The Straight Dope on the historical strength of dope

I’ve occasionally heard that some drugs (notably marijuana) have gotten so much stronger over the years that people shouldn’t compare their own prior usage to what their kids might be doing, since things are so much different and dangerous. No doubt some of the newer drugs were almost designed to be stronger, but there are a few that have been around a while.

Is the potency of these drugs a lot higher than it once was?

For example, Sherlock Holmes was for some time a user of cocaine. It seems to have been considered a vice, but not something that made him completely non-functioning as, say, opium users were depicted. Sigmund Freud, as well, apparently used cocaine too. On the other hand a number of people have managed to lead moderately okay lives in modern times while on cocaine, but at some point they tend to give it up as well.

How strong was Heroin when Bayer first started selling it? Is today’s stuff a lot stronger?

The drugs themselves don’t change potency but various delivery methods might.

Cocaine HCL is a single molecule. Pure cocaine 100 years ago is the same stuff as pure cocaine now. It won’t get any more potent. How pure could you get cocaine 100 years ago? Probably pretty pure, the chemistry behind purification is fairly simple and serious chemists were involved.

Heroin is also technically a molecule. An opium alkaloid. However, I would imagine that originally there wasn’t technology sophisticated enough to distill heroin and heroin only, most likely you wound up with an opiod cocktail. Maybe still true. I doubt heroin is any more potent now than it ever was.

Marijuana is a plant. THC is the drug in the plant, and different plants will have different concentrations. Although it would make sense for growers to select for greater concentration it also makes sense to select for smaller concentrations (i.e. the user needs more) if you have a tighter hold on the market. Marijuana probably changed a lot over the past few thousands of years of cultivation, like any other plant that people grow. Did it change a lot in the past 40? I honestly don’t know, maybe somebody can find us a study or two.

Chemicals that double the chromosomes have been used to increase the amount of THC in pot.

I believe that’s a pretty standard botanical techniques as well as one of the ways of getting seedless fruits. However, I have never read anything indicating use of something like colchicine by drug growers. I mean it makes perfect sense, but do you have a cite?

I remember reading a book in the '70s called. IIRC; “A Conniseur’s Guide to Marijuana” that recommended exactly this technique and thinking it might be nice to create some kind of mutant plant.
I don’t think the present increase in strength is due to this. I believe a lot of professional growers, particularly the Dutch, have used standard techniques of breeding the strongest plants together to gradually ramp-up THC production.
In the case of purified extracts such as hasheesh there are improved methods of removing and concentrating THC that also increase the strength markedly.



Just as it’s not a great idea to rely on Hollywood movies for historical or scientific facts, neither is Conan Doyle the best source for information about cocaine and its effects. He was clueless about it and made up that bit about the seven percent solution.

Before I forget, there are also synthetic drugs such as Fentanyl, a man-made opiate. My wife was on this after surgery so I looked it up. That stuff is somewhere between 80 and 200 times as strong as morphine. I’m not sure why there is such a wide spread, my guess would be measuring different opiate effects.



My community college I used to attend had a decent supply of it for use in the labs. My old prof tried to order more when it ran out, and got a visit from the DEA. Since the last time they had ordered it (some years before), mary-jane growers had discovered it.

They actually visited a community college lab? Did they not check the address? What did they expect to find?

A hippie college professor? :dubious:

Strength of illegal drugs is a market forces thing. I’ve heard all sorts of things - cocaine is getting weaker, LSD doses are a tiny fraction of what they used to be, some marijuana strains are so strong now they should be classified in the same legal group as heroin… and so on.

There could be some truth in it here and there. Certainly the doses of LSD that were taken in the late 60s were stronger than those taken in the late 80s. In the 60s LSD was taken in large doses for the purposes of mind expansion; in the 80s it made a brief reapearance in the club scene, but in much smaller, fun-size doses.

The overall quality of marijuana has gone up, but the maximum possible strength has remained pretty constant. Again, market forces. The Dutch growers and breeders pioneered efficient indoor hydroponic growing with new varieties that were best suited to this method. Previous to this, Northern-European produced weed was pretty ropey stuff of poor quality, and most was imported from warmer climes. The Dutch government’s tolerance to weed also created a situation where it was possible to start a serious breeding programme. Creating a decent new strain of any plant is a hugely wasteful process, and takes careful selection from hundreds if not thousands of plants to produce a single new variety. If a plant is both sizeable and illegal then breeding a new strain is quite problematic. Strictly speaking, growing weed in The Netherlands is highly illegal, but the coffee shops have to get their supplies from somewhere, and so discrete growing setups that don’t steal electricity aren’t priority targets for the Dutch police.

It’s not that today’s Western weed is the strongest there’s ever been, it’s just that we’ve mostly been smoking crap all these years. The quality marijuana that a grower in 1960s Nepal would keep back for his own personal use would knock the socks off anything on the market today.