The cannabis of today is, quite literally, not your parents’ weed. An overwhelming amount of data shows that the potency of cannabis has been steadily on the rise in the U.S. since 1990, meaning the amount of THC in what we consume today is much higher than what the flower children were smoking.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, raw cannabis flower contained an average of just 2% THC or less. (For context, CBD products with less than 0.3% THC are federally legal because that amount is generally not enough to get a person high.) Then, between 1990 and 1995, the average concentration of THC in cannabis rose to 4%, and shot up to 17% between 1995 and 2017 as growers began harvesting new strains promising more intense psychoactive effects. For dabs, oils, edibles, shatter, and other cannabis concentrates, the THC concentration can be as high as 95%. Now, the cannabis we consume is, on average, over 8x more potent than it was before the ’90s.
This isn’t a new story. The tobacco and alcohol industries have increased sales over time by incorporating higher and higher concentrations of psychoactive substances into their products. But while nicotine and alcohol are both proven to be addictive and have virtually no health benefits, the lack of research on cannabis makes it difficult to judge whether high potency in cannabis products is dangerous.
So, should we be worried?
According to Dr. Kenneth Weinberg, Chief Medical Officer at Cannabis Doctors of New York, the problem isn’t necessarily how much THC is in cannabis products. Instead, it’s how little CBD there is.
“It’s all about the ratio of THC to CBD in the strain,” Weinberg said. “The more THC you have, the less CBD tends to be in it.”
Weinberg explained that CBD acts to mitigate the psychoactive effects of THC at a cellular level in the brain. It’s why people often use CBD after they get high to help bring them down.
“We’re seeing products on the market lately that have a 100 to 1 ratio of THC to CBD, when 20 to 1 used to be normal. At that point, you’re in danger of experiencing psychotic symptoms because you have almost no CBD to balance you out.”
The most common psychotic effects caused by THC intake include panic attacks, memory loss, and hallucinations. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms after consuming cannabis, you may want to consider either using CBD after you take a hit, or finding a product with a lower THC concentration.
But while these unwanted side effects will make you temporarily miserable, they generally dissipate in about 24 hours. For teens, though, the effects of highly potent THC may be more long-term.
“The people we should be most worried about are children using these cannabis products with such high levels of THC,” Weinberg said. “I think there’s enough evidence out there suggesting THC can interfere with the development of the brain to be very concerned about that, especially when the research is telling us teens are using cannabis more and more each year.”
But there are some benefits to having such potent products available. Yes, seasoned cannabis users will experience a better buzz after using them, but there’s also anecdotal evidence suggesting they could help with serious medical conditions that low-THC products aren’t strong enough to affect. Children with severe forms of epilepsy are finding relief through highly potent cannabis products, and the same goes for cancer patients looking to curb nausea. Though much more research needs to be done on the subject, it’s even been suggested that high levels of THC could combat tumor cell proliferation, meaning the consumption of highly potent cannabis may be able to slow the progression of cancer.
Weinberg said the decision of whether to use highly potent cannabis for medical purposes ultimately comes down to how much THC you are comfortable taking, and what alternatives are available to you.
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“There have been some reports of people who have done very well on highly potent products, and I’ve even suggested them for cancer patients who see me, or for people who have trouble with sleep. But I always recommend starting with a product with a low THC to CBD ratio, like 2 to 1,” Weinberg said. “That way, you can experience some medical benefit, without having to be anxious about the psychoactive effects, and build from there if you and your healthcare provider feel that the benefits outweigh the cost.”
Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.