What Are the Types and Potencies of Modern Marijuana?

By Laura Stack

Marijuana is a pervasive drug in U.S. culture, and has been since long before its legalization, partial legalization, or decriminalization in 42 states and the District of Colombia. Originally, there were only three main types of marijuana product: flower, hashish, and hash oil. But, nowadays, thanks to the double-edged sword of human ingenuity, there are many more types of marijuana products available.

In addition to flower, some are edibles, based on plant material, oils, or distillates. Others are solvent-derived extracts, mostly made using butane and carbon dioxide, deliberately designed to contain very higher concentrations of THC—the chemical that makes users high. Names like wax, shatter, budder, badder, dabs, and more have recently entered the marijuana lexicon, and these products often have very different THC potencies.

While the terms “concentrate” and “extract” are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. All extracts are concentrates, but not all concentrates are extracts. The primary difference between a concentrate and an extract is how the trichomes are collected. Trichomes are the resinous hair-like structures which stick up from the flower of the bud on the cannabis plant. Trichomes contain THC, which house the psychoactive effects of weed and when activated produce the “high.” Extracts are a type of concentrate created using solvents (butane, alcohol, carbon dioxide, etc.) that essentially wash the trichomes off the cannabis plant. Concentrates made without the use of solvents are produced using mechanical or physical means to remove and gather trichomes.

In this article, we’ll look at the basics for each main type.

Flower. This refers to the dried flowers of the marijuana plant, which is the smokable part of the cannabis plant. In practice, it could include seeds, bits of stems, and shredded leaves as well. Users often refer to any cannabis plant matter by the catch-all term “herb,” “bud,” or “grass.” Until the 1990s, THC potency in herb averaged about 3-5%; now, it varies between about 12-25%, depending on the cannabis strain, with an average of 15.6% in 2018. Growers continually increase herb potency through selective breeding. It’s usually smoked using a pipe or a bong or rolled into a joint or a blunt.

Edibles. Anyone can make marijuana edibles, either using flower or one of the other products, so the potency can vary widely. However, legal cannabis edibles are highly regulated, especially those used for medical purposes, with the THC measured in milligrams rather than percentages. In California, for example, over-the-counter edibles may contain no more than 10 mg of THC per serving (and no more than 100 mg per package), as opposed to 1,000 mg for recreational concentrates and vape cartridges.

Hashish (Hash) is a concentrate made through a mechanical process that isolates resin heads. It refers to the hardened resin of the cannabis plant, usually added to tobacco for smoking, though it can also be eaten or smoked on its own. It comes in blocks, sheets, and balls, and often resembles grainy, low-quality chocolate, usually varying in color from yellow to a dark reddish-brown. Water-purified hash is called “bubble melt hash” or bubble hash” due to its texture and is more pliable. The potency of hash ranks higher than flower; it currently averages 15-30% THC, though some growers claim it can reach as high as 60%.

Extracts. The various forms of extracts (see below) mostly derive from hash oil via a solvent, often butane, though recently carbon dioxide has become more common as consumers have expressed concern about butane’s use. Butane Hash Oil (BHO), Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and CO2-extracted cannabis wax are examples of extracts; the varying textures make up the difference from one product to another:

Wax serves as a general term for any semisolid marijuana concentrate that’s opaque due to the way it solidified. Most wax looks and feels a lot like crumbly earwax (one of its nicknames), but less solidified versions may resemble softened butter (budder), cake batter (badder), or resin (rosin), depending on thickness and texture. It’s highly potent (up to 99%+) and often used in dabs.

A dab just means a small amount (a dab) of a concentrate, usually wax (above), which the user burns and inhales. Some vape it, since it lacks a strong odor; others may use a special “dabbing rig” or even just a hot nail or rod on which they burn the material. See my blog “What is 710 Day” for more information. Users call it “taking a dab” or the verb form “dabbing.” This is the toxic chemical that triggered marijuana-induced psychosis in Johnny after two solid weeks of dabbing. Johnny started out with flower and progressed to this highly potent form.

