Imagine ordering a beer at a bar that’s labeled as having 6 percent ABV, and getting served a drink that’s anywhere from 2 to 12 percent.
When you’re buying your cannabis, there can be that much variability in THC.
Cannabis consumers have been taught to buy their weed wrong. High taxes push many dispensary customers to search for the best bang for their buck, and due to the prominence of THC on cannabis labeling, consumers often use it as the sole indicator of cannabis quality. High THC and a low price point is considered the holy grail.
In reality, THC is far from the only indicator of good cannabis. It doesn’t determine the type of experience one has when they ingest a cannabis product, and due to industry pressure and a lack of standardization, THC percentages are far from an exact science.
“I don’t look at the THC percentage when I’m choosing the cannabis that I like to smoke,” says Allen Hackett, co-founder of the vertically integrated family of brands MD Numbers. “It’s much more about strains that have characteristics and a terpene profile that I personally like.”
In order to be able to buy a product and achieve a desired result, customers need to know a lot more than how to read a THC label. Until consumers have that education, THC percentages will continue to drive market trends in a way that disadvantages both consumers and operators.
If you’ve shopped around at a California dispensary lately, you’ve probably seen the term “full spectrum,” printed on edible, topical, or tincture products. “Full spectrum” refers to a product that contains the full profile of chemical compounds that grow within the cannabis plant. Any time you smoke a jazz cigarette, you’re getting a full-spectrum experience. However many other products are made with isolated THC, CBD, or other compounds.
Sometimes, especially in specific medical contexts, it can be preferable to hand-select only a couple of cannabinoids to consume. But in the vast majority of cases, users get closer to the experience they want with a full-spectrum product. It’s the other components of this full spectrum that can make a 10mg indica gummy feel differently than a 10mg sativa gummy, for example. All of these chemical compounds act synergistically within the body to give various strains their unique effects.
Cannabinoids are the components of the spectrum most consumers are familiar with. THC is a cannabinoid. CBD is also a well-understood and heavily marketed cannabinoid, known for decreasing anxiety and dulling pain. It may even combat seizures and symptoms of schizophrenia. CBN, the chemical THC turns into when it degrades overtime, has a subtle sedative effect and may regulate sleep cycles. THCV is being studied as both a possible aid for type 2 diabetes and epilepsy-related seizures.
These are only a few of many, many cannabinoids — some of which even experts know very little about. Even cannabis bought for recreational purposes has a variety of cannabinoids, and the ratios between them impact how the user feels.
If you’ve heard the phrase “the nose knows” from a budtender or friend, you might think they’re being facetious. But really, they’re not kidding — terpenes are responsible for cannabis’ signature smell, and over time, users can train their nose to recognize the different smells between cannabis strains like an alcohol consumer might do with wine. Terpenes are found in the essential oils of all plants, and they have psychoactive effects we’re all familiar with: if you’ve ever felt awakened by the smell of lemon, for example, that might have to do with the fact that you smelled limonene, a terpene also found in energy-inducing and mood-lifting strains like Tangie or Jack Herer.
“Cannabis is gray and nuanced, so you have to lean into it and spend some time with it,” says longtime cannabis activist and industry pioneer Andrew DeAngelo. “A lot of consumers need shortcuts, and for them that’s THC — but it’s not the be all and end all of intoxication.” That being said, a better shortcut might be to ask your budtender.
There’s one more factor that is severely underestimated: bioavailability. Depending on how cannabis is ingested, varying amounts of cannabinoids and terpenes are absorbed into the bloodstream. For example, when smoked, THC has an average of 30 percent bioavailability, meaning that only about a third of the THC in the product is received into the body. THC absorbed sublingually is generally absorbed more efficiently into the bloodstream than that consumed orally, though there is variability depending on the oil used and how it’s administered. Edibles might have the most variability of all: the compounds in different edibles have different bioavailability depending on the style of manufacturing.
“With liquor or beer you have the alcohol percentage, and that’s actually pretty consistent, because alcohol is water soluble,” says Dr. Harold Han, CSO and founder of the company Vertosa. At Vertosa, Han has used his chemistry know-how to engineer cannabinoids that are water-soluble, allowing him to partner with beverage producers to create infused cannabis beverages with a quick onset, like booze. A consumer that drinks a 10mg Vertosa beverage will feel the effects much more than they do with a 10mg gummy, because of the relatively higher bioavailability (this writer can speak from experience). “The milligrams on the label just tell you on paper how many there are, but not the bioavailability of those milligrams to your body.”
If the aforementioned topics don’t make one reconsider the importance of THC, then the variability in testing likely will. Cultivators report seeing test results vary from 3 to 10 percent when they get their buds tested at different labs, or even the same lab on different days. The reasons why are varied.
