Cannabis users of all kinds judge the potency of their cannabis on THC level. While this seems like a logical thing to do, it’s actually not the best way to determine how high you’ll get.
High-THC strains won’t necessarily have stronger psychoactive effects than their weaker counterparts.
If this comes as a surprise, you’re not alone. The value of a simple number on a label receives too much credit from consumers and budtenders alike. It seems no matter how many times we think we understand cannabis, science manages to throw us off - in a good way, of course.
Like it or not, the way cannabis interacts with the mind and body makes a simple THC measurement inaccurate to tell how high you’ll get. Potency - like many things about cannabis - is complicated.
That being said, let’s see if we can take the mystery out of THC percentages and how they apply when using cannabis.
THC Percentage: Benchmark or Marketing Gimmick?
It’s easy to find the THC percentage on a weed label. Unfortunately, there’s no telling how the product will make you feel compared to low-THC marijuana.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the system isn’t useful, just not in a budget-friendly way.
Words like “strong,” “premium,” and “high-grade” are popular marketing terms for selling weed. But how do you define a “premium” strain? The simplest way is to base it on the THC concentration.
Using THC percentages as price benchmarks allows dispensaries to charge extra for high-THC cannabis flower and concentrates. They use the incorrect assumption that potency implies quality, tricking experienced weed users into spending extra on high-THC strains.
“When cannabis tests at more than 25 percent THC, dispensaries can justify charging $75 or more for a store-bought eighth—because there’s a very good chance people will pay it, confident that they’re taking home the best and most potent weed available. If the weed’s in the teens, well, it had better be cheap. The problem is that this is all wrong. All of it.”
As the age-old adage goes: “That’s how they get you.”
Why the Misunderstanding?
People have a huge habit of thinking “bigger is better.” Consequently, it’s natural to assume a higher THC level is more potent.
Normally, having more of a good thing is ideal, but this thought process is flawed when predicting the effects of your high.
You might also blame alcohol labels for this widespread misunderstanding of THC potency and effects. Alcohol percentage is an accurate indicator of how quickly and strongly intoxication sets in. More importantly, the effects of being drunk are pretty much universal (with exceptions like different behavioral changes).
The complexities of cannabis compounds - which we’ll cover shortly - don’t allow for such straightforward measurements.
Furthermore, people choose certain alcoholic beverages for different reasons, so the actual percentage can be more of a concern than a benefit.
What Do THC Levels Tell Us?
What (if any) useful information can we get from reading THC content? The information might not be a dead giveaway for how high you’ll get, but you can still glean a lot from it.
Percentage of Total Weight
If you’re looking for an accurate predictor of different effects, you’re barking up the wrong tree. But if you need to know the amount of THC related to total weight, then the THC percentage is as precise as it gets.
Ultimately, you can use that percentage and, with some quick math, figure out the THC levels per total weight of dried cannabis or concentrates.
For example, a plant with 10.0% THC translates to 100 milligrams per gram of dried flower.
The same rule applies for any number. Herb with 25.5% THC indicates 255 milligrams of THC for every gram. Just take the THC percentage, move the decimal one spot to the right and you now know the total THC dose for every gram of dry herb.
The same process applies to concentrates. For instance, a vape cartridge with 90.0% THC contains 900 milligrams per milliliter of oil. If the vape cartridge is 0.5 milliliters, then the total content in that cartridge is 450 milligrams.
Aside from number-crunching, THC labeling has another practical benefit. The system is able to easily deter inexperienced consumers from overspending or “greening out” from too much THC at once.
Amount of Product Needed
If the THC percentage measurement doesn’t predict your level of intoxication, then what is it for? Ultimately, it boils down to efficiency.
Common sense dictates that high-THC cannabis will deliver more THC with less plant material. You can use less high-potency flower to reach your desired dose compared to a weaker product.
People with more experience prefer high-THC cannabis, as they likely develop some level of tolerance over new or infrequent users.
Edibles and Extracts
Stronger flower is also handy for making edibles and extracts. Cooking with marijuana requires way more bud than the average smoke session. With that in mind, it’s smart to use a strain containing as much THC as possible, giving you more THC while using less plant matter.
