Written by Reggie Dankers
As THC percentages continue to soar, some smokers are opting for less potent pot. Whether you’re nostalgic for the days of mellow weed or simply seeking a daytime smoke for a functional buzz, here’s everything you need to know about high-quality, low-THC cannabis.
How high can you get before it brings you down? How low can THC go before it doesn’t get you high? There’s a question that’s recently been on many minds: Is our pot too potent?
Some people view this as a quality-versus-quantity issue, but are these properties mutually exclusive? If you talk about weed with one of those OG acid-dropping, protest-rocking, barefoot hippies from the 1960s, they always comment on how strong the pot is these days.
Careful selective breeding took the old-school powerhouse strains (Thai, Colombian, etc.) and turned them into the creatively named strains we know and love today. At this point, with THC percentages in the high 20s to low 30s, academic botanists marvel at cannabis’s ability to produce the most active drug substance of any plant in nature.
We may have gone as potent as the plant can take us, so it makes sense that people would want to go in the other direction.
This isn’t the man coming in and telling you to dial it back; the low-THC trend is native to the cannabis community, however counterintuitive that may seem.
Who are these low-THC fans? How did this trend start? What are the advantages of low-THC pot? We’ll explore these and other questions in the following pages, and, who knows, we may convince some of you naysayers to reconsider THC content.
The Tipping Point
Most of the pot that people smoked before the 1960s and ’70s originated in Mexico and came from strains that, while not originally from the area (cannabis is native to Asia), had adapted to the climate after decades of growing in the open fields.
It didn’t take much time for people to start planting seeds from this pot in rural forests or on the side of freeways. At $20 an ounce (close to $100 or more accounting for inflation), this relatively affordable pot fueled the youth revolution that protested the war and attempted to take down the patriarchy.
Lab tests from the era indicate this pot had THC contents ranging from 3 to 5 percent, with similar amounts of cannabidiol (CBD) as well.
This wasn’t the only pot the hippies smoked; Southern Cali surfer-smugglers, backpacking hippies in Morocco and rebellious soldiers that couldn’t avoid the Vietnam draft quickly opened up America’s cannabis repertoire.
Colombian Gold, Acapulco Gold, Moroccan hash and Thai stick became the delicacies that broke up the monotony of the tried-and-true backcountry bud.
As the 1960s turned into the ’70s, and the ’70s turned into the ’80s, interest in home growing started to surge. Hobbyists and profiteers sourced the best seeds they could find that often came from potent Thai stick and Colombian Gold nuggets.
These strong strains originate from regions known for high-THC weed, and THC contents of around 10 to 15 percent became commonplace. Touring bands like the Grateful Dead are also credited with spreading kind bud and information about good grow practices across the nation to places that wouldn’t otherwise have access to them.
As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, globalization and modern technology started to intervene, and sinsemilla (seedless weed) became commonplace. High-wattage grow lights, coupled with networks of secret-sharing growers, gave birth to strong strains like Chem Dog, Northern Lights and Skunk #1.
The mid-’90s and the turn of the millennium gave birth to the age of the Internet, and growers were no strangers to this technology. Secret online forums popped up, and breeders who never met in person traded clones through the mail.
Soon, high-quality cannabis was making voyages across the nation from east to west and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. Some of the first strains to contain over 20 percent THC were probably grown around this time. Maverick seed companies started to pop up in the liberal Dutch culture, along with competitions like the High Times Cannabis Cup, which increased access to genetics and new techniques.
Cut to 2016 and the High Times staff is in disbelief about the latest numbers on THC content: Blissful Wizard by the Captain’s Connection—34 percent! How could that be possible? It must be a shady lab getting paid to doctor results, or maybe their techs are too high to run the machines?
Although we initially contemplated how to debunk this seemingly impossible feat of botany, a few dabs later we changed our minds. Thirty-four percent is suspiciously high, but there’s no reason it can’t be done. A quick call to T.H.Caeczar, our trusty field reporter in Colorado, confirmed the results as well.
Currently, the average THC content of black- and legal-market cannabis hovers just above 17 percent, a nearly fivefold increase from the landrace North American cannabis we started out with in the 1950s.
Through the ages, trends in literature and art have seen flips and flops between hyper-decoration to austere simplicity, from elaborate descriptiveness to succinct minimalism. Newton’s oft-quoted second law—Every action has an equal and opposite reaction—seems to hold as true for bowling balls and pins as it does for weed, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Ironically, the rise in the popularity of dabbing may have given the first inkling of the turning point away from high-THC weed. Many breeders and cultivators started to focus efforts on making the most terpene-rich plants possible.
