More potent; more options

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Today’s cannabis is up to five times more potent than that of the 1970s.

Today’s cannabis is up to five times more potent than that of the 1970s.

Use of marijuana for medicinal reasons is settled, constitutional law in Colorado — but drug counselors warn: this isn’t your parents’ weed.

Today’s cannabis is up to five times more potent than that of the 1970s, researchers say, and users have ways of delivering higher levels of THC to their systems — creating a new level of addiction.

“I would say about 60 percent of the people I see, both adults and children, have an addiction to marijuana,” said Kathy Romstad, a certified level three substance abuse counselor at Memorial Health System, who has 33 years experience in the field. “And that’s a low estimate.”

Marijuana abuse hasn’t grown because of Amendment 20, which legalized cannabis for a variety of illnesses ranging from HIV to glaucoma, but she said the growing acceptance of marijuana is part of the problem of increasing rates of addiction.

“People don’t see it as a harmful drug,” Romstad said. “There is a definite rise in people who are both physically and psychologically addicted. And while we haven’t seen more people use the medical law as an excuse, we have had people who had tried it for medical reasons and had very negative side effects.”

Marijuana is a drug people should view as dangerous, she said, despite an increasingly vocal lobby in favor of legalization.

“We have people in their 50s and 60s who come to us because they can’t quit on their own,” she said. “They are lifelong potheads. The ways of delivering it now — I saw something called a vaporizer where there is no smoke and no smell — also make it more dangerous.”

Romstad’s experience is played out on the national stage.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration say that more adults are admitted to treatment centers for primary marijuana addictions than for additions to heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

But advocates of marijuana use claim that more than 100 million Americans have used the drug, and about 14 million use it every day.

“Marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco,” said the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Around 50,000 people die each year from alcohol poisoning. Similarly, more than 400,000 deaths each year are attributed to tobacco smoking. By comparison, marijuana is nontoxic and cannot cause death by overuse.”

Groups like NORML say that statistics about addiction can be exaggerated by a government determined to keep marijuana illegal. National statistics show that more than 57 percent of the people seeking treatment for marijuana addiction are directed to do so by law enforcement officials.

Making marijuana legal in some form — such as Colorado’s medical marijuana amendment — hasn’t added to addiction levels.

“More than 30 percent of the population in the United States lives under some form of marijuana decriminalization,” the organization says on its Web site. “These laws have not contributed to an increase in marijuana consumption nor negatively impacted adolescent attitudes toward drug use.”