Your Health Questions Answered

Is Marijuana Becoming Too Strong?

The amount of THC in marijuana is rising. We asked a doctor if that's a concern.

By Isaac Eger October 26, 2022

Image: Kari Perrin

Congratulations to Florida are in order! We will officially be the first state in the union to have a cannabis dispensary inside a convenience store. Circle K, the gas station and convenience store headquartered in Canada with 600 locations in Florida, just announced a partnership with Green Thumb Industries, a cannabis manufacturer and distributor. The two companies plan to open 10 Rise Express dispensaries inside different Circle K shops around the state.

Since Florida legalized medical marijuana in 2018, dispensaries have flourished. The number of medical marijuana patients grew from under 300,000 to over 700,000 in just two years. But some doctors are concerned with the increasing potency of medical marijuana. I asked Sarasota psychiatrist and sleep doctor Dr. Matthew Edlund if today’s weed is too strong. Edlund says it’s a complicated situation, but from a public health perspective, for many people, it is too strong.

“There are clearly positive medical uses for marijuana,” Edlund says. “For preventing seizures, marijuana does OK. It has an anti-inflammatory effect. It is quite useful for people who can’t get an appetite. It’s also helpful for people with pain and muscle spasms.”

But, according Dr. Edlund, a lot of clinicians believe it's being over-prescribed. “The public has been taught by the companies that marijuana is good for depression and anxiety and so they think it’s helpful,” Edlund says. “But for a large majority of the people I see, it does not help.” Edlund says that from both a clinical epidemiology and public health standpoint, the increased strength and prescription of medical marijuana has contributed to increases in addiction and psychoses.

The main psychoactive compound found in cannabis is delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. While the amount of THC in cannabis varies, the overall amount of the compound has increased significantly over the years. Cannabis breeders have pushed the plant’s genetics to the limit and created hyper-potent strains. Both legal and illicit samples of cannabis have gone up considerably. Studies have shown an increase from less than 2 percent THC prior to the 1990s all the way up to nearly 30 percent today.

I took a gander through the inventory of Green Thumb's dispensary. I found that the lowest THC concentration in cannabis flower was the “Apple Cobbler” at 9.03 percent, with the highest, “Animal Face - Relax,” topping off at 30.23 percent. Most of the product hovered between 18 and 23 percent.

“We are seeing more people being admitted to ERs related to high dosage of marijuana,” Edlund says. Hospitalizations from cannabis-induced psychosis are on the rise.

Other studies confirm Edlund’s concerns. According to a 2020 study, high-potency cannabis users are far more likely to develop “generalized anxiety disorder” than those who smoke less THC-concentrated strains. Another study found that use of THC with concentrations higher than 15 percent “resulted in a three times increased risk of psychosis, and if the use was daily there was a five times increased risk.”

There is other evidence that shows that 90 percent of cannabis products sold in medical dispensaries contain levels of THC two to three times higher than what doctors recommend.

“Businesses want repeat customers,” Edlund says. “The higher the dose, the more people tend to want it. Businesses want repeat customers, and cannabis is a big, and more importantly, growing business. They'll make perhaps $11 billion this year. Estimates for 2030 go as high as $30 to $72 billion.  If people feel ‘better’ with higher doses, they will want more of a growing product.”

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