The best smoking experiences often come with the best marijuana buds. When flower is really good, you spark up and experience pleasant highs, great flavor, and relaxing aromas. The worst smoking experiences often come when flower is, well, just bad. We always want the “loud,” “fire,” “Private Reserve” weed, and want to avoid the “schwag,” “brick,” and “bunk” weed at all costs.
High THC strains are known for bringing on a super-stony experience, leading some bud lovers to judge the quality of a strain on its THC percentage alone. But does more THC always equal a more intense high? Here’s why THC percentage might not be the best way to predict your experience and what really controls the potency of a strain.
Identifying high-quality, or as people familiar to buying weed say, “top shelf” flower can throw even the most experienced cannabis connoisseurs for a loop, so here are a few key traits that separate today’s high-end strains from less desirable ones.
Super-potent cannabis flower, with THC percentages of 25 percent and up, dominate dispensary shelves. High-THC cannabis will sell out very quickly while lower-percentage weed gathers dust.
THC shopping is almost as bad and dumb as buying wine based on how cool the label looks (which is also how some people buy weed). By doing this, the consumer is robbing themselves of not only the rich scents and flavors of the strain, but also missing out on the beneficial effects that can be delivered through a strain’s specific terpene profile.
Though there is a lot about weed we still don’t know, it’s generally agreed that the THC in weed is what makes you high. And both indicas and sativas in the recreational market usually have about 18 to 25 percent THC in them. Why is there so much THC in weed? Because in the old days, on the black market, the higher you got, the better the weed was considered to be—the more bang for your buck—and black-market weed plants were the foundation for most of the weed now grown and sold in the recreational market. Most of the customers in the recreational market still have that mentality: If two products cost the same, and one of them has more THC than the other, that’s what customers will buy. But THC is just one of many cannabinoids in marijuana, and now that the state is filled with expert cultivators, some growers are cultivating for other cannabinoids.
While THC is known for producing the classic psychoactive effects of cannabis, there are many other cannabinoids with varying degrees of psychoactivity that can change the way THC reacts with your brain.
Not only does THC content have nothing to do with how “good” the weed is, as recent research conducted by the University of Colorado and published in JAMA Psychiatry found, THC content is also a poor indicator of potency.
High-THC weed doesn’t even get you “more high”
Because THC isn’t the only factor that contributes to the ultimate effect of a specific flower, it actually isn’t a reliable indicator of potency at all. In fact, some of the hardest-hitting strains you’ll ever try may only have 10% to 15% THC.
Researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science documented the experiences of 121 cannabis users. Half the study participants were users of cannabis concentrates—very-high THC cannabis extracts—and the other half preferred cannabis flower.
Both groups received cannabis at varying “strengths”: flower users tried cannabis flower at either 16 percent or 24 percent THC, and extract users received oil at either 70 percent or 90 percent THC. Researchers checked study participants’ blood and monitored their mood, cognitive function, and intoxication level before, immediately after, and one hour after use.
As the researchers expected, the concentrate users had very high levels of THC in their bodies after use. But they weren’t “more high.”
In fact, every participants’ self-reported “highness” was about the same—“as were their measures of balance and cognitive impairment,” as CU noted in a news release. Medium THC flower, high-THC flower—all the same high! This was not what the researchers were expecting.
“People in the high concentration group were much less compromised than we thought they would be,” said coauthor Kent Hutchinson, a professor of psychology who studies addiction, in a CU news release. “If we gave people that high a concentration of alcohol it would have been a different story.”
How can users of such differnet “strength” products report such similar psychoactive effects?
The short answer is a theory that cannabis connoisseurs and cannabis scientists have been saying for years: There are many more factors at play than THC. Put slightly longer: Judging a cannabis strain on its THC content is not unlike judging a film based on the lead actor. The THC number isn’t going to be an indicator of the performance.
There are a host of cannabinoids, including CBD as well as more than 100 others—most of which aren’t even tested for. (Even if they were, would the average buyer know what to do?)
Cannabis contains hundreds of molecules that have the ability to directly interact with our bodies and minds. Phytocannabinoid molecules are relatively unique to the cannabis plant, but other plant-derived molecules such as flavonoids and terpenes also bind to our cells and receptors, influencing our experiences.
The cannabis plant produces upwards of 200 terpenes, in varying concentrations and combinations, though the amount it could potentially produce is yet unknown. This makes terpenes the largest group of known phytochemicals in marijuana. The distinct scent of each cannabis cultivar is a result of the unique balance of terpenes produced by that particular plant’s breeding.
All of these work in concert, a phenomenon known as “the entourage effect.” This is why synthetic THC simply didn’t have the same medical effects as smoking weed.
But back to THC numbers. Cannabis researchers know it’s not an indicator. Cannabis growers and sellers know it’s bogus. And yet, here we are. The market simply hasn’t caught on—and merchants, by putting high-THC cannabis out on the shelves to satisfy the misdirected market demand, are ensuring that the misunderstanding continues.
The THC fallacy persists despite everyone’s best efforts. Don’t get us wrong, THC percentage does matter, but not as much as how the THC combines with other cannabinoids and terpenes to create a specific synergistic effect.