There was once a time not so long ago when marijuana legalization was touted as a way to pull people out of the black market and get them to shop for their stoned surplus through legitimate sources. But then, all of a sudden, the conversation turned to, well, maybe legalization will persuade pot consumers to head over to their friendly neighborhood weed store and buy it legally, or perhaps they’ll continue to frequent street dealers to avoid taxes and any personal association with the cannabis scene.
We’ve witnessed both scenarios go down ever since states began legalizing marijuana for recreational use around five years ago. In Washington state, however, scientific minds are relatively sure that the majority of cannabis consumers are now buying dope through legal channels, and they have the mounds of sewage to prove it.
A research team from the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington has concluded that marijuana legalization in the Evergreen State has crippled the black market pot trade in a big way. All they had to do to summon this result is roll up their sleeves (and roll them up high… putting on two layers of gloves, as well) and conduct a three-year analysis of the pee and poo pouring through the state’s sewer systems. What can we say, some scientists get to have all the fun. They then compared the waste output with the state’s cannabis sale data in an attempt to get to the bottom of where the weed was coming from — legal dispensaries or black market.
In the end, legal weed was the winner.
Now, you’re probably sitting there all perplexed, thinking something like, “how in the heck were these white coats able to test the toilet water of a population and distinguish between the legal weed and the other?” We know this is one of your most pressing questions because it was one of ours. In fact, it has been all some of us have been able to think about since coming across this study. If human waste is that telling, we may all be doomed to Orwellian controls one day.
But it turns out that watching THC levels actually played a significant role in making this determination.
Researchers said that when retail reefer sales got started in 2014, they noticed a 9% increase of THC in the sewage each quarter. At least this was the case in the two sewage treatment plants used in the study. After noticing that the state’s pot sales were increasing in upwards of 70 percent at the same time, researchers concluded that the majority of the pot in the waste was purchased legally. All in, the waste of around 200,000 people was examined. This is said to be enough to gain an understanding of how much marijuana the total population is consuming.
“Given that wastewater represents a total population measure, these findings suggest that many established users switched from the illegal to the legal market,”the study’s authors wrote. “This is the strongest statement possible regarding displacement of the illegal market, given limitations regarding knowledge of the excretion rates of different forms of cannabis, which limit matching sales to wastewater system users, and the wastewater stability of THC-COOH.”
As disgusting as it may sound, scientists are always out there investigating the sewers to learn more about drug trends. We are essentially telling on ourselves each time we enter a bathroom. There are some, however, who believe that this method is teetering a fine line between science and mass surveillance. In this particular situation, scientists set out to learn more about the trends surrounding marijuana use — a legal substance statewide. But these practices can also be used to measure the total consumption of illicit drugs too. There is a concern that sewage epidemiology could eventually lead to law enforcement using data to make life harder on communities with higher drug use. So far, this practice has not spiraled out of control as far as we know. But just old Uncle Sam some time and he will find a way to make a breach.
TELL US, did you know research teams were testing sewage for traces of THC?