If you’re a long-time stoner — and I’m talking decades — you may have noticed the potency of your weed skyrocket since you started smoking. Over the last decade, the levels of the psychoactive substance THC has allegedly tripled in variations of weed across the U.S., rising from just four percent in 1994 to between 12 and 25 percent today. Last week, the New York Times even reported that some cannabis products like edibles, as well as oils and waxes, can contain more than 95 percent THC.
While this might seem like a good thing — more bang for your buck, right? — experts are beginning to explore the possibility that stronger weed could actually be more addictive.
But before you correctly point out that weed isn’t “addictive” in the traditional sense, let me explain. Although it’s not generally considered to be physiologically addictive, regular weed users can become situationally and psychologically dependent on it, as well as experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop smoking.
Researchers believe these side effects have been heightened over the last few decades, as the levels of THC in weed have increased. “Higher potency drugs are more reinforcing,” explains Adam Winstock, founder and CEO of Global Drug Survey, the world’s largest online survey of global drug use. “That is, they tickle your reward pathway more strongly (think: spirits versus beer). Your body has to adapt more to stronger weed so you can carry on functioning, and so you build up tolerance more quickly. Those brain changes are okay as long as there’s weed, but when you stop, you’re more likely to get withdrawal — e.g., you can’t sleep, you’re moody and irritable and you have weird dreams.”
Winstock also refers me to a handful of studies into high-potency cannabis and its association with the severity of dependence. One from 2015 found that frequent use of THC-heavy weed “predicted a greater severity of dependence,” and that younger users were particularly susceptible. Furthermore, the study added, “Use of low-potency cannabis was not associated with dependence,” and was “clearly distinct” from potent weed, which had “marked effects on memory and paranoia” but worryingly also “produced the best high, was preferred and most available.”
Some believe that higher-potency weed is more readily available since cannabis was legalized across several U.S. states, thanks to manufacturers fighting to dominate the market. In response to this, as reported by Politico, lawmakers across the country are allegedly considering introducing caps on THC levels. The publication notes that weed companies are pushing back against such a move, claiming that “dodgy science and irrational fears are driving the debate,” and that caps will only serve to push consumers back into illegal markets.
Still, there’s an undeniable connection between highly concentrated THC and weed dependency. “About 10 percent of people who use weed become dependent,” says Winstock. “This is higher among those who start young, mix with tobacco and have [underlying] mental health problems. It’s also higher with high-potency weed and concentrates, but lower with low-potency weed that has some CBD in it.” CBD — a non-psychoactive chemical substance found in cannabis — is said to provide relief for anxiety, depression and PTSD, but has allegedly been on the decline in weed over the last two decades. Experts believe lower levels of CBD can also make weed more “addictive.”
So, what exactly is a high level of THC? According to Leafwell, 15 percent THC is considered high, while more than 25 percent would be classified as very high — in fact, one of the highest strains of weed is Ghost OG Kush, which contains 29 percent THC. Cannabis concentrates can contain much more, though, which you should bear in mind when vaping or eating edibles.
Nevertheless, everyone’s tolerance and preferences are different — what might be “too much” THC for one person may be the perfect level for another. What’s more, your possible side effects and risk of dependency also depends on how frequently you’re smoking, as well as on other factors like the aforementioned mental-health issues. For those who are concerned about becoming dependent on weed, Winstock says you can “see how much of a risk your use of weed might cause” and get tips on cutting down or stopping via Safer Use Limits, a site that offers guidelines for safer drug use.
In the meantime, stay safe — and maybe lay off that Ghost OG Kush.