Modern cultivation pumps up THC levels in marijuana
The high THC content of this strain of cannabis, called C. Banana, can be detected by the sparkle of resin and bright green coloration. THC content, which gives cannabis its psychoactive effect, is influenced by genetics, environmental conditions and growing techniques, according to grower Utopia Farms of Santa Cruz.
As Californians prepare to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana, innovations in cultivation practices are pushing the plant’s psychoactive properties to unprecedented heights — packing a powerful punch that delights some but alarms others.
Levels of the chemical that produces a high — known as THC — used to average 3 to 4 percent. But now — because of improved breeding, growing, harvesting, packaging and shipping techniques — it’s rare to find THC content below 20 percent.
And some varieties — such as the award-winning “C. Banana,” grown by medical marijuana grower Utopia Farms of Santa Cruz — can reach a stunning 35 percent. For the unprepared, it’s like ordering a rosé spritzer and getting Jack Daniel’s.
A Santa Cruz-bred strain of cannabis called C. Banana, with 29-35 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient, was ranked on this year’s “StrongestStrains on Earth 2016” list by High Times magazine. Grown by Utopia Farms, it also has won the Emerald Cup and other awards.
But potency is also a serious concern as California heads toward a new world of legalized pot, potentially worsening marijuana-related illness and dependency. New consumers and longtime potheads may find themselves dangerously high before they know it, and unequipped to deal with the results.
“This marijuana is not like the old marijuana,” said Dr. David Smith, who in 1967 founded the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco. He now treats cannabis-dependent teenagers at Marin County’s Muir Wood Adolescent & Family Services.
Proposition 64, a detailed 62-page ballot measure, describes the laws, regulations and taxes that will govern the recreational use of marijuana. If passed, consumers would grow their own, buy from a retail shop or visit a private smoking lounge, rather than getting a “medical marijuana” card or buying it on the black market.
But the proposition doesn’t address the thorny issue of potency.
Some say legalization will create better-educated consumers and a broader array of lower-octane products, ending the current “bigger-is-better” THC arms race. Others say it could push potency even higher, as horticulture improves. They’re particularly worried about consumption of extracts, called “dabbing,” with THC levels that can reach 80 percent.
Colorado, Oregon and the Netherlands are debating measures to limit potency, efforts that draw the ire of industry groups. Some policy experts say taxation is a better tool for regulating the chemical tetrahydrocannabinol.
“If I were designing a legalization ballot initiative, I’d be inclined to propose taxing marijuana by its THC content,” said Robert MacCoun, a behavioral scientist who teaches at Stanford Law School and studies drug policies.
Instead, Proposition 64 would impose a 15 percent excise tax on all marijuana sales.
At Utopia Farms, whose “C. Banana” won top honors for “Highest THC” in three competitions last year, achieving potency is a science, said co-founder Kaiya Bercow.
The product of generations of selective crosses of high-THC plants, its flowers glitter with trichomes, the tiny resin glands that produce the molecule. It is grown indoors to prevent wind stress and contamination. Fully sealed rooms are climate-controlled to match the growth cycle of the plant, with fluctuating temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels. Its soil mix is customized; so is its fertilizer.
Bright green, the harvested flowers are promptly packaged in sealed glass jars and kept cool to prevent THC decay during shipping and sales. Light, heat and air degrade THC.
“It is connoisseur quality, an artisanal flower,” said Bercow, who graduated summa cum laude from Boston’s Tufts University before co-founding Utopia Farms.
Unlike alcohol or pharmaceuticals, the effects of a cannabis overdose — while frightening and miserable — are not lethal.
There are no studies that link high potency pot to illness and dependency, but some physicians are seeing more cannabis-using patients seeking treatment for anxiety, panic attacks and paranoia. After marijuana was legalized in Colorado, calls to the Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center increased more than five-fold, from 45 to 238 between 2006 and 2014. The rate of marijuana-related emergency department visits jumped 67 percent, from 153 to 256 per 100,000 visits.
Doctors say those greatest at risk are people with mental health problems and aging baby boomers — “Geezer rockers, the ‘oldie but goodie’ group who are now responsible citizens,” Smith calls them — with nostalgic memories of big baggies filled with Panama Red or Acapulco Gold.
That weak, field-grown weed, whose THC content plummeted while hung from hot roofs and shipped in the back of smugglers’ dusty trucks, bears no resemblance to today’s high-tech weed, he said.
“We had a Rolling Stones concert where a software millionaire paid thousands of dollars for front row seats,” Smith said. “His daughter passes him a joint, and he takes a couple of hits — then thinks he’s having a heart attack. His eyes are red. His heart is pounding.”