By Dr. Bomi Joseph, guest contributor
Thousands of years ago, many common fruits and flowers had a dramatically different appearance. Wild peaches were the size of acorns, berries were tiny and guarded by sharp thorns, and sugarcane looked more like grass than the woody, thick stalks that developed over centuries of selective breeding. The same thing happened with marijuana. People loved the medicinal effects and the euphoric, anxiety-relieving high of wild cannabis (~1% THC, the active compound in marijuana that causes the “high”) so the plant was selected for stronger potency over thousands of years.
After cannabis was criminalized in 1939, a lucrative black market for it developed. A formerly dirt-cheap and plentiful herb became scarce and expensive, in order to compensate dealers for their risk of being arrested while transporting and selling it. They had to focus on getting “the good stuff.” In the 1970s, samples of from the Potency Monitoring Program found that the average potency level of cannabis seized by law enforcement was around 3 to 4% THC. Marijuana that was twice as potent could be sold for twice the price, or more – and it could be smuggled in smaller amounts. More potent marijuana meant less risk and more reward for dealers. This economic incentive caused a kind of “gold rush” to develop the absolute highest potency cannabis possible.
Marijuana Potency Has Increased Up to 800% in 40 years!
After breeders took a more scientific approach to developing new cannabis strains, the average concentration of THC has increased dramatically. Tested samples rose from 8.9% in 2008 to 17.1% in 2017. The trend accelerated even faster since some states legalized marijuana cultivation. In 2020, top shelf dispensary weed contained up to 34% THC, along with concentrated cannabis extracts or “dabs” that contain over 90% THC.
“Ingesting cannabis products with these jacked-up THC levels is completely unnatural,” says Dr. Bomi Joseph director of the Peak Health Center in California. “These high-potency products overload your cannabinoid receptors and send neurotransmitter levels through the roof. Your body is full of delicate feedback loops that high-potency cannabis and concentrates throw out of whack. You’ll feel the effects for a few hours, but it will come crashing back down even lower than the normal after it wears off. The normal baseline for the sensors is reset to a higher level, and you’ll need even stronger potency THC to feel the same effects.” This can make some users extremely irritable, depressed, or even suicidal.
High-Potency Cannabis Use Desensitizes & Dysregulates Brain Receptors
Using high-potency cannabis and extracts can be habit-forming, and it can physically alter a person’s brain structure in a way that makes them “hungry for more” and stronger cannabis. Chronic use of high-dose THC causes a desensitization and downregulation of CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors, which quickly escalates drug tolerance. Different regions in the brain can get desensitized, which explains why long-term users develop tolerance to the anxiety and cognitive impairment effects of cannabis, but they still get high. How greatly the cannabinoid receptors become desensitized depends upon how many years someone has used cannabis. Historically, cannabinoid receptors return to normal within 4 weeks, but this research is based on THC levels of 1% to 3%. More recent studies have shown psychosis and catatonia with use of high-potency THC that is not prevalent in low potency THC. In some recent cases, cannabinoid receptors never reach normal levels after extended use of high-potency THC.
The effects of cannabis on adolescents, whose brain and social personality is still developing, can be devastating. Small amounts of cannabis with high THC concentrations is shown to increase psychosis, memory issues, and cannabis dependence. Adolescence is typically the most common time people first try cannabis and also the most vulnerable age to experience its harmful effects. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to peer pressure, bullying, and engaging in high-risk activities where clouded judgement can create a life-threatening danger.
Healthy Alternatives to High Potency Cannabis
A lot of people may be attracted to using high-THC concentrates because they have issues with anxiety, depression, or chronic inflammation. For those who needs help maintaining calm moods and healthy inflammation, CBD products such as hemp or THC-free hops CBD oil can be a much safer and gentler alternative. CBD works by helping to boost the body’s supply of natural endocannabinoids and keeping them from being broken down too quickly, as opposed to the overpowering effect of high-dose plant cannabinoids (mostly THC) in marijuana.
Eating a balanced, unprocessed diet without sugar and alcohol and getting at least 30 minutes of daily exercise can make a huge positive difference for many people. So can unplugging from screens & devices and making a regular effort to connect with friends and family members (who don’t abuse substances). Self-help or therapy with a licensed professional can also help a lot, and there is absolutely no shame in seeking mental healthcare!
As a society, we must recognize that some cannabinoids (like CBD) have some therapeutic properties if used judiciously, but they can also be dangerous to people’s mental health, particularly children and adolescents. We have an obligation to warn the public and discourage the sale and consumption of high-potency marijuana. I personally believe that there is no therapeutic reason to have medical marijuana above 15% THC and all legally sold recreational marijuana should contain no more than 5% THC.
Marijuana is not all created equal, nor is cannabis as harmless as it is made out to be by its advocates. While we can’t ultimately control what people do with this natural plant, the least we can do is to tell the truth about it and attempt to set public health guidelines for harm reduction and better outcomes.
About the Author
Dr. Bomi Joseph is a natural health researcher and martial arts instructor based in California. He is director of the Peak Health Center and the author of Unfettered, a short and inspiring book on how to cultivate a healthy mind that runs on clean, upgraded mental “software.” It contains nuggets of wisdom he has gained over decades of life as a scientist, athlete, and entrepreneur.