What is Potency and Does it Help Cannabis Patients?

Jessica McKeil December 8, 2020 0 comments

Potency doesn’t necessarily predict how “high” the consumer feels, or even how many cannabinoids are present. So, what is potency?

It’s a question budtenders have heard many times before, “What’s the strain with the highest THC? I’m looking for high potency.” But, why are recreational and medical consumers so obsessed with cannabis potency? As the scientific literature keeps pointing out, potency doesn’t predict medicinal value, and it also doesn’t predict recreational intensity. What is potency worth, if it’s neither of these benefits? Certainly, the products with the highest tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels, from edibles to inhalables, are typically the most expensive. Based on years of experience, producers and retailers seem to know that customers are willing to pay an inflated price for inflated THC levels.

Unfortunately, the value placed on these high THC products is hard to quantify. Because although consumers demand big THC numbers, the science tells us the medicinal value lays elsewhere.

What is Potency?

Across the board, when producers, consumers, and scientists talk about potency, it has to do with THC levels. Tetrahydrocannabinol has always been the most famous cannabinoid found in cannabis. It is a CB-1 receptor agonist, and therefore the only known cannabinoid which produces an intoxicating effect.

The question, “What is potency?” remains about the THC level. Although there are over a hundred other cannabinoids, including the popular and pervasive cannabidiol (CBD), THC has always captured medicinal and recreational consumers’ hearts. It’s relaxing, euphoric, and uplifting. Therapeutically, it’s powerful for pain relief, headaches, inflammation, and more.

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Tetrahydrocannabinol levels started around two percent, back in the 1960s when the modern cannabis awakening began. Yet, by the 1990s, THC levels had only hit 4.47 percent THC. As per one assessment published in 1998, “The average concentration of Δ9-THC in all cannabis samples showed a gradual rise from 3% in 1991 to 4.47% in 1997.”[1]Elsohly, M. A., Ross, S. A., Mehmedic, Z., Arafat, R., Yi, B., & Banahan, B. F. (2000). Potency Trends of Δ9-THC and Other Cannabinoids in Confiscated Marijuana from 1980 to 1997. Journal of … Continue reading

By today’s standards, that is nothing! Increasingly, THC levels have risen to well over twenty percent for flower, with some claiming over thirty percent. Not to mention the concentrates, like distillates, which often hit up to ninety-nine percent THC.

what is potency represented by a large pile of cannabis on scale

The Price of Potency – Why THC Predicts Prices

For patients who shop for either medicinal or recreational cannabis, one point is clear: the more THC, the pricer the product. Yet, there is not much information comparing cannabis prices with THC levels, yet some limited research is telling.

In Canada, the federal government released statistics in a report entitled, “The Price of Cannabis in Canada.” Published before the recreational market launched, this report looked at medical cannabis and black market prices over four years.

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When it came to analyzing medical cannabis prices by THC and CBD content, the researchers discovered, “there appears to be some relationship between price of medical cannabis and THC content. By comparison, there is no such relationship between price and CBD concentration.”

If THC potency predicts prices, then what added benefits can patients expect from extra THC?

Why THC Doesn’t Predict the Intensity of the High

Recreational consumers seem to be chasing a stronger and stronger product, but new research tells us it doesn’t increase the end experience. In June of 2020, researchers published a study on the “Association of Naturalistic Administration of Cannabis Flower and Concentrates With Intoxication and Impairment.”[2]Bidwell LC, Ellingson JM, Karoly HC, et al. Association of Naturalistic Administration of Cannabis Flower and Concentrates With Intoxication and Impairment. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online June 10, … Continue reading

By comparing plasma levels of THC and self-reported effects of THC between groups taking various cannabis products, the authors remarked on striking results. In the group of participants consuming high potency concentrates, there blood THC levels were through the roof compared to those smoking just flower (lower potency) products.

But their intoxication? As the researchers stated, “Despite differences in THC exposure, flower and concentrate users showed similar neurobehavioral patterns after acute cannabis use. The domains of verbal memory and proprioception-focused postural stability for both groups were associated with THC.” To sum up their conclusion: higher THC levels don’t create a more intense intoxication.

Why Extra THC Doesn’t Increase Medicinal Benefit

What is potency if it’s not for intoxication? Could it be for medicinal benefit? Unlikely. By now, research has demonstrated that THC potency isn’t the only characteristic required for effective medical cannabis treatment.

For starters, the Entourage Effect explains why different combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes work together to create a unique and effective therapeutic benefit.

As Ethan Russo explained in his paper “Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects,” this synergistic relationship helps build a stronger, more holistic medicine. As he discovered, “This type of synergism may play a role in the widely held (but not experimentally based) view that in some cases plants are better drugs than the natural products isolated from them.” According to this theory, cannabis is more powerful with a complex cannabinoid and terpene make up. If there is only a focus on THC, the medicinal benefits may be lesser [3]Russo E. B. (2011). Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British journal of pharmacology, 163(7), 1344–1364. … Continue reading.

THC is Biphasic – What Does That Mean?

A second reason why high levels of THC don’t predict medicinal impact is something called the biphasic effect (a dose-dependent bell curve). A little dose of THC will provide few therapeutic benefits. Alternatively, a high dose may cause adverse effects. But, a mid-size dose delivers ideal value. As one example, five milligrams of THC might not effectively reduce chronic pain, and forty milligrams of THC might actually increase the pain. But, somewhere in the middle (and it’s different for every patient) sits the perfect dose, which will provide medicinal relief without adverse reaction.

This is an effect reported by most physicians familiar with medical cannabis. In one real-life example, Dr. Sulak reported on Healer, “Over time, I began to notice that most patients using small amounts of cannabis were getting better and more sustainable results than their high-dosage counterparts with similar conditions.”

He has since started helping his patients reduce their THC dose to improve the benefits. As he tells it, “This reduction not only improves benefits and reduces side effects – it saves patients a lot of money, and potentially makes more cannabis available for those with limited access.”

what is potency represented by woman holding out cannabis leaf to cover her faice and the sun behind her

THC Potency is Not a Predictor of Medical Quality

The current demand for products with higher and higher THC levels is immense. Therefore, it will likely take some time before patients are convinced about the benefits of a broader cannabinoid profile. Until then, producers will still slap a big price tag on these products, because someone will undoubtedly pay it.

But what should patients look for if they do want better quality highs and improved medicinal benefits? Start by looking for strains with THC levels around ten to fifteen percent, combined with an aromatic terpene profile. These will not only be cheaper, but they will also create a unique and therapeutically valuable experience.


Author avatar

Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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