Extraction for butane hash oil (BHO) pulls off all the cannabinoids and essential oils in the plant and makes a high-THC product one way or another. If an extract artist wants to really stand out, he needs to source the most flavorful cannabis he can get, and, consequently, THC content takes a back seat.
A Note on Botany
Historical evidence shows cannabis originated in the Asian steppes and has been carried by humans to almost every corner of the world. The result? A species so varied that biologists consider it to be the most genetically diverse and versatile plant to ever exist.
Cannabis produces around 60 different cannabinoids in its buds, but the dominant two are tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive component that gets you high) and cannabidiol (CBD, a non-psychoactive component touted for its medical uses).
Curiously, cannabis that grows between the 30th parallel north and the 30th parallel south produces almost all THC, while cannabis growing above the 30th parallel north is CBD-dominant. Not only that, but CBD-dominant strains taken from their northern terroir to more equatorial regions will adapt to the heat and sunlight and turn into THC-dominant strains after a number of generations.
The running theory holds that exposure to ultraviolet light contributes to THC production. Latitude isn’t the only variable affecting potency, though; altitude also plays a role.
The three crown jewels of hash lie right above the 30th parallel north in rugged, mountainous areas: Morocco’s Rif Valley, Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley and the Hindu Kush (don’t be fooled by the term valley, those two places are high above sea level).
The interplay between high-altitude exposure to UV light and the fact that these regions are located slightly above the 30th parallel north mean the fields of weed in these three places comprise an almost-even mix of CBD-dominant and THC-dominant strains.
The Appeal of Lower THC Content
The movement toward low-THC weed is multifaceted, and it all starts with legalization. As the War on Drugs eases slightly on cannabis, the industry has become subject to the same consumer influences as the alcohol and food industries.
Recent years have seen an incredible shift in consumer tendencies toward artisanal and healthier options made by smaller companies. As a consequence of America’s realization about how shitty processed foods are, large distributors like Proctor & Gamble have seen serious downturns in their profits and have started rethinking their marketing campaigns.
Multinational beer distributors like Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV (Bud, Corona, Stella, Beck’s) have taken such a hit from the craft-brew sector, which now makes up almost 13 percent of the market by volume, that they have aggressively acquired craft labels like Franziskaner, Blue Moon, Goose Island and others to make up for lost profits.
In the age of ’90s movie-remaking, typewriter-collecting, ancient-grain-eating, suspenders-wearing hipsters, it’s easy to assume that the low-THC trend is just another piece of nostalgia millennials crave, but that’s not correct. Despite what you might think, your typical Portland indie kid doesn’t smoke enough pot to give it the same attention as his locally sourced beard oil or small-batch, cold-brew nitro coffee.
Legalization has opened up the market to new smokers—that is, people that have always had an open mind about cannabis but were wary of getting caught and making shady deals on the black market. Similarly, baby boomers that got high before they had kids, and stopped for fear of getting caught when sentences got harsh in the ’70s, now have the opportunity to legally buy pot at a corner shop.
At the same time, veteran potheads have gained access to more strains than they ever thought possible. In addition to recreational smokers, medical consumers, wary of paranoia-inducing, powerful pot, now have the option to legally seek cannabis products with a CBD/THC ratio of their choosing.
Low THC, Low Class?
These days, and for the past 10 or 15 years, weed with THC content below 10 percent typically comes from south of the border, brought up in huge bails and sold through a network of cartels and urban trap houses. Whatever you call it, it’s always pretty much the same, and always pretty much shitty. These Mexican-grown strains likely descended from the same pot that has been growing in Mexico since the 1950s. Loose selective breeding has led to a steady increase in potency, but it likely won’t go up much more given the climate and cultivation techniques.
Selling at around $90 to $120 an ounce and $20 an eighth, this has always been the pot for folks who can’t afford to buy the pricier stuff at $20 a gram or $50 to $60 an eighth. Consequently, low-THC pot has a serious negative connotation to it. Not just for being cheap, but because it originates from often careless cultivation that might result in serious contamination, with shady practices like spraying with sugar water to increase weight—and, of course, the fact it’s brought up in giant bales from Mexico by murderous cartels and sold through a network of gun-toting gangsters.
Buying Cali bud or local hydro from a friend without a doubt gives you the advantage of a safer purchase. While dangerous buys from sketchy dudes used to be the standard, times have changed. US production has soared to the point that the cartels don’t really make much money on cannabis anymore. In fact, some of our American pot has started to make its way down to Mexico.
