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Why Cannabis Is More Potent Than Ever Before

One of the most common rumors is that marijuana today is stronger than it was in the 1970’s and 80’s. The truth: yes and no.

The feds began monitoring the potency of the nation’s pot supply in the ‘70s by drawing samples from stashes seized by law enforcement, and boy was it schwag. The percentage of THC—the main psychoactive component in cannabis—averaged from less than 1% in 1975 to just under 3% a decade later, according to the data. These notoriously low levels reflected the times, as the weed subculture in America was just starting to take root and could help explain why some of the most memorable old school brands have names like Acapulco Gold, Panama Red, Afghani, Thai stick, and Jamaican sensi; they were all originally cultivated outside of the country.

Now, as some critics have pointed out, it’s impossible to empirically confirm how strong domestically grown pot was back in the day due to inferior testing and sampling methods, however, there does seem to be enough prevailing research, firsthand testimony, and common sense to show that the illicit reefer from decades ago wasn’t nearly as powerful as today’s. Even if we account for the inordinate amount of Mexican brick weed that’s said to have dragged down national averages, the percentage of THC was still remarkably low across the boards well into the late 1990’s.

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If you’ve smoked weed at any point in the last decade, you likely got stoned out of your skull. Same. This is no accident. Marijuana is way more potent than it once was because cultivators are intentionally breeding strains of pot that are notably high in THC. And whether you purchase your bud from the plug on the street, or per a doctor-issued recommendation at the dispensary, the product is probably going to be strong as hell.

The THC content of marijuana across the US has tripled since 1995, according to a large recent study. For the study, researchers at the University of Mississippi reviewed close to 39,000 samples of cannabis that had been seized across the country by the Drug Enforcement Administration. While THC levels hovered around 4%, on average, in 1995, they skyrocketed to roughly 12% in 2014.
Meanwhile, the CBD content in marijuana — the part that’s responsible for many of the drug’s therapeutic effects— has dropped, the researchers found, shifting the ratio of THC to CBD from 14:1 in 1995 to about 80:1 in 2014.

Still, tracking THC potency over time can be tricky. The older a weed sample gets, the more its THC appears to degrade. How it is stored matters too. These are two barriers that could be interfering somewhat with the metrics on pot’s potency.

For Gizmodo, New York-based journalist Bucky Turco interviewed various experts on the chronic in an effort to glean insight into the increase in cannabis’s potency. Mahmoud A. ElSohly, Ph.D. and director of the Marijuana Project, said that weed’s shifting legal status is a major contributing factor in the drug’s increasing potency. Though there are also these four main factors:

“1) The cultivation practices in the cannabis industry has moved into the production of sinsemilla as the preferred product. Sinsemilla is the product generated from the flowering tops of female plants that have not been fertilized. It is the part of cannabis plant with the highest THC content.

2) The trimming of the cannabis products (sinsemilla or buds) and removal of all large leaves which have low levels of THC.

3) Selection of high THC varieties or strains for high cash value.

4) THC is known to produce tolerance in frequent users. Therefore the more one uses marijuana the more THC one needs to achieve the same degree of high one once had. So the users demand more marijuana or higher THC content.”

Dr. ElSohly told reporters that for medicinal use, cannabis shouldn’t be smoked as the plant’s medicinal properties are put to more efficient use when extracted and concentrated. For context, some concentrates test at 90 percent THC content or higher. Now that’s progress we can all appreciate.

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Nevertheless, most researchers agree that weed appears to be getting progressively stronger, although they differ in opinion about precisely how much.

There’s another issue at play here. While researchers might be able to conclude that weed is getting stronger, they can’t necessarily say whether or not people are increasing their dose — or by how much. A 2014 study published in the journal Addiction, for example, found that regular weed users naturally adjust their consumption somewhat based on potency, inhaling less smoke when the marijuana is higher in THC. Despite taking smaller inhales, however, those users still took in a higher THC dose. The researchers were not able to draw any definitive conclusions about the potential ties between higher doses and addiction. A more important predictor of addiction, they concluded, was people’s individual smoking behavior (i.e. how many puffs they took, how much smoke they inhaled, and how long their puffs lasted).

Jesse Henry
Executive Director of Barbary Coast Collective, a San Francisco dispensary that carries potent cannabis for medicinal use

Cannabis is getting more and more potent because it’s getting more specialized for specific needs. At the same time cannabis is getting less and less potent for the same reason. Some patients need high thc and others need high cbd. Same goes for thca, thcv, cbn and cbg to name a few.

Rusty Payne
Spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency, the federal law enforcement entity that has been busting people and providing government agencies with samples of seized cannabis for decades

In short, marijuana is more potent because the quality of the cultivation process has been enhanced by hydroponic lighting, as well as THC extraction which creates a much more potent product.

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