Cannabis and Mental Health

Why THC potency matters

The percentage of THC in cannabis (marijuana) products, the ingredient that produces a “high”, has changed dramatically over time. Like alcohol which ranges from light beer with 2% alcohol content to grain alcohol with 95% alcohol content, THC products on the market have a similar range of strengths. High potency is defined as THC greater than 15%. Because the THC concentration in cannabis has risen so dramatically, the marijuana used recreationally today barely resembles the marijuana that many adults may have used when they were younger. Essentially, it is a different drug with different side effects. As a result, some people will be more likely to experience mental health when using such potent products.

How has the strength of marijuana changed over time?

Plant marijuana products

Before the 1990s THC potency[1] in cannabis was under 2%. By 1995 it had doubled in strength to 4%. Today, products can be up to 7 times more potent than they were in 1995 ranging from 15% to 28%. For example, one website features a product called Pancakes[2] that boasts 27% THC potency that offers “the taste of sweet berries with the batter-like smell of pancakes”.

Parents and other caregivers may notice the smell of “skunk” marijuana. It has a very distinctive odor just like the animal. The potency varies but is considered a stronger form of cannabis to smoke. Terms like “strong”, “premium” or “high-grade” refer to high THC levels rather than the quality of the products.

Extracts and concentrates

Extracts and concentrates are commonly used by young people in various types of vaping or dabbing devices, tinctures, topicals, and edibles. They can have upwards of 90% THC.[3] Many of these forms of cannabis can be more discreet to use. Additionally, they don’t produce a strong odor and have a higher concentration of THC than ever before.

Edibles like candy, baked goods, infused butter and cooking oils as well as drinks, can be particularly tricky as the effects aren’t readily noticeable. Because they are processed through the stomach it may take as long as 1 to 3 hours to feel the effects. As a result, people will often eat more of a product because they aren’t getting the desired effect quickly enough, only to feel “too high” a little later.

What is “710”?

You may have heard of “420”[4] which refers to April 20th as National Smoke-out Day. It has been celebrated as a day to smoke marijuana around the country. 420 can also be seen in teens’ text messages referring to getting together to smoke.

With the increase in the number of high potency products, “710”[5] has become increasingly popular. If you turn the number upside down, you can read the word “oil”, which refers to high potency products like dabs or the oils in vape cartridges. Similar to April 20th, July 10th is considered a day to enjoy these products. Competitions are popping up across the country like the 710 Degree Cup[6] which gives prizes for the best hash and extracts.

More potent THC in cannabis and mental health concerns

Using a cannabis product with a THC potency of over 15% is linked to a three-fold increase in the likelihood of experiencing mental health and other problems.  These can include:

People who use cannabis products daily with a THC potency greater than 15% are five times more likely to experience psychosis.[8]

What actions are states taking?

Many states are debating whether to put limits on THC[9] strength as a matter of public health and safety. The calls to restrict the amount of THC are driven by concerns over youth access to products that can impact their developing brains as well as rising calls to Poison Control and ER visits.

Some states have capped THC in products[10] including cookies, candy bars, and gummy bears by adopting single serving sizes and limits on the total amount of THC in a package. For example, Alaska and Oregon have limits of 5 milligrams of THC per serving and 50 milligrams per package. Colorado and Washington allow twice as much per serving and package.

Industry advocates oppose any caps on THC. They state that consumers who want stronger products will turn to the black market to get them. Both sides agree that more research is needed.

Tips for parents and other caregivers