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According to the DEA-produced Illegal Drug Price/Purity Report, the average potency of sinsemilla in 1995 was 6.66 percent THC. The average potency of so-called commercial grade marijuana, which contains leaves, stems, seeds, and male plant products, was half that. Hydroponically grown pot surely accounts for most of the high end: A June 1996 report from a division of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) places the THC level of domestically grown sinsemilla in Miami at eight to fourteen percent. One street name for hydroponic pot sums up the power factor: "The Bomb."
Law enforcement agencies and the media like to trumpet these potency percentages; local police claim the low teens as the likely level for krypto. But they cannot know for sure, because they don't routinely test marijuana for THC, and NORML's St. Pierre says he encounters pot that powerful only rarely.
Dan Viets, a Missouri defense lawyer and chairman of the board of NORML, has a theory about the emphasis on potency these days. "It's a matter of driving the public-policy debate," he argues. "I think that police are seeking to advance their prohibitionist position -- they're trying to heighten the hysteria. They're trying to heighten the concern that the public might have about marijuana."
Public concern, though, is probably based on more than police propaganda. The Drug Abuse Warning Network, a subsidiary of NIDA, reported 474 marijuana mentions in Dade County emergency rooms in the first half of 1995 -- the highest number ever, and a 21 percent increase over the previous six months. Jim Hall, executive director of the Up Front Drug Information Center in Miami, a nonprofit organization that monitors drug trends, sees some ominous indicators from recent drug-use data.
"Clearly the most recent epidemiological findings reveal that marijuana use has become increasingly problematic in the Nineties, in that it has dramatically escalated the number of hospital emergency department mentions of marijuana," he says. "There have been dramatic increases of people coming into addiction-treatment programs citing marijuana as their primary drug of dependency. We're definitely seeing marijuana emerge as a far more problematic drug. That's in part because of its increased potency, and secondly because of a younger user population."
While he agrees that drug use among teens is a problem, St. Pierre argues that higher-potency marijuana is actually more healthful. "There is no doubt that in marijuana smoke, as in tobacco smoke, there are particulate matters," he posits. "Particulate matters, in some cases, have been the precursor to cancerous lesions. Everybody acknowledges this; NORML has never engaged in the idea that marijuana smoke is harmless. So therefore, by using the principle of harm reduction, we might have a better system now. By delivering the same intoxication for two puffs as ten puffs, well, you've just engaged in harm reduction, in our minds."
Jim Hall and others contend that there's insufficient data to determine whether more-powerful pot is less harmful. But obtaining useful data about the long-term effects of marijuana use is difficult when all the long-term users are classified as criminals.
And potency, incidentally, has nothing at all to do with state and federal statutes and sentencing guidelines; it's weight and/or number of plants that are the deciding factors. Under state law a person caught growing only small amounts can often get off with probation or pretrial diversion. (Federal statutes are more severe, however, calling for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison for growing 100 marijuana plants -- whether the yield is resin-rich, or unsmokable industrial hemp.)
"Potency is never a factor in the criminal arrest process," says Norman Kent, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who has defended several home growers. "I've never had a guy arrested because he grew better pot than somebody else. I agree, this is not the pot from when we were kids: This pot is purer, safer, more medicinal, less infected with fungus and bacteria. Most of the pot people got years ago was shipped over from South America and could have been mixed with the proverbial rat poison, and weed, and bacteria, and dead plant matter."
There may be room for debate about the truth and consequences of hyped-up potency, but local law enforcement officials have no doubt that indoor growing operations in Dade County have become increasingly sophisticated, both technologically and logistically.
"Some of the organizations we're concentrating on have got a lot of houses," says Metro-Dade Police Lt. Gary Wilcox. "We have constructed tables of organizations, and some of our targets are the people heading up these organizations."
Even legalization advocates acknowledge a dichotomy between the "personal" and the "commercial" indoor grower.
"I think that most people perceive that those who grew marijuana in the Sixties and Seventies could be described as your hippie-yippie-dippie, communal, peace-loving type person," says Allen St. Pierre. But that stereotype, he believes, is being replaced by a newer, sinister model: more "commercial" growers, often organized in groups -- and armed.
Fellow NORML honcho Dan Viets acknowledges that there is some violence among marijuana growers and traffickers, but he disagrees with his colleague about the prevalence of hardened growers these days. "I think that's always been part of the black-market situation," says Viets. "And it's the money, not the drug. Obviously, people don't get violent because they're smoking pot, they get violent because they're dealing in it."