While the U.S. is heading into a time when marijuana will be legal just like beer and tobacco, the transition of this mostly illegal substance from bad to good has not been smooth. Sure, there are plenty of anecdotal reports suggesting the herb has a plethora of therapeutic uses, but there are just as many that blame it for increased emergency room visits and even traffic-related accidents.
Some federal health officials say these upticks are mostly due to the strength of the marijuana out there today. It’s just more powerful than the stuff that was sold in the black market years ago. Unfortunately, because the cannabis plant remains illegal at the federal level, research over the pros and cons of the substance have been mostly hindered. So, no one really knows for sure whether the potency of pot in America is a real concern or just a boogeyman of prohibition past.
It is true that marijuana is getting stronger.
Cannabis breeders have become really good at producing plants jam-packed with delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which, of course, is the compound that produces the stoned effects from marijuana. The goal of some cannabis producers has always seemed to be laying claims to the strongest pot on the market.
And the race is on.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration indicates that marijuana potency has increased incrementally over the past few decades. The pot being sold in the black market back in 1995 had roughly only around 4 percent THC. By 2017, the drug samples they were collecting contained an average of 17.1 percent THC.
This rate represents a more than 300 percent increase in potency since 1996 when California became the first state to legalize for medicinal use. Add in some of the popular pot products of the times – the concentrates and oils – and in some cases, the THC content can reside in upwards of 90 percent.
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Federal health officials are concerned that these high levels of THC may cause problems for the average user.
“In general, people think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to worry about marijuana. It’s a safe drug,’ “Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told NPR. “The notion that it is completely safe drug is incorrect when you start to address the consequences of this very high content of 9THC.”
As with anything, moderation is key. The person who understands this concept can enjoy the chilled-out and relaxing effects of THC without ever spiraling out of control. Some with a lack of experience, however, can consume more than what they should at any given time, which could spawn a variety of scary, albeit non-life threatening side effects that may turn them off on the experience altogether.
Large amounts of THC can ramp up a person’s anxiety, as well as bring about wicked bouts of paranoia. This is one of the reasons that dosage recommendations (something that appears on pot packaging in legal states) should be strictly adhered to. Volkow says that high concentrations of THC can cause a person to become “psychotic and paranoid.” And while there is some research to support this claim, most of the studies on the subject found that these periods of psychosis are only temporary and more likely to happen in people already susceptible to the condition.
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There have also been cases where marijuana users experience a rare condition known as cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. Although in modest doses, cannabis is known to calm nausea in some patients, people prone to this disorder might find themselves vomiting and suffer from intense abdominal pain.
Andrew Monte, an associate professor of emergency medicine and medical toxicology at the University of Colorado’s school of medicine, says in the worst of the worst situation this condition can be life-threatening. “Some people have died from this … syndrome,” he said, “so that is concerning.”
Health experts say new marijuana users should ask a lot of questions about their weed at the dispensary. Again, most of the problems associated with cannabis consumption can be avoided by simply following dosage recommendations. Above all, the best advice is just to start slow and low.
“You have to know what’s in your weed,” said Staci Gruber, director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery program at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “Whether or not it’s conventional flower that you’re smoking or vaping, an edible or tincture, it’s very important to know what’s in it.”