What’s the Big Deal About Marijuana Potency?

By Laura Stack

The more powerful the marijuana product, the more likely it will damage your brain. Probably slowly, but possibly immediately. That’s not anti-marijuana propaganda; it’s proven scientific fact.

Less than a century ago, this would have been enough to put most people off marijuana for good. In fact, it did during most of the 20th century, when the “Reefer Madness” mentality prevailed until well into the 1960s, especially among the authorities. Ironically, the 1936 movie of the same name was silly and overblown back then, in an era when smoking “weed” wasn’t much more intoxicating than smoking real weeds. The marijuana of the time was barely stronger than rope hemp—but human ingenuity soon changed that. Reefer Madness is still an oddity, but now it looks much more prescient than the movie I laughed to in college, as the potency of marijuana products has increased by more than an order of magnitude. You see the comparison in this week’s cartoon of the boy smoking 15 “old fashioned” joints, and Johnny vaping a THC distillate.

Today, a plethora of easily accessible misinformation is available for those interested in marijuana. Most of this data is outdated, based on old information, or simply a tissue of lies. Given a now-ingrained distrust of authority, many users—especially young people—are more likely than ever to give it a try. Some become addicted in the process, because the marijuana products available are relatively cheap, easy to acquire, and much more potent than in the past.

Understanding Potency

What is “potency” when it comes to marijuana?

Potency denotes the percentage of the chemical THC (short for delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol) in a marijuana product, whether natural or processed. THC is the active ingredient of recreational and medical cannabis alike. It’s a one of dozens, if not hundreds, of naturally occurring chemicals in marijuana, but in this case it’s the toxin that brings on the “high” that users are after. Like most drugs, it does so by affecting the brain, in this case by usurping the place of vital brain chemicals in brain cells. As a result, users experience (at the very least) decreased reasoning ability, odd time perception, a lack of physical coordination, and difficulty recording memories. Long-term, regular users tend to experience a wide variety of physical and mental disorders.

Greater potency is typically the target of both natural breeding programs for herb marijuana and the post-processing of marijuana products. It took thousands of years of selective breeding to convert ancestral wheat, corn, barley, tomatoes, potatoes, and other plants to useful, high-quality food crops. It took less than 50 years to turn Woodstock-grade pot with a potency of 1-3% THC into today’s high-potency marijuana products, where some flower marijuana “buds” now exceed 35% potency. Some are pushing past what were once thought to be the physical limits of THC concentration in the herb.

Processing the stronger hashish resin using butane hash oil and similar processes can push the potency well past 70%, 80%, even 90%+ in semisolid preparations known as wax, shatter, budder, badder, and many other street names. Some marijuana advocate sources claim a potency of up to a heart-stopping 99.9% in a version known as THC-A Crystalline, or simple THC-A. They warn it’s “definitely not for your average cannabis novice,” which is putting it mildly. A hit (what’s called a dab) of any of these concentrates is the functional equivalent of five or more regular joints, a powerful jolt to the brain all at once – especially the teen brain. It can drop some people instantly, inducing psychotic states with a single use or otherwise sending them to the hospital.

Dose Dependency and Why It Matters

Marijuana’s effects vary from person to person. Some users can smoke steadily for years before developing noticeable effects; a few people experience illness or psychotic breaks on their very first hit. While these extremities are rare, marijuana’s effects are clearly dose dependent. It makes sense that, like most drugs, the harder it is, the worse it is, especially for young people.

Marijuana of 5% potency or less, while not harmless, is much less likely to hurt a user than marijuana with a potency greater than 15%. Similarly, the more often a user smokes, the more damage they sustain due to the dose dependency factor. The 10% level of potency seems to be the tipping point for the worst effects of marijuana, including schizophrenia and associated psychosis. Depending on the study, scientists have found a 3-7+ times (300-700+) higher incidence of schizophrenic illness among users of marijuana than among non-users, even after controlling for other factors. This is especially true among teen users who later develop schizophrenia as adults.

There’s also a genetic component in play, with several “schizophrenia genes” like catechol-O-methyltransferase(COMT) and neuregulin 1 (NRG1) that may serve as catalysts for psychosis and schizophrenia if something changes for the worse in the carrier’s environment. Even if you do have these genes, under most circumstances, you’re unlikely to develop schizophrenia without a strong triggering factor, such as marijuana. The comparison here is stark: if schizophrenia runs in your family, your odds of developing the disorder are no more than 50%—and then only of you have a twin with the disorder. Having two parents with the disorder nets you a 40% chance.

Decades of research determining the direction of causality here has proven that marijuana use causes the increased schizophrenia risk; it’s not that schizophrenics are just more likely to use than most people. We also now know that high-potency marijuana is more likely also trigger first-episode marijuana psychoses than the low-potency kind. The trigger point appears to be 10% THC concentration.

Most available legal marijuana products in North America exceed a potency of 15%, and since 2008, potency has increased from 6.7% to 55.7% among confiscated illegal samples. With poor labeling requirements, it’s easy to exceed the recommended dose even with the legal varieties.

To put it simply, the risk to the user increases as the dose increases.

The Scary Part

There are, then, clear associations between marijuana potency and subsequent problems. But there’s even worse news about high-potency marijuana. Credible research indicates the more potent the marijuana product, the more likely the user will partake regularly, even daily. Needless to say, this increases the risk for any of the two-dozen or so physical and mental disorders caused or worsened by marijuana—not just schizophrenia, but lowered IQ, higher anxiety, deeper depression, and more—even death.

Ultimately, it all comes down to this: the more potent the marijuana, the more addictive and dangerous it is to the user. There’s simply no way to win when it comes to using pot.

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