One thing seems clear about the marijuana coming out of Colorado: It will get you high. Really, really high.
An analysis of the marijuana circulating in Colorado shows it is extremely potent in terms of THC, the ingredient that gets a person buzzed, but low in levels of CBD, the chemical increasingly being studied for medical use.
The findings were presented today at the meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Denver.
Scientist Andy LaFrate discussed how buds, despite having different names and appearances, appear similar in their THC:CBD chemical ratio. He added the pot is dirty, often covered in fungi.
“There’s a lot of homogeneity whether you’re talking medical or retail level,” he said in an American Chemical Society news release. “One plant might have green leaves and another purple, and the absolute amount of cannabinoids might change, which relates to strength. But the ratio of THC to CBD to other cannabinoids isn’t changing a whole lot.”
LaFrate founded Charas Scientific laboratory for the purpose of serving as a testing site under Colorado’s recreational marijuana law.
“This stuff is strong,” LaFrate said in a statement to Healthline.
To put things into perspective, the average THC potency three decades ago was well below 10 percent, LaFrate explained. But among the 600 samples he tested, gained from both medicinal and recreational sources, the average potency was 18.7 percent. A handful of samples even exceeded 30 percent.
The average THC:CBD ratio was 150:1, LaFrate said. CBD is being investigated by researchers for the treatment of schizophrenia, Huntington’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as anxiety and depression.
Some opponents of marijuana legalization may argue the low CBD levels prove that people really are smoking marijuana just to get high, not to feel better. But LaFrate and doctors who legally prescribe marijuana say it isn’t that simple.
Terpenes Tweak Marijuana’s Effects
Dr. Dustin Sulak, medical director of Integr8 Health, has been legally prescribing marijuana in Maine for the past several years. He said that CBD actually blocks the euphoria induced by THC.
“Naturally CBD has been bred out of the strains on the underground market,” he told Healthline. “In the last five years, however, this has been changing rapidly, as growers strive to grow medicine that helps relieve symptoms or reverse disease. Several strains have now been produced that are non-psychoactive but extremely therapeutic.”
Sulak also said LaFrate’s finding that the THC:CBD ratio is similar across strains does not necessarily mean all the different strains will affect people the same way.
“In my practice, for example, I hear nine-tenths of patients swear that ‘Mother of Berry’ is an excellent strain for insomnia caused by pain,” he said. “There’s always that tenth patient that says she uses that strain during the day because it gives her energy and helps her focus.”
The absolute amount of THC in a particular strain doesn’t entirely determine how the plant will behave in the body, either.
“Compounds in the plant, called terpenes, that give the flowers their aroma, are responsible for modifying the effects of the cannabinoids,” he told Healthline. “So you can have two different strains, both with 10 percent THC and close to zero percent CBD, and one that smells like fruit might be sedating and a great treatment for insomnia, while the other that smells like pepper might be stimulating.”
This knowledge of how marijuana works and the effect of terpenes isn’t being put to use and studied, however, because the U.S. government only allows medical researchers to use pot grown at the University of Mississippi.
A recent story in Nature explained that the National Institute on Drug Abuse recently increased spending on marijuana research. Last year two new strains of pot were grown at the Mississippi lab: One with high levels of CBD and low level levels of THC and the other with balanced levels of both.
But LaFrate said the pot is still extremely weak and not at all representative of what is available either medically or on the street.
Contamination Run Amok
Mechanisms to ensure quality in marijuana distribution have not been put into place. Colorado does not require marijuana sellers to submit samples for contamination testing, but some voluntarily did so for LaFrate.
In addition to some buds that looked beautiful on the surface being covered with fungi, LaFrate also found residue from butane. Butane is used during the manufacture of butane hash oil, or BHO, for dabbing.
“Testing for contaminants like butane and microbial organisms was supposed to begin in October 2014,” LaFrate told Healthline. “All of the labs invested a lot of money and hired expensive scientists to do this work and we do not have revenue to offset those costs. Additionally, some big marijuana industry players are lobbying in the state legislature to remove requirements to add medical marijuana testing.”
Sulak agrees that contaminant testing is important, especially for patients who may have suppressed immune systems or be sensitive to mold toxins.
“The food and herbal supplement industries already have safe standards for contaminants, so I don’t think it’s going to be too hard to figure out an industry standard for cannabis,” he said. “This already has begun, in a monograph published by the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, but will likely be refined over the next couple of years.”