Is cannabis getting stronger? Reports in the media suggest it is. They say THC levels are rocketing, resulting in more cannabis related visits to emergency rooms and mental health problems. But is it really as clear cut as it seems? And what about CBD?
While many of us are aware of the cannabis plant’s complex makeup, its potency is gauged by just one of the 100 plus cannabinoids: THC.
That’s because THC is the psychoactive compound creating the feeling of being high, and is also the reason cannabis is illegal in most parts of the world. But despite this prohibition, studies suggest higher THC strains are increasingly being bred and sold on the black market.
Cannabis potency in the United States
According to a retrospective report carried out by the University of Mississippi Potency Monitoring Project analysing seized cannabis samples from 1995-2014, “the potency of illicit cannabis plant material has consistently risen over time since 1995 from approximately 4% in 1995 to approximately 12% in 2014.”
The report also found that in tandem CBD levels had significantly decreased, “resulting in a change in the ratio of THC to CBD from 14 times in 1995 to approximately 80 times in 2014.”
Why is this a problem? Well it’s down to what’s known as the entourage effect, whereby there is an overall synergy between the various molecules in the plant. CBD in particular plays a pivotal role by lessening the psychoactive effect of THC.
So in recreational terms, higher THC levels and less CBD means a more intense and financially lucrative high, but also a greater chance of experiencing unpleasant side effects such as anxiety.
But it’s not just in the illegal market that this trend has been observed.
A year after the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado, Charas Scientific, one of eight labs testing cannabis potency, released a report based on the analysis of 600 buds from legal growers across the state.
Echoing the findings of the earlier study, lead researcher Andy LaFrate said, “as far as potency goes, it’s been surprising how strong a lot of the marijuana is. We’ve seen potency values close to 30 percent THC, which is huge.”
La Frate also found that CBD levels were negligible in samples studied.
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Why the change?
Historically in the US, marijuana had been imported from countries such as Mexico and Colombia, an illegal trafficking process meaning many months could pass before the plant reached its ultimate destination: the american consumer. THC degrades over time, suggesting that the potency level would have been significantly less than when it originally set off on its journey.
If we compare this to the current situation where vast swathes of land in the US are dedicated to lawfully growing cannabis, or in states where cannabis continues to be illegal, the use of indoor, hydroponic techniques abound. The result: better quality buds with higher THC content, all arriving fresh from the grower.
The proliferation of sinsemilla strains – female plants that don’t produce seeds and contain higher levels of THC – is also suggested as being a contributing factor to the general increase in potency.
Cannabis potency in Europe
A similar trend has been noted in Europe, although a comprehensive survey of cannabis strength is lacking. In the UK where there has been the biggest media storm about high potency cannabis on the black market, a report published by the Department of Psychosis Studies, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, suggests that on average cannabis strength has doubled.
The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drugs Addiction (EMCDDA) supports this estimation, suggesting that the increase in potency, like in the US, is due to the development of a domestic, albeit illegal, cannabis industry using indoor growing techniques, seed selection and the cultivation of female plants.
Domestic cultivation is also a key change in Europe. Anyone who consumed cannabis before the mid 1990s will remember that resin or hash imported from Morocco was much more in abundance. Generally containing lower levels of THC, studies also suggest that cannabis resin contains higher amounts of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD, which as mentioned previously acts to reduce the plant’s psychoactive effect.
Are the findings accurate?
It’s next to impossible to really compare the strength of cannabis going back anymore than ten years because in the past the technology just didn’t exist to accurately measure the cannabinoid content.
In an article in The Atlantic, Michael Kahn, president of Massachusetts Cannabis Research suggests, “It’s fair to be skeptical.” He goes on, “”Back then the predominant method for quantitation was gas chromatography, which is not quite appropriate for cannabinoid quantitation. This is because [it] heats up the test material before analysis, which also alters the chemical profile—including breaking down the THC molecule.”
Even studies by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) used plant material of varying freshness, with researchers making no compensation for loss of THC during prolonged storage.
In Europe, some potency reports may also be wide of the mark. According to the EMCDDA, “in a series of proficiency tests, using standard solutions of THC, and organised in 1997 for 30–40 European laboratories, the relative standard deviation was about 29 %, whereas cocaine and amphetamine gave less than 5 % and 8 % respectively. This means that around one-third of results for THC were either more than 29 % above or more than 29 % below the mean value.”
There is also the question of whether stronger weed means people consume less. This may be true of many seasoned smokers, but it is suggested that young users do not follow the trend.
A Dutch study in 2006 aiming to look at the effects on the body of high THC strength cannabis, outlined a core risk group of young males, due to their tendency to “strive for the ‘strongest high’ feeling.” It goes on, “they do not limit their consumption, tend to inhale deeply, and smoke the entire joint individually.” This compares to the older age group who prefer a stable high, usually sharing joints.
A call for a safer, regulated cannabis market
This tendency of young cannabis users smoking high potency cannabis to the max, can lead to devastating consequences.
Lord Nicholas Monson has featured in many British newspapers talking about the tragic suicide of his son, Rupert, who died aged just 21. He directly attributes Rupert’s mental breakdown to his consumption of high THC cannabis, which has been known by the catch all term ‘skunk’ in the UK press.
But in a move that might surprise many, Lord Monson has called for the legalisation of “traditional forms of cannabis” with a ratio of 3:1 THC: CBD, and “severe penalties in place for those dealing in skunk.”
He has joined together with UK cannabis legalisation group ‘CLEAR Cannabis Law Reform’ to call for better regulation of the cannabis market. In a joint statement with Lord Monson, CLEAR president Peter Reynolds said, “we must rigorously restrict access by children and those with developing brains and ensure that safe, properly regulated cannabis with a good proportion of CBD is available for adults.”
The return of CBD?
CBD is increasingly finding its place in the medical cannabis market as an effective treatment for conditions as varied as epilepsy, anxiety and chronic pain. But could it be that CBD’s importance in recreational strains might soon be acknowledged as more understanding is gained about the need for balance between all the compounds in the plant?
Either way, until the current legal status of cannabis is addressed, all this is just lip service. Because in an unregulated market, criminal gangs are free to grow and sell cannabis that far exceeds safety limits, with some suggesting that it is this very prohibition that created the proliferation of the ultra high THC strains in the first place.