Why the cannabis of today would absolutely smoke the pot of yesteryear
Whether we’re listening for coded cannabis references in our favorite classic rock tunes or watching footage of totally toked out hippies swaying to folk music at Woodstock (that’s Woodstock ’69 for the sticklers in the audience — we don’t talk about Woodstock ’99), we tend to think of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as the absolute heyday of weed. Which is why it’s so surprising to learn that the stuff they were smoking has nothing on today’s herb.
The observation that cannabis is getting stronger isn’t anything new. As early as 1978, a dubiously-sourced New York Times article recently dug up by VICE’s High Times was reporting that the weed on the streets then was as much as 10 times stronger than it had been just two years previously. So people have pretty much always had a sense that pot seems to be getting stronger. It’s been much harder to quantify that sense, however.
While it still has thus-far failed to legalize or even reclassify cannabis from its status as a Schedule I drug, the U.S. government does usefully keep track of cannabis’s potency, allowing people to calculate precisely how much stronger the average joint in North America today is compared to those of previous years. A 2014 report from the Potency Monitoring Project, for instance, found that the potency of the average cannabis plant material had risen from 4% in 1995 to a whopping 12% as of six years ago. Extrapolating from that rise, it’s likely that today’s cannabis is even stronger than when the study was published.
So weed today isn’t your grandfather’s weed — but why is that? What’s making cannabis get smokers so high, so much faster, and stay high so much longer? As with most differences in cannabis, it comes down to basically two chemicals: THC and CBD.
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the active ingredient in cannabis most people are familiar with. It’s the chemical responsive for the dissociative, psychoactive, intoxicating and stimulating effects of cannabis. (It’s also thought to be responsible for the undesirable side effects sometimes brought on by cannabis ingestion, such as paranoia and increased appetite.) CBD, or cannabidiol, is, by comparison, the constituent of cannabis that’s thought to produce the plant’s calming and pain-relieving effects; it’s also the stuff that is totally non-psychoactive, although the purported mechanism by which this occurs is by no means fully understood.
The 2014 Potency Monitoring Project referenced above found that as THC content has risen — the source of that “12% potency” figure — CBD content has simultaneously fallen from 0.28% to less than 0.15%. And since CBD produces cannabis’s calming effects, and may even negate some of the effects of THC by inhibiting its binding with the body’s cannabinoid receptors, that means the increased THC content in today’s bud is probably having an even greater effect than its potency level would indicate.
How did cannabis get to be so potent, you might ask?
The answer to that is actually pretty simple: cannabis researchers and aficionados (the two tend to be co-extensive) have, as with any other crop, selected and bred plants for their desirable effects. Furthermore, as today’s genetic engineering technologies continue to advance, scientists may someday be able to create not only the “perfect “pot plant (as its creator defines it), but even a replacement for the cannabis plant altogether in the form of microorganisms that are designed from the ground-up to, as Nature Magazine puts it, “spit out THC.” (Doesn’t sound too appetizing, does it?)
Ultimately, what the average pot smoker wants to know is what all this means for their cannabis experience. At least in that respect, everything’s exactly the same as it was 50 years ago: just take it slow, don’t freak out, and enjoy the ride.