Cannabis market’s obsession with THC has gone too far


If you’ve spent time in a dispensary over the past few years, you’re likely familiar with cultivators’ endeavors to bring the most THC-rich flower to the market for the lowest possible price. This proverbial arms race is fueled by the bleak but harsh reality that consumer pressure is making any cannabis flower with a THC concentration of less than 20% a non-starter to dispensary purchasing managers. There’s a widely held misconception that the THC level of flower is the single determining factor of quality, price point and overall desirability.

Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC, is the compound that gives cannabis its psychoactive effects. So, it seems reasonable to assume this is the most important factor to consider when choosing between strains. However, cannabis has numerous cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids and other compounds that are found in great abundance. We haven’t even determined what all these compounds are yet, let alone how their interactions with THC could generate different effects.

The term those in the know use to describe the interactions between these compounds is called the entourage effect. However, there’s only been a small amount of real research into this due to cannabis’ federal illegality. We probably won’t fully understand what interactions are taking place and what effects they may have for many years. In the interim, operators and consumers have taken something they can put a numerical value on and decided to run with it. The result is a marketplace that’s hyper-focused on THC levels above other traditional hallmarks of quality, like smell, taste and how the plant was grown. Because of this, strain diversity in the legal marketplace is starting to seriously slip. We’re seeing more and more of a focus on strains with THC concentrations of 25% or more, like Wedding Cake and GMO crosses.

In my opinion, this really kills cannabis culture and has also made it difficult for the ever-shrinking but nevertheless significant population of medical cannabis users. Low-THC, CBD-heavy strains that might be useful for specific medical ailments don’t have the same market potential as a 30% THC Wedding Cake strain grown in a greenhouse. This is why we don’t see a lot of the classic strains anymore, like Trainwreck, Northern Lights, White Widow or one of my personal favorites, Danny Trevino, a particularly terpene-rich and funky-tasting cross of AK-47 and Super Silver Haze. Before the legal market and state-mandated potency testing were established, this strain was one of the hottest and most sought-after in Lansing. Today, most stores would have to discount it to even get it to move.

Potency testing is important for consumer safety, and I’m glad the government requires it. A lot of folks in cannabis still have some reservations, though. There seems to be a lack of standardization among testing companies, and a lot of operators feel pressured to work with labs that produce higher potency results. Many claim these labs use different sampling and testing methods to raise THC levels.

The longstanding legal war between the state Cannabis Regulatory Agency and Viridis Laboratories has muddied the waters even more. The agency seems to be in constant conflict with the lab about its standard operating procedures and lack of accountability and transparency. There’s hope a state-run reference lab would help bring about more standardization in the testing market. With the option to independently audit high-THC flower, we might see the state work to create a standard of best practices around potency testing. Recently, California introduced new testing standards, resulting in a 7% drop in median THC potency among cannabis flower, according to a report by San Francisco news website SFGATE.

Consumers are being misled in many cases, and it’s making the obsession with THC levels even worse. Ask any old head you know: A lower-THC strain with top-shelf genetics that wasn’t grown in salts and was cured properly will probably yield a more pleasurable high than some of the dried-out, rushed-to-market, pre-remediated Wedding Cake strains of today. My hope is that as consumers obtain more information and their tastes and preferences develop a little more, we’ll see more demand for flower that achieves more of the hallmarks of quality than just potency.


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