Shatter is a type of solidified butane hash oil (BHO). It’s typically clear amber in color, so glossy and fragile looking it seems it might shatter like glass when dropped, hence the name. However, it does have some flexibility. It’s often full of holes, something like a slice of Swiss cheese. It tends to be quite potent, at 60-80% THC content.

Pull ‘n Snap, another BHO, manifests as a type of shatter that lives up to its name. A user pulls it like taffy and snaps off a piece for use. In warm temperatures, it gets messy and stringy.

Crumble refers to a solid, opaque THC concentrate, usually a BHO, with a crumbly texture.

Distillates/Oils. Originally, this category consisted of only unmodified hash oil (about 20% THC), the third “traditional” form of marijuana—basically, a liquid form of hash (above). It can be distilled or concentrated with solvents to form THC oil. True distillates, however, are extra special because they’re even more pure and potent than some of their concentrated, oily cousins. Distillates go through extra refinement processes to remove additional compounds via boiling-point separation. Why? Because the goal is to isolate very specific plant pigment and biproduct. Once these cannabinoids have been distilled, they are re-condensed, and the finished product can be up to 99% pure cannabinoid. Potent! It’s the purest of pure cannabis oil in its activated form. Distillates are often vaporized, but users put them under the tongue, dab them, smoke them, ingest them in a capsule, or infuse them into an edible.

Tinctures. A tincture is a flavorful, solvent-based infusion that are popularly consumed in edibles. It’s basically an infusion made by soaking herb in a weak solvent like alcohol, glycerin, or medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil. Unlike most concentrates, the solvent becomes part of the finished product. Its THC potency is typically quite low, often less than 1%; the legal limit is 0.3% in most places where it’s legal for medical use. Tinctures are usually consumed as drops placed under the tongue or even sprinkled in salads.

What’s the Big Deal?

As a parent of a teen, it’s important to know and understand the differences between types of marijuana products, because high-potency and high-frequency can cause mental health problems in the developing adolescent mind. A few have medical uses, including some edibles, tinctures, and topical rubs (not discussed here because there’s almost no recreational use). While all forms of marijuana can cause health problems, highly concentrated forms (like most of those discussed above) multiply the probability those problems. Some individuals can’t even take a single hit from a dab without hospitalization. Others may eventually suffer from paranoia, depression, psychotic episodes, suicidal ideation, or in some cases, schizophrenia, which is what happened to Johnny.

Marijuana is not a victimless drug—and it’s much more potent these days than any pot you adults may have experimented with when younger. To protect your kids, learn as much about it as you can.

2 Replies to “What Are the Types and Potencies of Modern Marijuana?”

  1. Laura
    Citizens in Lakewood, Colorado will likely be voting Nov. 3 on a proposed ordinance to allow medical pot shops to convert to recreational pot shops. In 2014 the citizens voted rec pot down, but in a contentious presidential election year and with significant demographic changes in the city they are trying again.
    The data documenting the destructive influence of pot has only grown. Over 15,000 research articles were published by researchers from 2011 to 2019. A new book published within the last few months, Cannabis in Medicine, Editor, Dr. Ken Finn, documents the multi-organ impact of THC in 20 research articles. The worst impacts are on the brain where severe mental health impacts originate. Although the forward is readable, the articles are mostly technical but can be read by a person with a science background.
    In any case I certainly appreciate your personal efforts in helping youth avoid this scourge.
    I hope that you know the Smart Colorado folks. Their focus is very similar to yours. https://smartcolorado.org/
    Jim Otton
    Lakewood, Colorado

    1. Hi, Jim! Yes I know the Smart CO folks well (Diane is on our Advisory Council), and Dr. Finn is on our Scientific Advisory Board. I have the book and quote from it and many research studies often. I pray the citizens have enough sense to vote no to protect our teens from the dangers of today’s high-THC marijuana on the developing adolescent mind. It is very easy to get, and they increasingly believe it’s safe due to false messaging from marketing to what they hope will be their next generation of addicts.

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