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THC Levels In Legal Cannabis Are Going Up. Are Limits In Our Future?

THC levels in BC’s legal cannabis products are going up, according to a new report from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria. Among the report’s findings, annual sales of THC by weight increased between October 2018 and December 2020 from 63.8 milligrams to 129.4 milligrams per person aged 15 and older. (BC’s legal age for cannabis is 19.) 

The potency of both flower and prerolls has increased since legalization, while the median price for flower and prerolls has decreased. Among flower, preroll, vape kit, and vape cartridge products, higher-potency products tended to be cheaper per milligram of THC.

The report concludes that with potency on the rise and lower prices for products costing less, “In BC [it…] appears to be considerably less expensive to become intoxicated with cannabis than with alcohol.” Accordingly, the report suggests “Minimum unit pricing, product-specific taxes and potency limits would likely have public health benefit.”

Should There Be a Limit on THC Levels?

Speaking to CTV News Vancouver Island, Dr. Tim Naimi, lead author of the report and director of the the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, said, “We hope over time that the government will consider public health considerations and not engage in a race to the bottom in terms of selling the most potent stuff for the cheapest prices.”

Not everyone agrees increased THC levels represent a “race to the bottom,” however. Criminal justice professor and drug policy researcher Daniel Bear of Humber College says the circumstances in which increased THC levels pose a significant public health threat are largely limited to the loose correlation between high THC levels and psychosis. 

While THC psychosis isn’t entirely limited to heavy users, Professor Bear says it is strongly correlated with consumers who began using at a very young age and consumed high-THC products very frequently or daily. 

“The high THC issue is most problematic when discussing high-frequency youth consumption,” he says, “but that is generally at ages below the legal limit in most provinces.”

From the public health perspective, Bear explains, risk increases alongside the potency of any drug.

“If we think about the drug we’re most familiar with as a society, alcohol, drinking a bottle of whisky is different than drinking a bottle of beer,” he says. “The risks are higher. Yet cannabis is not alcohol: the THC potency question, instead of being one of overdose concern, is more about long-term health.”

THC levels
Daniel Bear says most Canadian cannabis consumers are used to using THC as a marker of quality. If limits were introduced, these consumers might be compelled to return to the illicit market.

How Limits on THC Levels Could Benefit the Illicit Market

As for THC consumption rising, Bear notes that legalization hasn’t brought in many new cannabis consumers. Rather, most buyers on the legal market are those who previously bought from unlicensed sellers. 

“The consumer buying cannabis today probably started consuming under prohibition,” he says, “and understands THC to mean a marker of quality—which it isn’t, necessarily. As the legal market expands over time, I think we’ll start to see that notion move away, and questions about terpenes, growing styles, and cannabinoid profiles emerge. Especially as we learn more and more about different cannabinoids.”

In the meantime, the increase in THC consumption might simply be a register of success in drawing consumers from illicit markets where high-THC determined product desirability—and a reversal of the Canadian cannabis industry’s early failures to provide products strong enough for Canadian consumers, who eschewed many of the earliest legal flower and preroll products offering mid-range THC levels.

On another note, Bear says that a significant majority of Canadians who report using cannabis for medical purposes are not licensed medical users, but instead buy from the same retail pool as everyone else. Meanwhile, the remaining medical users registered with Health Canada may be tempted to shop in non-medical retail for the sake of selection. 

“It’s really quite problematic in that they’re talking [in this report] about retail, in which THC has gone up and up and up,” says Bear. “That might very well be medical patients who need high THC who are going to retail stores because they can shop a bit more, rather than simply staying with the online producers or pharmacies.”

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Adult-Use Versus Medical Cannabis: Why They Are Different (Even if the Plant is the Same)

The Impracticality of Limits on THC

Potency limits are a lightning rod for debate in legal jurisdictions all over North America, and Bear says he understands the arguments behind those that attempt to limit potent products for young people. In an ideal world, he might support potency limits that prevent those below the age of 25 from accessing the products highest in THC in order to help ease users into consuming THC comfortably at different ages. 

“That argument makes sense in a world where cannabis exists in a vacuum,” Bear laughs. “Cannabis exists in a world with a thriving black market, the result of a failed century of prohibition. As such, we’re still competing with the black market, where they don’t ask for age verification, they don’t limit potency, and they provide the product that people want, in really quite a fluid way. If people want higher THC products, and there’s a THC limit, the black market will meet that need.”

In order for potency limits to carry out the benefits for which they’re designed, Bear says, they must exist in a way that can’t be circumvented by the underground market—as impossible a demand as hoping to destroy the unlicensed cannabis economy entirely. 

“But we need to curtail the black market and give people every reason to buy cannabis from the regulated market,” Bear stresses. “That puts the onus on policymakers to make fair and just policy, and on producers to produce good quality cannabis that meets the needs of consumers. That’s asking a lot of both of them!”

For those concerned about increasing THC potency, Bear counsels forgetting about THC limits and turning toward public education. He stresses that people who consume drugs do so in a very intentional manner, based on the information they have had available to them, and that the best way to reduce harms associated with higher-strength THC products is to explain the risks to the public.

“Honest, evidence-informed discussions were not available during prohibition,” Bear says, partly because public health bodies were not allowed to acknowledge drug use existed even if the law said it was not supposed to. “We need to acknowledge the intentionality behind cannabis consumption. Meet people at that place and be honest with them about the decisions or factors they might want to consider when deciding how, where, and what to consume.”