The negative connotation tied to Mexican regs is perfectly understandable, but does this bad rep have to follow any strain that doesn’t produce THC content of 15 percent or more? Although it shouldn’t, younger connoisseurs may still have scornful knee-jerk reactions. More seasoned smokers reminisce about the strains formerly considered the strongest—now blown out of the water by modern genetics—and seize the nostalgic opportunity to smoke the weed they grew up on. Acapulco Gold (15 percent), Hashplant (13 percent) and Kali Mist (15 percent) are all still perfectly capable of knocking someone out if smoked enough, though they saw their zenith long before the days of the true one-hit-quit shit.
As modern strains are bred together to the point that many of them are indistinguishable from each other, even the people that once yearned for high-THC weed want to go back. The fact is that the older strains have more unique genetic traits, which is part of the reason why they have served as breeding stock for the cannabis of today. Grandfather strains like Skunk #1 (Afghan x Mexican x Colombian) or Haze (Mexican x Colombian x Thai x Indian) derive their lineage from this old pot and have gone through hundreds, if not thousands, of generations of crossbreeds, backcrosses, self-crosses, etc. to make the cannabis we know today.
CBD to the Rescue
Sanjay Gupta’s medical-cannabis coverage on CNN, beginning with his marijuana mea culpa “Why I Changed My Mind on Weed” in 2013, had a massive impact on the country. Suddenly, Americans who’ve been systematically lied too about the evils of marijuana for their entire lives realized that medical marijuana was a true lifesaver.
This colossal shift in attitude was the tinder, the gas and the match that lit a CBD fire under the asses of growers around the country. Mainstream media coverage illustrating the benefits of medical cannabis often focused on the non-psychoactive component CBD, and the CBD-only strain Charlotte’s Web took the front and center in the fight against childhood epilepsy.
Interestingly, the genetic lineage of Charlotte’s Web can be traced to two well-known CBD-rich strains that have been around for a long time: Harlequin and Sour Tsunami. Still, the timing was right for Charlotte’s Web to become synonymous with compassionate cannabis use.
The use of medical marijuana isn’t limited to the treatment of physical conditions like epilepsy, cancer or AIDS; it holds hope for psychological conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety as well. The numbers of those suffering from PTSD—particularly military veterans—are staggering: Between 11 and 20 percent of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, 12 percent of Gulf War and 15 percent of Vietnam veterans currently suffer from this debilitating condition.
Of course, PTSD isn’t limited to war vets. Up to 8 percent of the general population will develop this disorder at some point in their lives.
Established medical treatments for PTSD underserve patients and often lead to benzodiazepine or opiate addictions that can bring about a further decline in sufferers’ quality of life. On the other hand, cannabis has limited to zero addictive potential and is completely nontoxic.
Perhaps discovered anecdotally, treating PTSD with cannabis has serious scientific research to back it up at this point. We don’t understand the exact mechanism, though scientists believe it has to do with cannabinoids’ ability to inhibit retrograde signaling. Depending on the origin of the trauma, daily events can trigger PTSD attacks, causing neurons firing on all cylinders to feed off each other in a vicious cycle.
Activating cannabinoid receptors stops neurons from signaling back, slowing down the cycle. Without double-blind clinical studies, doctors have their hands tied and are not allowed to give official recommendations, but research funders on the state and federal levels are slowly opening their pocketbooks to allow these expensive trials to get underway.
Vietnam vets who treated their PTSD with cannabis in the ’70s probably had more luck than Iraq War veterans have today if they go straight for the strong weed. In fact, today’s strong pot can sometimes do more harm than good by triggering extreme paranoia and anxiety. The reason? THC’s effect on the brain is dose-dependent: Low doses have a calming effect; high doses can cause anxiety.
THC directly activates the main cannabinoid receptor, CB1, while CBD has an opposite effect and modulates THC’s impact. CBD literally binds to a different spot on the receptor than THC does. In doing so, CBD drastically tempers the paranoia-inducing effect of THC. Smoking pot with an even ratio of the two still gets you high, but the effect is much more relaxing and less heart-racing.
Research on the interplay between these two cannabinoids continues to indicate that varying ratios of the two may serve different purposes for different people, but the lack of specific details forces smokers to do their own research through trial and error. This can be dangerous for someone with a severe mental disorder, but, unfortunately for now, the plant’s legality restricts the medical research our society so desperately needs.