Medical marijuana is stronger than it needs to be, study suggests
A new study has tracked the potency of cannabis products across a number of American states, finding the majority of medical marijuana is stronger than it needs to be for pain relief purposes. The research suggests higher THC levels are unnecessary for medical uses and can increase the risk of negative side effects.
"We know that high-potency products should not have a place in the medical realm because of the high risk of developing cannabis-use disorders, which are related to exposure to high THC-content products," explains Alfonso Edgar Romero-Sandoval, lead author on the new study.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis. Over the past few decades THC levels in herbal marijuana have been consistently rising. Between 2006 and 2016 one study suggested THC levels on average had risen from five percent to 10 percent. And following the spread of recreational laws, THC levels have further increased to over 20 percent.
A study from last year found higher THC concentrations could be linked to greater rates of psychosis, and as THC levels in plants have risen, CBD (cannabidiol) levels have dropped. CBD is suspected to be a potent anti-psychotic agent, and a balance between THC and CBD in marijuana is important in reducing the risk of negative long-term side effects.
This new research set out to understand what levels of THC and CBD are in a variety of legal cannabis products, and whether these products are suitable for medical uses.
"Several earlier studies showed that levels of up to 5% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that provides pain relief as well as intoxication – were sufficient to reduce chronic pain with minimal side effects,” says Romero-Sandoval.
The researchers examined over 8,000 cannabis products from more than 600 dispensaries in nine American states. The results revealed the vast majority of products, advertised for either medical or recreational purposes, contained over 15 percent THC. The study also noted lower levels of CBD in products with the highest concentrations of THC.
Referencing one particular local study investigating the legal cannabis market in Washington state, the researchers note between 2014 and 2016 over 90 percent of all marijuana flower sales consisted of product with THC concentrations higher than 15 percent. This unsurprisingly suggests commercial markets prefer potent product, and it subsequently ends up dominating the market, both in recreational and medical circles.
“… our findings suggest that medicinal programs are operating in a similar fashion to recreational programs based on the products they offer online (high THC), which are not adequate for medical use and could contribute to risky misconceptions towards medicinal cannabis,” the researchers write in the conclusion to the new study.
If studies point to 5 percent THC concentrations as perhaps ideal for medical cannabis pain relief, and if there are possible increases in risk factors for negative complications as THC levels rise, then Romero-Sandoval suggests there needs to be clear regulation of medical cannabis products.
"Better regulation of the potency of medical marijuana products is critical,” says Romero-Sandoval. “The FDA regulates the level of over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen that have dose-specific side effects, so why don't we have policies and regulations for cannabis, something that is far more dangerous?"
The new study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.