Maximilian and Charlotte and the myth of strong marijuana

The Myth of Strong Pot — New study finds little connection between potency and intoxication.

How did Queen Carlota, shown here with husband Emperor Ferdinand, get caught up in reefer madness? (Royal Collection of Belgium)

One of the enduring myths of cannabis is the one about how higher THC levels are more dangerous to users. Despite a lack of science on the subject, we are constantly warned of the risks of high-potency products, especially when it comes to concentrates. 

Legalization opponents have made it a cornerstone of their platform, even going as far as to propose potency caps. The anti-cannabis forces pull this one out again and again with bills to limit cannabis potency in Colorado and elsewhere, though with little effect.

But is there a link between cannabis potency and intoxication? 

 With some products registering 90 percent THC, how many times have you heard, “It’s not your grandfather’s pot,” or “It’s not what they smoked at Woodstock?” And as we’ll see in a bit, the myth goes back much further than that.

Opponents quote a recent European study that concluded that higher-potency strains cause more psychotic episodes among users. The higher the THC dose, they concluded, the higher your chances for mental illness. 

Now, preliminary results from a new study at the University of Colorado show little connection between THC potency and intoxication levels. The study included some participants using concentrated, higher-potency products and others who smoked old-fashioned flower. Those who inhaled the concentrates, not surprisingly, showed significantly higher levels of THC in their blood, especially right after ingestion, but all users reported about the same feeling of intoxication and the same ability to perform balance and cognitive tests.

It’s difficult to study cannabis on university campuses because it’s illegal on a federal level, which supersedes state law. Researchers can purchase cannabis at a retail store, but they have a difficult time studying it with their campus microscopes. So, researchers came up with a workaround, using mobile vans, or “cannavans,” for blood draws and tests, literally taking the laboratory to the user.

The findings were somewhat surprising, the researchers noted. If people get a higher concentration of alcohol, for instance, the results would probably have been significantly different. Cannabis impairment is unique, and researchers should be cautious about developing equipment that tests for impairment using similar parameters to testing for alcohol intoxication. Potency doesn’t always been higher intoxication. The authors of the University of Colorado study are eager for others to try and replicate their work so we can find out more about the link between potency and intoxication when it comes to cannabis.

As it turns out, the fear of potency argument goes back even further. When it comes to interpreting history, newspaper stories and headlines play an important role. As part of its “Chronicling America” series, the Library of Congress has published a cache of newspaper headlines and stories from the early Twentieth Century that portrayed “marihuana,” as it was spelled then, as a menace Mexicans were introducing into the US to destroy the country. The clippings and headlines are wildly sensational and clearly show the underlying racism that helped push anti-cannabis sentiment: Blame it on Mexicans and high-potency pot. (Cannabis, at the time, was legal in most of the U.S.)

“It is believed that a dose of this weed, administered by an enemy, caused Queen Carlota to lose her mind,” reads a particularly lurid 1915 story in the Ogden (Utah) Standard.

She now is living alone in a castle in France, still hopelessly insane, fifty years after the potion was administered

The Ogden Standard on marijuana, 1915

One dose. Hopelessly insane. That’s the definition of fake news. And, of course, none of it was true. Not that Queen Carlota, aka Charlotte of Belgium, who was the wife of illegally appointed Mexican Emperor Maximilian until he was executed, didn’t have serious mental problems. But they perhaps had more to do with her genetics than with cannabis intoxication. She died of pneumonia in 1927. Her New York Times obituary noted that the empress, upon the death of Maximilian years earlier, “was overcome with grief and horror at the tragedy and … went insane.”

How all this got mixed up with a dose of lethal cannabis in her tea is anybody’s guess, but trashing Mexicans is a good place to start. And reminding us how powerful and dangerous cannabis is helps, too. “When a Mexican is under the influence of marihuana, he imagines that he can, single-handed, whip the entire United States army,” the Standard story continues. “If reinforced by several other Mexicans, also under the influence of the drug, he might include a few European nations in his dream conquests. While under the influence of the marihuana Mexicans are liable to commit murder and when arrested give the authorities great trouble.”

I thought I was reading a new book by Alex Berenson, who last year claimed marijuana was the lynchpin that made serial killers commit murder. Dozens of researchers wrote a letter challenging Berenson’s conclusion. The anti-marijuana propaganda rooted in Mexican xenophobia suggested that Mexican cannabis was so powerful that cattle were among its victims. “In some districts it is a menace to live stock. The animals quickly learn to like the weed, and when once they have obtained a taste for it they will eat nothing else. It brings death to them in a short time.”

All of this sounds funny, and it seems ridiculous that anybody would have believed this nonsense, but many did, and by 1937 cannabis had been completely demonized (by this time, musicians, especially dark-skinned ones, were among those tagged with the conquest-minded Mexicans) and taxed out of existence in the United States.

But the newspapers of the day plainly show that innuendo, especially when it comes to cannabis, was as prevalent back then as it is today. We must be vigilant and hope that honest work like that being done at CU will continue to raise peoples’ awareness and help end the stigma, intrigue, and fake news that still surrounds one of the most interesting of plants.

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now His full bio is here.

Leland Rucker is a journalist who has been covering the cannabis industry culture since Amendment 64 legalized adult-use in Colorado, for Boulder Weekly, Sensi and now His full bio is here.

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