From Ditch Weed to Dank: How Has THC Potency Changed?
As medical and recreational cannabis have steadily become more widely legalized across the United States in recent years, there’s been a significant shift in the potency of products available on the market. The cannabis of today is not the ditch weed that people passed around in joints during the ’60s. Today’s weed is a lot stronger than the low-quality buds that were smoked during the Summer of Love.
That cannabis being sold on dispensary shelves ? It’s not quite the same as the ditch weed from back in your grandma’s day.
How exactly has potency changed over the years? And how has that impacted the scientific approach to the plant, such as the way that cannabis is bred, cultivated and distributed?
Cannabis Potency Then and Now
The THC -heavy cannabis of today is a far cry from the more mellow ditch weed of the ’60s and ’70s. But just how far does that cry go? One 2016 study published in Biological Psychiatry analyzed cannabis samples seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and found that THC concentration tripled from about 4 percent in 1995 to about 12 percent in 2014. When you consider that the THC in cannabis is even more concentrated today, the stark contrast in potency is even more pronounced.
“Potency in the 1960s and 1970s tended to be in the 7-10 percent THC range. Today we see potency values over 30 percent, so you could say it is 3 to 4 times stronger,” said Josh Crossney, founder and CEO of the Cannabis Science Conference . “The advent of the use of hydroponics in the 1980s gave rise to noticeably higher potency.”
And that’s just flower . Thanks to new cultivation and extraction methods, the cannabis market is full of potent products that simply didn’t exist in the past.
“There are also many new extraction forms, including oils, waxes , and tinctures , that are available to consumers,” Crossney said. “We are also seeing advanced breeding and cultivation techniques , combined with a final product that is much richer in cannabis flower. Kief is a product that contains the resin ous trichomes of cannabis and is extremely high in THC.”
These newly developed products are significantly stronger than today’s flower, let alone the lackluster ditch weed from earlier decades.
Why Cannabis Potency is on the Rise
There’s no arguing that cannabis potency has been on the rise. But why? Advancements in the science of cannabis cultivation have definitely played a role.
“Plant breeders have created new genetic lines with high THC, while growers are using increasingly advanced methods to maximize THC production in the plant, for example using high light , hydroponics, and specialized growth media,” said Itzhak Kurek, CEO and co-founder of Cannformatics, a Northern California biotech company researching improvements to medical cannabis.
Consumer demand has also led to increased potency. Many people want cannabis that will get them high — and the higher the amount of THC, the more the consumer is willing to pay . This increase in THC potency has come at the expense of other compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) .
“We actually know how to increase THC levels by manipulating light intensity, so it was fairly straightforward to increase THC,” Kurek explained. “When the plant uses its energy to make more THC, it makes less of other molecules, which explains why CBD levels in cannabis fell by nearly half, with CBD alternatively supplied by hemp .”
How Increased Potency is Changing the Cannabis Industry
The increase in cannabis potency hasn’t taken root without certain challenges. The cannabis industry has been forced to evolve in order to protect the safety of the consumer.
As cannabis products have become more potent, it’s become even more critical that products are accurately tested and labeled to avoid overconsumption.
“This increase in potency has made the need for accurate labeling even more important,” Crossney said. “Accurate labeling requires improved accuracy in sampling and quality control testing.”
At the end of the day, this shift towards quality control (QC) — which has been driven in large part by weed’s increased potency — is a major win for cannabis consumers.
“Improved QC testing is also helping to make cannabis safer, not only by more accurately labeling cannabinoid levels, but also by ensuring that harmful contaminants such as pesticides, residual solvents , heavy metals, mycotoxins , aflatoxins, [or] foreign matter. are not present,” Crossney explained.
It’s Not Just the Potency of Weed That’s Changing
Not only is the potency of cannabis changing, but so is the way that people generally talk and think about the plant.
“Cannabis has been steadily increasing in public acceptance. We are moving away from the misinformation and racist stereotypes that were carefully crafted by greedy families hell bent on protecting their petroleum and plastic based industries,” Crossney said.
While the growing social acceptance of cannabis is evident by increasing public support for medical and recreational legalization, what’s also promising is the fact that this acceptance is also spreading throughout the scientific community . As the perception of cannabis has evolved, there’s also been a heightened interest to research the potential of the cannabis plant as a whole.
Photo by Gina Coleman/WM News
Most conversations on the subject of cannabis potency have been focused on THC, but researchers are starting to explore the potential other cannabinoids , terpenes , and other compounds within the cannabis plant and how they work together to maximize the plant’s therapeutic benefits, also known as the entourage effect . As research expands, there could soon be a new wave of cannabis products that utilize potency in more therapeutic ways, not just with THC.
“Research on the beneficial medicinal effects of the many other cannabinoids and other molecules is relatively new. Right now, we don’t know the functions of these molecules in the plant, which is a step toward figuring out how to increase their content by manipulating environmental conditions,” Kurek said.
Both cannabis potency and scientific interest in the plant has steadily increased over the years. What’s next as far as cannabis research into potency is concerned?
“The next era of cannabis science will help us better understand how cannabinoids work with other natural products, including terpenes,” Crossney said. “As the scientific community gains deeper insights into the potential of the cannabis plant, that could mean new treatments and therapies are on the horizon.”