For one, there’s no agreed upon industry standard for calibrating testing equipment, says Han. Various companies, like Cayman Chemical and Cerillient, for example, make synthetic cannabinoids for calibrating equipment, and their purity may vary by various fractions of a percentage. Han also points out that, for the same reason different products have different bioavailability, it can be varyingly difficult to extract THC and test it. “There’s more fats in chocolate, so it’s harder to extract, and you need more solvents,” he says. “You need to be sure for each different product type you develop a different extraction method.”
Beyond those factors, there’s the more obvious variants: lab techs are people too, with different skill levels. Human error is a serious factor, as well as how well lab equipment is cleaned and maintained. Though lab methods don’t vary in extremes, none of this is standardized by the BCC — and miniscule differences add up over time.
Plant material itself is also inconsistent. Even if the THC percentage assigned to a batch was a perfectly accurate average, that doesn’t mean it would perfectly mimic the cannabinoids in a single 3.5 gram jar. Furthermore, it’s impossible to be sure the sample tested by one lab will perfectly mimic the sample tested at another.
“Some of the testing labs, ours included, have been around for so long that we’ve made our own methods based on pretty basic analytical chemistry principles, and the small variations in our lab versus another will account for some percentage difference,” says David Chen, lab director at Sonoma Labworks. “Combined with sampling bias, that’s when you start seeing this kind of swing.”
Effect on the Industry
Given all of this, it’s ridiculous to think that prices would be determined by THC percentage. But for many cannabis cultivators who sell to edible and concentrate manufacturers, the THC percentage of their crop can make or break them. According to Allen Hackett, his “trim,” or the excess leaves and small buds that manufacturers make extract from, sells for about $10 per percentage point, per pound. That means a 12 percent THC batch of trim sells for $120 a pound, while a 6 percent batch will only sell for $60. “If you get something tested at the lab and it’s 10 percent, that’s great,” he says. “But if your trim is getting tested at 6 percent, you might want to go back a few times to make sure those are the most accurate results.”
For this reason, many cannabis growers “lab shop,” or test their cannabis at multiple labs until they get the best result. This in turn, puts pressure on labs to yield higher numbers. “Sometimes it is a heartbreaker, when they’re hoping for 20 percent, and we give them a 19.5 percent,” says Chen from Sonoma Labworks. “But is that something we are both ethically obligated and regulatorily obligated to provide accurately? Totally.” Other labs have come under fire in the past for fraudulent testing — something every source consulted for this article said was likely encouraged by intense market pressures.
Customers’ obsession with THC determines what products actually sell at dispensaries, and that can create massive headaches for cultivators. Alex Garcia, head of distribution at SF Cultivators, says that he struggled to find dispensaries that would buy a GMO cultivar he grew that tested at 19 percent — despite the fact that GMO is a strain known for a strong, sedative high. “It was a great, great cultivar — it looked amazing, smelled amazing, tasted amazing, and I’d gotten tons of compliments from guys who work at the shops,” he says. “But the problem is, it doesn’t sell because it had a 19 on the label.”
If you’re a casual consumer looking for a low-dose smoke, this is probably why you aren’t finding many options. Most consumers simply think cannabis below 20 percent THC is a waste of money, not seeing the mistake they’re making. And most growers want to grow cannabis that appeals to the masses.
If you ask Andrew DeAngelo, the solution to consumer misconceptions about THC can only be solved with better education and transparency on the behalf of the industry. Andrew and his brother, Steve DeAngelo, were some of the first people to ever lab test cannabis, and he says the market pressures are an unintended consequence. “It was important that we give consumers that transparency,” he says, “but I do think there were unintended consequences. It drives an inauthentic market demand towards high test results for THC.”
Luckily, however, it appears consumer education is improving. Just a few years ago, very few products printed “full spectrum” on their packaging, likely because customers wouldn’t have known what it meant. More and more consumers are learning about cannabinoids beyond just THC and CBD, and seeking them out. Companies that diversify their product offerings are proving more successful, demonstrating that consumers are searching out a greater variety of products and potencies.
Learning what strains suit your fancy takes time, and several companies sell journals specially designed to help consumers track what terpenes and cannabinoids work best with their body’s chemistry. When in doubt, remember that it’s a budtender’s job to stay up to date on what products on the shelves generate different desired effects. The best way to shop is to decide on an intended outcome, and work with your budtender to find the product that will get you there.
“Try to have a conversation that’s not ‘what should I buy,’ but like, ‘hey, I’m looking for this effect, this experience, or to solve this problem,’” advises Garcia. “And if it’s your first time trying anything, just start with a low dose, and go slow.”