- Levels of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, have been steadily climbing, making it a more dangerous drug.
- High-potency marijuana is associated with a greater chance of addiction.
- Marijuana is particularly harmful to younger users who may be increasingly vulnerable to psychiatric illnesses in adulthood.
- High-potency cannabis has also been associated with problems with attention, memory, problem-solving, and motivation.
Marijuana has become a new drug, more popular, more likely to be addictive, and a whole lot more dangerous.
Many of us remember the days when marijuana was illegal. Feeling superior, even smug, avant-garde kids and young adults—along with hipsters, musicians, artists, and, not infrequently, academics—passed a joint around, waiting for the slight buzz to come on.
Few felt endangered by their habit, and maybe they were right; “weed,” marijuana’s fond nickname, wasn’t a killer.
Things have changed. The level of THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol)—the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis— has steadily increased over the past decades. At the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969, a typical joint delivered 1 percent THC. By 1980, a joint might provide 3 percent THC.
Today, THC levels range depending upon the specific strain of plant, growing conditions, cultivation practices, and method of consumption. On average, levels are likely to be 15 to 30 percent. However, if the marijuana has been concentrated into one or another kind of “extract”—such as oils, tinctures, and other concentrates—levels are closer to 80 percent and may go as high as 95 percent.
The “edibles”—marijuana extracts consumed in food products and often disguised as candy, making them super attractive to younger teens—tend to contain 50 to 90 percent THC: levels high enough to make consumers more likely to become addicted.
“It’s not your grandpa’s pot.”
” It’s not your grandpa’s pot,” according to Dr. Eric Bornstein, speaking to groups of licensed mental health professionals—and to the high school students he teaches. The mild high may be a thing of the past, and what surely wasn’t a killer has, at the outer edges of habitual pot consumption, become another potentially dangerous drug.
Just as marijuana consumption and public opinion were shifting, and politicians, following their constituents, began advocating for the legalization of cannabis, the plant everyone insisted wasn’t dangerous fell into the hands of home-grown, backyard scientists.
The combination of marijuana and the scientific method snuck up on everyone. It happened as people were finally relaxing, enjoying their social hit of pot without feeling like criminals.
Some even offered it to their adolescent kids, believing it was the equivalent of teaching them how to enjoy fine wine.
While things may have changed, most Americans don’t know it because few are talking about it. No one could understand why—suddenly—there were all these people showing up in emergency rooms, suffering from acute anxiety, panic attacks, psychotic episodes, and other less pleasant symptoms of too much high-potency marijuana.
Meanwhile, with acceptance and legalization, doctors began prescribing “medical cannabis” to their patients for numerous conditions. Medical use of cannabis exploded, sometimes for very good reasons; it can be useful for some ailments. But it may be hard to distinguish between authentic medicine and questionable products.
Nausea during chemotherapy may be appropriately treated with marijuana. People suffering from anxiety at bedtime may find it helpful—however, many “recreational” users go from occasionally smoking at a party to using it as a bedtime medication to a hopeless addiction. Painful athletic injuries—at times, medicinal cannabis may successfully reduce pain, but not always. Addiction to alcohol—many patients try it as they stop drinking, only to end up with a debilitating addiction to cannabis.
The overarching social and political message has continued to promote marijuana’s safety while failing to note the change. “Marijuana is a safe drug” is the refrain as legalization rolls across the country. “It’s safer than nicotine, safer than alcohol.”
Even more conservative-leaning parts of the population have been adopting the shifting narrative. And data suggests most still do. Before the home-grown scientists jumped into the mix and began experimentation, it was almost true. At least no one was dying from the pot.
No one has died from pot alone, but today…
It’s hard to keep up. It’s true; no one has died from cannabis alone. However, when the product people believe is pure plant material turns out to be chemically altered (most methods use butane—lighter fluid—at some point in the process), concentrated, or otherwise strengthened and turned into one of the extracts, the risks escalate. Overdose becomes possible. And when cannabis is mixed with other substances, things can go haywire and get out and out dangerous.
Extracts end up with extremely high levels of THC. Like 95 percent THC. When a drug is 3 percent THC, consumption may carry few, if any, dangers. Addiction happens, but not as often.
When levels of THC reach 80 to 95 percent, we’re dealing with a different drug. The safe drug has become far less safe when consumed by “vaping” extracts smoked in a special pipe—or when other substances have been added. People have died from some of the compounds added to marijuana and associated with this new science-influenced habit.
Consumers may believe they’re just smoking pot when the leaves have been sprinkled or sprayed with far more dangerous substances, like one of the synthetic cannabinoids known as “spice” or “K2.” Adverse effects are being seen increasingly, including tachycardia (elevated heart rate), elevated blood pressure, unconsciousness, tremors, seizures, vomiting, hallucinations, agitation, anxiety, pallor, numbness, and tingling.
Even Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic narcotic responsible for an alarming rate of deaths from overdose, is sometimes sprinkled in the pot.
Products sold in the “legal” marijuana business may be safer, but thus far, the legalized product has been unable to keep up with the illegal business—the underground cannabis is usually much cheaper compared to what’s sold in the dispensaries. Further, nowhere—in the legal and illegal cannabis business—are products officially monitored. So consumers have no way of knowing exactly what they’re getting.
What happens when this high-potency pot hits the still-developing teenaged brain isn’t danger-free. Serious psychiatric illnesses are far more prevalent in those who started smoking as youngsters. Rates of suicide have been climbing in heavy consumers. Likewise, addiction. Not that it’s so great for the over-30 to octogenarians. But in teens, IQ can drop by 8 points and never recover.
High-potency cannabis cuts into motivation, and many find their old ambitions fading away. A-motivational syndrome is a real thing.
Rates of car accidents rise. Less highlighted but certainly worth our attention—some experts have found a correlation between today’s high THC cannabis use and violence, including the mass murders most often carried out by young males, who, it appears, have often been heavy users of modern marijuana. Add this to the mix—some young users, a few years later, are vulnerable to psychotic illnesses.
While pot has always been addictive for about 1 out of 10 users, in those who start young, the addiction rate is more like 1 in 6. And the likelihood of addiction goes up for those consuming today’s high-potency cannabis.
A warning to mental health professionals
Let’s talk about mental health professionals. Most of us fail to realize what’s happening to our kids (or to our colleagues) with marijuana. One therapist specializing in teens told me: “None of these kids are vaping; they just smoke joints.” Really? A 2022 study found nearly 20.6 percent of 12th graders reported that they vaped marijuana in the past year, and 7 percent admitted vaping daily.
Heads in the sand, we may be rolling into a huge future problem that, unfortunately, few are noticing.
National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.