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This Ain’t Your Parents’ Marijuana

The debate over the efficacy and safety of marijuana has raged for decades. On one side is the quintessential, lovable “pothead” that could never hurt a fly. He is totally chill and acts like a kid while eating strange snacks late at night. On the other hand, we have those with serious concerns about marijuana use and legitimate hesitations about negative effects on our bodies and questions about whether it is a gateway drug to harder substances of abuse.

The truth is probably somewhere in between…or it used to be anyway.

Today, marijuana is more widely available than ever before. More importantly it is legal to use recreationally in some states and legal for medicinal use in many others. This has prompted a major scale-up of marijuana production and associated paraphernalia.

One of the challenges we have, as clinicians treating those with substance abuse disorders, is convincing both our clients and their loved ones and family members that marijuana, especially the “weed” we find today can by far more harmful then the stuff our parents smoked back in the day. Let’s dive in:

First, the amount of THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana, being consumed is far greater than in the past. Back in the day, a user would have to roll their own marijuana cigarette, smoke it like a traditional cigarette and it was often passed around between many people. In other words, the amount of THC entering the system was probably pretty low for most recreational users. Indeed, the marijuana of the 1960s, 70s and 80s contained less than 2% overall THC content1.

Today, new formulations such as hash oil and wax as well as delivery systems such as dab pens and vapes, have upped THC levels entering the body by orders of magnitude. In other words, the THC is far more concentrated than ever before. As an example, a study of the most popular strains of marijuana found in Colorado dispensaries had up to 20% THC content. Oils, dabs and edibles can increase concentrations of THC upwards of 95%. Over the course of a few minutes, a user today could ingest many times more than smoking a old-school “joint” every day for a week.

One of the biggest problems of this development is that we still have not made the distinction between low level THC and high-level THC products. In fact, regulators are woefully behind in creating the rules and regulations necessary to make marijuana use as safe as possible. Much like alcohol potency is heavily regulated, so too should marijuana.

So, what are the consequences?

First, the psychoactive THC being ingested in such high concentration can multiply its effects on the body. Those prone to psychosis may be triggered by one or more of these psychoactive events. Further, due to the high doses of THC, the traditional mild high that marijuana use offer is now far more concentrated and there are reports that some users are even losing bodily function temporarily.

THC is also fat-soluble meaning that the compound ends up being stored in fat cells. Unlike water soluble compounds, THC can remain in the body for weeks after its use. With the high concentration now being consumed, users can fail a drug test weeks or even months after their last use. This could lead to a DUI or disciplinary action at a workplace, even arrest in a foreign country that has a zero-tolerance drug policy.

And for those who preach the medicinal value of marijuana, they’ll often referring to older formulations with higher levels of CBD. Unfortunately, with new strains of high potency THC marijuana, the protective benefits of marijuana are significantly reduced. The same strain of marijuana in Colorado dispensaries referenced above contains only .2% CBD at best1. The bottom line? The psychoactive properties of the drugs are being concentrated and increased while the protective and medicinal properties of the drugs are steadily being diluted.

The Bottom Line

Most importantly, we really do not understand the long-term effect on the brain and body of such high doses of THC. We know that traditionally 9% of marijuana users become addicted and we’ve known that brain development can be altered if use begins at a younger age. Compromised educational outcomes, lower IQ and diminished life achievement have all been attributed too early and heavy marijuana use. But again, this is not your parents weed – today’s effects may be even more debilitation.

As clinicians, what we do? Well, first, it is important for us to educate clients and their families. Yes, it may be legal in their state (or at least others nearby), but there’s just too much we don’t know about modern marijuana formulations, new delivery devices and long-term effects for it to be considered anywhere near safe. Further, because of the significant and life altering consequences that high-dose usage may cause both developmentally, at work and legally, those suffering from mental illnesses or substance abuse issues should stay well away.

1Stuyt E. The Problem with the Current High Potency THC Marijuana from the Perspective of an Addiction Psychiatrist. Mo Med. 2018;115(6):482-486.