Why the THC content is only secondarily important

Why the THC content is only secondarily important

There’s a lot more to cannabis than THC – the CBD boom is the best proof of that. But when it comes to selling products on the legal recreational market, only two factors seem important: list price and THC content. This is a problem.

High-potency cannabis flowers with a THC content of 25 percent dominate the shelves of dispensaries in the states of the USA where cannabis is sold legally. While high-THC cannabis sells quickly, lower-THC weed often gathers dust. An analysis of more than 30 million cannabis transactions in Washington, D.C., found that dispensaries can add a substantial surcharge on high-THC cannabis.[1]

Chances are, people are willing to pay those prices because they’re sure that with the strongest weed, they’ll take home the best grade. Initial research results show that this is based on a misconception.

So-called “THC shopping” is roughly comparable to buying wine based on an aesthetic label: just as the quality of a wine bottle design says little about the enjoyment of the contents, the THC value of a flower says little about its quality. That THC content not only has nothing to do with how “good” the weed is, but is also a poor indicator of potency, a recent study conducted by the University of Colorado found.[2]

Different THC content levels produce a similar high sensation

Researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder documented the experiences of 121 cannabis users. Half of the study participants consumed cannabis concentrates – cannabis extracts with very high THC content – and the other half preferred cannabis flowers. Both groups were given cannabis in different “strengths”: Flower users sampled cannabis flowers with a THC content of 16 or 24 percent, and extract users received oil with 70 or 90 percent THC.

The researchers examined the blood of the study participants and monitored their mood, cognitive functions and asked the subjects about their state of intoxication and mood before, immediately after and one hour after consumption.

As expected by the researchers, the concentrate users had very high levels of THC in their bodies after consumption. However, when subjectively assessing the state of intoxication, interesting results emerged. In fact, the self-reported intoxication of the participants was about the same, regardless of the THC content of the substance ingested. The same was true for measures of balance and cognitive impairment. Flowering or low or high THC or concentrate – users all described it as a high of equal quality.

“People in the high concentration group were much less impaired than we thought,” Kent Hutchinson, a professor of psychology who studies addiction, said in a CU news release. “If we had given people such a high concentration of alcohol, the outcome would have been different.”

Sixteen percent THC is a big difference compared to 24 percent THC – a 50 percent stronger level. How can it be that consumers of products with such different “strengths” report such similar psychoactive effects?

Cannabis intoxication is an effect of many factors

The short answer is a theory that some cannabis researchers have held for years: there are many more factors at play in cannabis intoxication than THC. Judging a cannabis strain by its THC content is no different than judging a movie by its lead actor. THC count is not an indicator of performance (a very big exception to this: Edibles. If one edible has 100 milligrams of THC on it and another has 10 milligrams, and you eat the 100, you will definitely be high longer than if you eat the 10).

Rather, the intoxication of cannabis use seems to depend on cannabinoids – estimated to number over 100, including CBD – and aromatic compounds called terpenes. All of these substances seem to work together in certain scenarios, a phenomenon known as the “entourage effect.”[1]

However, this is currently not given any attention in practice. “It’s a shame,” Neil Dellacava, the co-founder of Gold Seal, a San Francisco-based cannabis brand specializing in high-end flower, said in a 2020 interview with Forbes. “I find stuff that is absolutely amazing that I have to throw in the trash because it tested at 18 or 19 percent. At that level, the weed (…) just doesn’t sell, despite an amazing terpene profile,” he said. “People just don’t understand,” he added. “When people go shopping, they pay attention to two things: they pay attention to the price and they pay attention to the THC content.” [2]

It will probably take a long time for buyers to change their habits and realize that THC content is not comparable to the alcohol content on a beer label. This will require additional funding for research into the interplay of THC, cannabinoids and terpenes, as well as education and information campaigns to educate users about the findings of the research. The Cannabis Research Association strives to fund and conduct such high quality research.

[1] Smart, R., Caulkins, J. P., Kilmer, B., Davenport, S., & Midgette, G. (2017). Variation in cannabis potency and prices in a newly legal market: evidence from 30 million cannabis sales in Washington state. Addiction, 112(12), 2167-2177.

[2] Bidwell, L. C., Ellingson, J. M., Karoly, H. C., YorkWilliams, S. L., Hitchcock, L. N., Tracy, B. L., … & Hutchison, K. E. (2020). Association of naturalistic administration of cannabis flower and concentrates with intoxication and impairment. JAMA psychiatry, 77(8), 787-796

[3] Ferber, S. G., Namdar, D., Hen-Shoval, D., Eger, G., Koltai, H., Shoval, G., … & Weller, A. (2020). The “entourage effect”: terpenes coupled with cannabinoids for the treatment of mood disorders and anxiety disorders. Current neuropharmacology, 18(2), 87-96

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