The Dirty Dozen #3: High-Potency Marijuana and the Risk of Addiction

By Laura Stack

When 10-30%+ of all frequent marijuana users depend on it to get through the day, you have prima facie evidence that a substance is addictive. There’s plenty of scientific proof to prove this first impression for marijuana. Mental health professionals refer to marijuana dependency as Cannabis Use Disorder, or CUD, and it’s one of nine recognized Substance Use Disorders, right up there with those for tobacco and alcohol.

The addictive substance in marijuana is a chemical named delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, a.k.a. THC. When I was a teen in the early to mid-1980s, marijuana rarely exceeded 4% THC content. That’s Cheech & Chong stuff, and you might remember their crazy stoner routines. Modern marijuana products, many of which have become legal in some states (especially my home state of Colorado) can contain as much as 25 times more THC than Cheech & Chong’s weed.

Now imagine what 60-90% THC content does to the addiction risk, especially now that researchers have proven that said risk is dose dependent for marijuana. That is, the more marijuana you use, the more often you use it, and the higher the THC potency, the more likely you’ll become addicted. The wax Johnny dabbed and vaped throughout the day was 80%+, which made his brain particularly susceptible to psychosis and damaging effects.

Potency, Skyrocketing

All of today’s marijuana is higher potency than ever before. With any high-potency drug, legal or not, you’re taking  your life into your own hands when you use. For alcohol alone, more than 95,000 Americans a year, 261 a day, die of “excess alcohol use”—alcohol poisoning—according to the CDC, shortening their lives by an average of 29 years.

We don’t yet have enough data to determine how much the use of high-potency marijuana shortens lives or how often it kills, but the evidence that it can seriously mess you up is plain to see. Consider my son Johnny’s story. Read Dr. Karen Randle’s guest blog from May for some examples of what it can do to younger kids, whether they ingest it accidentally or purposely. All her examples are appalling, some more than others.

Why is potency so important? From 2008 to 2017, illegal marijuana products seized by the police in the USA and Europe increased in potency from 6.7% to 55.7% THC content. This study is about seizures of illegal products, so it doesn’t even count the legal stuff sold in dispensaries, which is unregulated and much higher. This is astonishing, especially considering the relatively brief time-frame. And that’s not just the concentrated, processed stuff, like wax, shatter, budder, badder, and all the other forms of Butane Hash Oil – today’s artificial, supercharged answer to hashish. Some users can’t even get a buzz off the old pot anymore. It might as well actually be grass to them.

High tolerance leads naturally to higher-potency products and stronger drugs, inevitably producing higher rates of addiction and all the horrible things it can also trigger. Think lowered IQ, higher anxiety, deeper depression, increased schizophrenia risk, psychosis (including first-episode marijuana psychosis), and death.

An important study, “Higher average potency across the United States is associated with progression to first cannabis use disorder symptom” was conducted to determine if higher potency cannabis is associated with earlier progression to regular cannabis use, daily cannabis use, and cannabis use disorder symptom onset. The analysis included 527 cannabis users. Cox regression showed an increased risk of progression from cannabis initiation to cannabis use disorder symptom onset by 1.41 times for each unit increase in national average delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol as compared to those not endorsing CUD symptom onset, adjusting for sex, regular use, and cohort effects. Accounting for regular use, individuals initiating cannabis at national average 4.9% delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol were at 1.88 times higher risk for cannabis use disorder symptom onset within one year compared to those who did not endorse CUD symptom onset, while those initiating cannabis at national average 12.3% delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol were at 4.85 times (p = .012) higher risk within one year. This study provides prospective evidence suggesting higher potency cannabis, on average in the U.S., increases risk for onset of first cannabis use disorder symptom. The authors state, “Development of guidelines regarding cannabis potency is critical for reducing the costs associated with negative health outcomes.”

Considering many of the processed THC chemical products—including sweets sold in stores, not just wax and shatter, etc.—contain over 90% THC, you’re playing with fire, as they will be much higher than the nearly 5 fold likeliness of CUD from this research. If you care to play Russian Roulette without the gun, you can also get 99.9% pure THC-A Crystalline extract.

How Did This Happen?

Beginning in the 1980s, when people’s attitudes about marijuana began to relax, many pot producers began to realize America was moving seriously toward legalization. So, using tactics learned from Big Tobacco, they started selectively breeding stronger strains of herb and developing better ways of concentrating their particular poison. Now that widespread legalization is a reality—Colorado alone now has more pot dispensaries than McDonalds and Starbucks franchises combined­—they’ve even arranged the regulatory system to their liking. The reality of taxation has made marijuana, like cigarettes, cheaper to buy on the black market, so they’re profiting both ways. Furthermore, by addicting people to their product, Big Marijuana can ensure a steady profit well into the future.

What Can You Do?

As always, your best option to keep your children safe from high-potency marijuana is to gain a greater awareness of its negative effects and communicate your disapproval early and often. Clearly state they are not allowed to use these products and do random drug tests if you are suspicious of use.  Continue to maintain vigilance over where they go, what they do, and who they do it with. You may not be able to completely stop them from using drugs, but you are more influential than you think you are. If you do not expressly voice your opposition, you are saying you approve without even knowing it. While you’ll likely have very little control over their lives after they hit 18 and move out, you can still warn them of the risks that continue into adulthood, but at least until their brains develop in their mid-to-late 20s.

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