Is 420 your lucky number? - (6/11/2019)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

The pharmacist was relaxing in his backyard on his day off. Suddenly, the smell of marijuana wafted over his hammock. He glanced at his watch. Holy smoke! It is 4:20 PM. His neighbor George was getting high right on schedule. The pharmacist knows that – depending on where one lives – marijuana is a tightly controlled substance. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has labeled it a Schedule I drug, in the same category as cocaine, LSD, and heroin. Yet, some states allow for recreational use of marijuana (Alaska, California, Colorado, and Maine). The use of cannabis for medical purposes is legal in 33 states, and the District of Columbia, as of January 2019.

One can cultivate cannabis on one’s property. Again, the laws vary from state to state. Nevertheless, one thing that can be said about growing grass for one’s private use: you can generally be sure that the weed is not laced with a harmful substance. Recent local reports have suggested that pot has been spiked with fentanyl, a relatively cheap opioid that is 100 times stronger than heroin and is sometimes cut with other opioids, such as heroin, to increase potency. However, these reports have been debunked, principally because many people who use drugs “for fun” take other substances too, which can muddle toxicological reports. Yet, can one be sure that the pot bought on the street is pure hemp? One cannot. 

Fact: In 1983, John C. Lawn, then the director of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), admitted that the poisonous herbicide, paraquat, was used on Mexican marijuana crops to discourage users from buying the drug on the black market. Soon, scientists discovered that the paraquat sprayed on marijuana was reduced to a non-toxic substance when the joint was smoked. False alarm?

Today, sellers lace low-grade marijuana with any number of substances, such as embalming fluid (formaldehyde) or laundry detergent to improve sales. These chemicals can give one a fake buzz as well as nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, and heart and brain damage. Increasingly, legal dispensaries test their medical marijuana for harmful substances such as pesticides, herbicides, molds, bacteria, and other toxins, to keep their patients as healthy as possible. George does grow his own marijuana in a covert location so he knows his weed is as pure as it gets. While George may reap the euphoric effects of his crop, marijuana is used for serious medical conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, seizures, HIV/AIDS, and menstrual cramps.

Is marijuana lethal the same way heroin and cocaine can be? While smoking marijuana may result in a coughing fit, as sometimes George has, a fatal marijuana overdose does not exist. Chronic smoking of any substance is unhealthy for the lungs. However, a chronic tobacco smoker may burn through a pack or more per day, the typical pot smoker, like George is happy with a single joint at 4:20 (and maybe a couple more on 4/20 – National Pot Smoking Day – the unofficial counterculture homage to herb).

According to government surveys, some 25 million Americans have smoked marijuana in the past year. More than 14 million do so regularly despite laws against its use. Our public policies should reflect this reality, not deny it. Let’s make marijuana cleaner for all the Georges who partake. 

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a registered pharmacist, medical writer, and principal at Read more at


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