The public perception of marijuana use has evolved significantly in the 21st century. A comprehensive 2017 Marist poll revealed that an estimated 54 million US citizens smoke pot, the majority of which claim to use it regularly. At present, 37 states have legalized marijuana for medical use and 19 states have legalized it recreationally. As more and more states make recreational marijuana legal, it’s popularity for other than medical purposes will, likely, proliferate even further. As such, you should know this: It ain’t the same weed your grandparents smoked.
The compound in marijuana that gets you “high” is called delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). An analysis of pot seized by DEA agents over the years found that the THC potency was about 4% in 1995. By 2017, studies were recording potency up to 17.1%. By 2019, almost 20%. That’s an increase of several hundred percent in a little less than 25 years. Other cannabis products, like “hash,” can reach levels of 90%.
How did marijuana become so potent? The 60’s hippie mantra regarding LSD was “better living through chemistry.” With today’s cannabis, it isn’t chemical manipulation; it’s agriculture. One reason weed is getting stronger is the concentration on harvesting something called “sinsemilla,” Spanish for “without seeds.” The highest level of THC is contained in the tops of female plants that have not been fertilized. Harvesters look for these and eliminate parts of the plant that contain lower levels of THC.
Manipulating strains of marijuana have also increased their potency. The highest THC levels are favored by growers. Naturally-occurring varieties of the 1960s were known as “landrace” strains; they were named after their place of origin (for example, “Panama Red”). These have been replaced by more potent hybrid crosses, and new versions are developed regularly.
All this has led to grass on steroids. The joints grandpa smoked in the 60s and 70s probably wouldn’t even get a regular marijuana user high today. Weed doesn’t even look the same these days. Back in the 70s, choice buds of the plant were thinner and looked a leafy, stemmy, dark green or brown. Now, the top strains have dense, fat buds with a shiny, sticky, frosty-looking material loaded with THC.
So why concern yourself with “progress”? If red-eyed scientists have built a better mousetrap, let the world come to their door. Well, it isn’t that simple: The higher THC grass strains may be causing health issues. You might benefit from knowing what’s happening to some people who smoke them.
THC seems to have paradoxical effects depending on the dose used. At low levels, the THC in marijuana can relieve nausea and is used for that purpose in chemotherapy patients. At very high levels, however, chronic users may develop something called “cannabinoid hyperemesis syndome,” where they wind up needing medical attention for vomiting and abdominal pain. It’s hard to treat and, in very rare cases, it can become life-threatening.
The vascular system is not immune. Low levels of weed increases blood flow through vessels, but high content seems to cause a decrease (called “vasoconstriction”) that may be harmful to those with circulatory issues.
Marijuana has also been touted as pain relief. Studies, indeed, show that some forms of pain from nerve damage may improve, but use of very high THC content pot may actually make it worse.
Perhaps the largest concern regarding the highly potent THC levels in today’s marijuana is the possibly of addiction. Indeed, there is tolerance that occurs with regular use; that is, you need more as time goes on to achieve the same effect. Dependence on pot bordering on addiction is a real thing: withdrawal symptoms may include irritability, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and hot flashes.
Lower levels of THC have been shown to help relieve anxiety, but the higher concentrations can increase it and lead to panic attacks. In rare cases, people develop symptoms of memory loss and even paranoia. Worse than that, patients have been reported in full-blown psychosis. Large reviews by organizations like the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), have correlated high-potency marijuana use with development of schizophrenia or other psychoses. In a study of drafted 45,570 Swedish men, men who had tried cannabis by age 18 were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia over the next 15 years compared with non-users.
The NASEM also found a “moderate statistical association” between cannabis use and an increased risk for the development of depressive disorders, as well. In Colorado, one of the first states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, the most common drug found in completed suicide attempts among 10-18-year-olds was marijuana, more than three times as often as alcohol.
A word about Cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is another product that has become popular to treat myriad symptoms, including pain, although hard data is still lacking for some uses. It’s a cannabis product, but is not supposed to have THC. Generations of manipulating hemp to increase its THC content, however, have made it difficult to produce reliably THC-free CBD. Since standards for production have not been established, you might be consuming more than just cannabidiol.
With marijuana becoming widely legalized, the genie has been let out of the bottle. Can it be put back in? Doubtful. From a survival standpoint, marijuana might be a useful barter item and have some medicinal benefits, but they go along with its risks. Users should be aware of the consequences of regular use of today’s stronger, but not better (for your health), THC products.
Joe Alton MD
(This article of Dr. Alton’s was originally published at American Thinker.)
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