If you plan to make your own cannabis butter to bake some weed brownies, cookies, or other edibles, choosing high-THC plants will save you some bud.
What Science Says About THC Levels
With cannabis research gaining momentum, we have a lot of catching up to do. Only quite recently, on June 10, 2020, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study analyzing the link between THC content and intoxication effects.
The findings went against everything the cannabis community has accepted as a common-sense fact.
The study analyzed the effects of THC on 121 participants. 55 subjects smoked flower with 16 to 24% THC, while 66 used concentrates ranging from 70 to 90% THC.
The researchers confirmed a massively higher amount of THC in the blood of concentrate users, yet the intoxication was barely different from those who consumed mid to high-THC flower.
What Affects Cannabis Potency?
For ages, THC percentage has been the default for figuring out how a cannabis strain will make you feel. But research spanning several decades helped us unlock some of the mystery behind the desired cognitive effects of cannabis in low and high-THC strains.
Cannabinoids, Terpenes, and the Entourage Effect
To better understand the mechanics behind getting high, we need to look at the “entourage effect.” In a nutshell, the entourage effect is a synergistic relationship between cannabinoids and other compounds.
THC may steal a lot of the spotlight, but it’s far from alone. So far, there are over 100 known cannabinoids in cannabis, but there could be more still hidden inside.
Different cannabinoids affect - directly or indirectly - the CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors in the body. THC effectively binds to both receptors, but some cannabinoids could change, reduce, or interfere with the uptake of THC.
Then we have terpenes - aromatic compounds found throughout the plant kingdom. Terpene and cannabinoid levels all impact the strain’s effects. Even if your chosen product’s label indicates high-potency THC levels, other compounds will determine if the strain really works as advertised.
Like cannabinoids, certain terpenes can mitigate or enhance the way THC interacts with our bodies. For instance, limonene - a terpene common in citrus fruits - can counteract the effects of THC if you get too high. In turn, a strain high in limonene might reign in the effects of THC.
Myrcene, for instance, is the most common terpene in cannabis, and has a very strong sedative effect. High-myrcene strains relax the mind and body, slowing down cognitive and motor skills in the process.
On the other hand, a strain rich in caryophyllene creates a more energizing high, leading to improved mood, energy, and focus.
Terpenes also have their own host of health benefits and effects unrelated to cannabinoids.
Some people also depend on the indica, sativa, hybrid system to predict a potential high, but this is even less accurate than relying on THC numbers. You can read more about that in our article here.
Simply put, pay attention to those terpene profiles if you want to dial in your cannabis effects or have interesting cannabis experiences.
Remember when we discussed THC percentage and weight? Well, like a McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder, that number implies total weight before cooking (or lighting). In other words, total THC on the label isn’t a reflection of how much you’ll consume.
How much of the total THC you get depends on its bioavailability. Bioavailability measures how much of a compound or chemical is available for the body after consumption.
Don’t worry, a dry herb vaporizer can really improve efficiency. A 2016 study tested several prominent vaporizer brands and models. Bioavailability measurements ranged from about 45% to as high as roughly 83%.
Using our 27% THC strain example, vaporizers could deliver between 121.5 to 224.1 milligrams per gram - vastly more than combusted flower.
Vaping is also much safer for the lungs than conventional smoking, as it doesn’t rely on burning plant matter. Instead, it heats up the cannabis until the different compounds boil into an inhalable vapor. This means no nasty tar and gunk to clean (or inhale).
Cannabinoids vaporize at different temperatures. The hotter you vape, the more cannabinoids are available, impacting the intensity of your high.
THC vaporizes at around 175oC (3470F), with THCV and CBC having the highest boiling points, at 220oC (4280F).
However, keep in mind that vaping higher than 205oC (4010F) destabilizes terpenes and creates benzene - a known carcinogen.
Vaporizers beat combusted herb in pretty much every department except pricing. If you want a top-of-the-line vape, be prepared to spend quite a bit. But starter vapes are available for as little as $50.00.
Keep in mind, not all vapes are created equal. Do your research to avoid buying a cheap knockoff. If you’re not sure where to start, check out the Reddit thread r/vaporents for user reviews and community recommendations.