level was less than 1 percent. Today, the DEA says the average THC content is only between 4 percent and 6 percent. The DEA also reports that only 2 percent of marijuana has a THC level of more than 20 percent.
“It really seems to be that [his commentary in the Sentinel] is hinging entirely on the premise that marijuana is stronger and more dangerous. There’s very little data to support that,” says Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “It’s a fairly big deal to have the attorney general go across the state and make mistruths.”
Armentano says there is no data in Florida or anywhere else that supports McCollum’s claim of widespread marijuana with a 30 percent THC level, or that pot has become more addictive. “Potency today is slightly higher than in the ’80s and ’90s, but there’s certainly no evidence that more potent marijuana is more dangerous,” he says. “People tend to consume less if it’s more potent. You’re not going to drink the same amount of beer as you do of vodka.”
The National Drug Intelligence Center, a component of the Department of Justice, reports slightly higher THC percentages, but even it says that the average potency is 8.1 percent, far lower than McCollum would have you believe.
As a solution to the alleged problem of the super-potent pot, McCollum wants tougher marijuana laws, including a bill that would lower the standard by which the state determines that you’re going to sell pot, rather than consume it yourself, from 300 plants to 25 plants. He also advocates harsher penalties for growers and grow-house caretakers.
Roger Scott, an Orlando attorney who specializes in marijuana cases (see “Don’t get busted”), points out that the laws in Florida already are much stricter than many other states. “In Florida the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony is 20 grams. Most other places look at ounces. One pound of pot in Hawaii is still a misdemeanor,” Scott says.
Any drug charge means Florida residents lose their driver’s licenses for up to two years. But in cases of drunken driving, offenders can typically get a hardship license to drive back and forth to work after only six months. As well, a misdemeanor pot conviction means that college students can lose their financial aid for a year. Schools, including the University of Central Florida, can suspend students for drug infractions.
“Now what are they going to do?” Scott asks. “It’s just never made sense to me, and McCollum wants to make the law tougher.”
Pot users, Scott says, are hardly hardened criminals: “I think the penalties have gotten really harsh. These are criminals who aren’t criminals by any other system. Branding them as criminals is making it less likely that these people will succeed. They can’t work, they can’t drive and there’s no financial aid. I don’t think the law is accomplishing what anyone wants it to, regardless of what you think about pot.”
He scoffs at McCollum’s staunch warnings about grow houses, which McCollum claims are risks for children and are often the target of violent crimes such as home invasions and robberies by rival gangs because they are run by “dangerous criminals who are intent upon bringing this new poison into our communities and neighborhoods.”
“I think they are way overstating the case. It’s not every third house. I’d be surprised if there’re any in Orlando,” Scott says. “They tend to go to rural communities.”
McCollum’s staff dismisses such complaints, and insists that he’s simply restating facts. He sources his information to the Los Angeles Times and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection press release about the arrest of a Canadian citizen who allegedly tried to smuggle 250 pounds of high-grade pot into the U.S.
“The primary issue here is how grow houses have made hydroponic marijuana a more prevalent issue in the state,” says Sandi Copes, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. “It is absolutely not a scare tactic, but a factual representation of trends we are seeing.”
Armentano doesn’t buy it. He says that besides scaring potential users, it’s just a platform to gain support for legislation that would enact stricter pot penalties. “And to think that this guy once co-sponsored federal medical marijuana legislation – hard to believe,” he says, firstname.lastname@example.org