From Ditch Weed to Dank: How Has THC Potency Changed? As medical and recreational cannabis have steadily become more widely legalized across the United States in recent years, there’s been a
Constable: ‘Ditch weed’ still part of marijuana’s new frontier in Illinois
Illinois farmers grew industrial hemp during World War II to supply our military with ropes and parachute cords. Remnants of those crops still grow wild throughout the state, but don’t have the psychoactive properties of recreational marijuana. Associated Press
In 2002, agents of the Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group carried stacks of marijuana plants cut from a field near Wadsworth. Grown during World War II, industrial hemp still grows wild. Courtesy of Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group
Law enforcement agents in Illinois destroyed this marijuana grown illegally near Wadsworth in 2002. Industrial hemp, remnants from a time when farmers grew it for the fiber, still grows wild in Illinois, but doesn’t provide the high of recreational marijuana. Courtesy of Lake County Metropolitan Enforcement Group
In the summer of 1970, when marijuana was giving Pabst Blue Ribbon a run as the drug of choice among rural teenagers, I was a sixth-grader chopping it down.
The Chicago Tribune wrote about the law enforcement billboard a few miles from our family farm outside Goodland, Indiana, that warned, “If marijuana is your bag, don’t fill it in Newton County.”
Young people, or “hippies” as they often were called then, would drive from Chicago and the suburbs to fill garbage bags with what we called “ditch weed.” That Cannabis sativa L (the L is in honor of 18th-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus) is a subspecies of the Cannabis sativa “pot” plant that young people smoked from their “bongs” and “joints” as a way to get high.
I didn’t know anything about smoking the stuff, but I did know that ditch weed was sturdy enough to require several whacks with the scythe before it toppled. The plant could grow as tall as the basketball hoops on our farm and was tougher than the baling twine wrapped around hay harvested from the back 40.
That tough quality is why my grandfather, in a patriotic gesture, planted industrial hemp during World War II as part of the “Hemp for Victory” initiative to provide our troops with sturdy material for ropes and parachute cords.
That same industrial hemp is making a legal comeback in Illinois, according to Jeff Cox, chief of the bureau of medicinal plants for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which has granted industrial hemp licenses to 556 growers and 118 processors this year, including some in the suburbs. It costs $100 to apply, and accepted growers can buy a license ranging from $375 for a year to $1,000 for three years.
“Most of the farmers are just testing the water,” says Cox, who adds the typical hemp field occupies only half an acre, and permits start at just half that. Indoor growing locations can be as small as 500 square feet. People are motivated to grow industrial hemp in large part because the plant produces cannabidiol, or CBD, the ingredient found in some prescribed medications and a variety of over-the-counter products that legally can’t make health claims but are hailed by some as the cure for whatever ails us.
Hemp industry leaders are hoping the plant also will find a market to make paper, textiles, clothing, biodegradable plastics, paint, insulation, biofuel, food, flooring and animal feed.
“Hemp was grown throughout the Midwest by the hemp industries for the war. The plants we see in ditches are the remnants,” says Win Phippin, a Western Illinois University professor of plant breeding and genetics. Phippin has a permit from the Illinois Department of Agriculture to legally harvest that plant, which had been classified as a “noxious weed.”
Readers who are high right now might still be marveling about how cool it is to say Win Phippin out loud, but the rest of you should know that Phippin is harvesting wild hemp for a research project. He’s testing ditch weed and comparing its level of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, to the levels found in marijuana plants cultivated for the purpose of getting you high. His research is expected to show the wild stuff has way less THC.
Phippin will take cuttings and replant them at his lab in Macomb, where he can evaluate them for THC levels. Industrial hemp, which was made legal to grow under the 2018 Farm Bill, generally has 0.3% or less of THC.
For comparison, the new marijuana that will be legal in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020, includes a 10% tax on cannabis products with a THC level at or below 35%, a 20% tax on all cannabis-infused products, and a 25% tax on cannabis with a THC level above 35%.
While great care is taken to cultivate the recreational marijuana coming next year, ditch weed is hard to kill. Seventy-five years after people last grew it intentionally, it still pops up on its own. Native to Asia, the plant apparently has been around as long, if not longer, than people, according to a 1980 book titled “Marihuana: The First 12,000 Years.” It’s been in the United States since before we were the United States. The word “canvas,” the covering of choice for wagon trains, comes from the Arabic word for hemp.
Our federal government didn’t impose restrictions on its use until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which set the tone for Congress in 1970 declaring marijuana as a Schedule I substance, illegal and without medical value, putting it in the same category as heroin and lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
The Illinois Department of Agriculture says growers of industrial hemp must be licensed by the state and be subject to random testing to check THC levels. Anything above 0.7% THC is declared “wacky tobacky” and must be destroyed.
The biggest concern for people smoking ditch weed today might not be the THC level but the ingesting of chemicals used in whatever toxic weed killers the plant sucked up.
Most sixth-graders with scythes have been replaced by Roundup.
Remnants from a time when Illinois farmers grew hemp during World War II, "ditch weed" still grows wild. But only one person in the state is testing it to see how it stacks up against marijuana.