Does a Higher THC Level Mean a Higher High?

Does smoking a potent THC cannabis strain result in getting more high? Should you be buying a high-THC strain? University of Colorado Boulder tested it out.

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

THC is one of the many compounds found in cannabis. It is the psychoactive part, too – the bit that 'gets you high' – so, more THC means more high, right? Turns out it isn't that simple.

The University of Colorado Boulder has just completed a study of 121 regular cannabis users to understand the relationship between THC levels and impairment. This is the first study in a cannabis-legal state focused on impairment levels of users.

What did the study find?

Although more potent THC strains resulted in higher blood concentration levels, it didn't translate to a more severe impairment – smoking a more potent strain didn't get the users more high.

"Surprisingly, we found that potency did not track with intoxication levels," lead author Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science. "While we saw striking differences in blood levels between the two groups, they were similarly impaired."

Due to legal restrictions, the team weren't able to bring legally purchased cannabis to their lab, so they created two 'Cannavans' and brought the lab to the users.

Surprisingly, we found that potency did not track with intoxication levels. While we saw striking differences in blood levels between the two groups, they were similarly impaired.Cinnamon Bidwell, assistant professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science

Out of the 121 regular cannabis users in the study, half generally used cannabis concentrates including oils and waxes, and the other half typically used cannabis flower. Concentrate users were given products with either 70% or 90% THC, and flower users were assigned products with either 16% or 24% THC. Each user was tested once.

On test day, the subjects were tested before, directly after and one hour after they used. At each of these three time points, blood was taken, mood and intoxication was measured and cognitive function and balance was assessed.

The concentrate users had more than double the blood THC concentration than flower users immediately after use, but self-reports from the subjects about how 'high' they felt were remarkably similar. In addition to their self-reports, the more scientific measures of balance and cognitive impairment were also very similar in both groups.

Interestingly, all users' balance was about 11% worse immediately after consuming cannabis and their memory was compromised. These impairments, however, faded after an hour in the third test.

How can that be right?

It seems counterintuitive that higher blood concentration levels don't correlate with higher intoxication and impairment levels, but it just means we're not that close to fully understanding how cannabis affects our body systems.

"People in the high concentration group were much less compromised than we thought they were going to be," said co-author Kent Hutchison, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder who also studies alcohol addiction. "If we gave people that high a concentration of alcohol it would have been a different story."

There are a few theories surrounding the outcomes of this study. For one, regular users of concentrates are likely to develop a tolerance over sustained use, as happens with many drugs. There may also be genetic or biological factors at play which mean some people metabolise THC more quickly. It could also be a result of a flooding of the endocannabinoid system, meaning after the receptors are filled, additional cannabinoids have little effect.

"Cannabinoid receptors may become saturated with THC at higher levels, beyond which there is a diminishing effect of additional THC," they write.

The study also carries a caution that these results are applicable to experienced cannabis users, and should not be applied to inexperienced users. In particular, inexperienced folk should be wary of concentrates.

What does this mean for legal cannabis use?

These results highlight a few important things that need to be addressed in the legal cannabis world. Firstly, testing for THC impairment at roadside and in workplaces should be reconsidered, and secondly, pricing and means of purchasing in dispensaries should be reviewed.

Current THC roadside tests use saliva and can detect THC levels up to 24 hours after using cannabis, long after the impairment has faded. This study gives unequivocal data to support an overhaul of cannabis testing. This is particularly pertinent for roadside testing, but applies to workplace testing, too. However, don't use this study as an excuse to wake and bake before work!

Pricing of cannabis is often directly related to THC levels, based on the (now disproven) assumption that a higher THC potency means a higher high. Instead of purchasing cannabis with the highest THC levels, people should be looking for an overall profile for a more satisfying smoke.

THC isn't the be-all and end-all of cannabis due to the entourage effect. Each of the cannabinoids play their part in creating an enjoyable experience, and the delicate balance of these compounds is what creates the various strains.

Neil Dellacava, the co-founder of Gold Seal, knows what the market is like. "It's a shame, I find stuff that's absolutely amazing that I have to throw in the trash because it tests at 18 or 19 percent." Even strains with "an amazing terpene profile, the best smoke I've ever had" end up in the trash.

Unfortunately, current dispensaries don't allow customers to smell the product before purchasing, which is the best way to tell if it's a good strain to smoke.

"People just don't understand," Dellacava says, "When people go shopping, they look for two things: they're looking for price, and they're looking for THC percentage."

What's next?

This study is just the tip of the iceberg for legal cannabis use. It shows that more study is needed to fully understand how cannabis and THC impair users so informed decisions can be made regarding everyday activities.

In addition, the researchers aim to find out what long-term health risks, if any, are linked with regular and sustained cannabis concentrate use.

"Does long-term, concentrated exposure mess with your cannabinoid receptors in a way that could have long-term repercussions? Does it make it harder to quit when you want to?" said Hutchison. "We just don't know yet."

There's a long way to go, but for now, don't buy weed because of its high THC levels – the full story is far more interesting than that.

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Laura Desmond
Laura Desmond

Laura Desmond is an Adelaide-based writer with a keen interest in the arts, gender politics and social change. She is currently working to obtain a Master in Writing through Swinburne University.

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