To compete with the black-market, legal dispensaries are delivering marijuana with THC levels that are off the charts, often high than 30 percent. Many people use extracts that are nearly pure THC. This trend will make marijuana a dangerous drug, and lethal as n-methyltryptamine mimetic substances, phencyclidine mimetic substances, and anabolic steroids. Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids. The misuse of addiction to opioid -- including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl -- are a serious national crisis affecting public health as well as social and economic welfare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.
Can THC levels in marijuana above 30 percent cause the next catastrophic crisis?
The answer is “YES.”
At 30 percent THC levels, marijuana is an addictive drug and may match the opioid problem. In 2018, more than two million Americans will suffer from addiction to prescription or illicit opioids. Opioids killed more people last year than either car accidents or gun violence. This crisis of addiction can affect any American, from all-state football captains to stay-at-home mothers. As a result, Americans across the country are feeling the weight of the crisis next door.
What is THC?
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects. It acts much like the cannabinoid chemicals made naturally by the body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in certain areas of the brain associated with thinking, memory, pleasure, coordination and time perception. THC attaches to these receptors and activates them and affects a person's memory, pleasure, movements, thinking, concentration, coordination, and sensory and time perception, according to NIDA. THC is one of many compounds found in the resin secreted by glands of the marijuana plant. More of these glands are located around the reproductive organs of the plant than on any other area of the plant. Other compounds unique to marijuana, called cannabinoids, are present in this resin. One cannabinoid, CBD is nonpsychoactive, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, and blocks the high associated with THC.
Effects on the Body: THC stimulates cells in the brain to release dopamine, creating euphoria, according to NIDA. It also interferes with how information is processed in the hippocampus, which is part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. THC can induce hallucinations, change thinking and cause delusions. On average, the effects last about two hours and kick in 10 to 30 minutes after ingestion. Psychomotor impairment may continue after the perceived high has stopped, however.
"In some cases, reported side effects of THC to include elation, anxiety, tachycardia, short-term memory recall issues, sedation, relaxation, pain relief and many more," said A.J. Fabrizio, a marijuana chemistry expert at Terra Tech Corp, a California agricultural company focused on local farming and medical cannabis. However, he said, a study in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that other types of cannabinoids, as well as terpenes (compounds that produce flavor and fragrance in plants), can modulate and reduce negative effects.
Risks: The effects of marijuana make it a popular drug. It is considered one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the world. But these effects also concern mental health advocates. THC can trigger a relapse in schizophrenic symptoms, according to NIDA. Another possible risk of consuming THC comes in the form of impaired motor skills. Marijuana may impair driving or similar tasks for approximately three hours after consumption, and it is the second-most common psychoactive substance found in drivers, after alcohol, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. People taking medical marijuana are instructed not to drive until it has been established that they can tolerate it and conduct motor tasks successfully.
The use of marijuana may cause problems for younger people and long-term problems. "Some of the side effects of THC include a decrease in IQ, memory, and cognition, especially in younger people," said Dr. Damon Raskin, medical director at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center. "However, the jury is still out on long-term effects, as not enough research has been done on it yet. There is some speculation that it could impair fertility in men and women and also compromise a person's airways, but the studies are still not clear." A study by the University of Montreal published in the journal Development and Psychopathology in 2016 found that early use of marijuana can affect teens. Smokers that start around age 14 do worse on some cognitive tests than non-smokers. The study on almost 300 students found that pot smokers also have a higher school dropout rate. Those that waited to start around age 17 did not seem to have the same impairments. NIDA reports that rats exposed to THC before birth, soon after birth or during adolescence have shown problems with specific learning and memory tasks later in life. The drug can also have drug interactions with certain medications.
Medicinal Uses: According to the National Cancer Institute, marijuana has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 3,000 years. As of early 2017, more than half of the United States has legalized the use of medicinal marijuana. Several states have also legalized the drug for recreational use, as well. THC can be extracted from marijuana, or synthesized, as is the case for the FDA-approved drug dronabinol. Dronabinol is used to treat or prevent nausea and vomiting associated with cancer medicines and to increase the appetites of people with AIDS, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It is a light yellow resinous oil.
Other studies are showing more evidence that, when used properly, THC has many additional medical benefits. For example, THC may be able to improve memory when taken in small doses, according to a 2016 study on mice. People tout marijuana as a better drug than prescription pills because it is "all-natural." That may not be true. "Just because something is considered 'natural' doesn't mean it's healthy," Raskin said. "For example, poison oak can be harmful. Just because it grows in the ground doesn't mean it's good for you or healthy."
Overdose: Edibles, foods containing THC, have become a large problem in states that have legalized pot because of overdosing. "Edibles can lead to overdose sometimes because people often ingest a full serving of a cookie instead of a diagnosed smaller amount," Raskin said. "I mean, who eats a half a cookie? It is easier to swallow a cookie, and it's very attractive to younger people or those who don't want to inhale it in a smoke form." Raskin also explained that edibles are extremely high in potency, and when ingested in the gastrointestinal tract, the drug can last longer and with greater intensity. "The effect from inhaling THC will last 45 minutes to a few hours, but edibles can last for six to eight hours and are more likely to lead to a trip to the ER with an overdose," he said.
Concentrations of THC in cannabis: When THC is exposed to air, it degrades into cannabinol, a cannabinoid that has its psychological effects. THC concentration also depends on the cultivation of the marijuana plant, known scientifically as Cannabis sativa L. A type of cannabis that has a minimal amount of THC, as low as 0.5 percent, is hemp, according to the North American Industrial Hemp Council. Hemp is used for industrial and medical purposes.
Some strains of cannabis can have as little as 0.3 percent THC by weight. In other strains, THC makes up 20 percent of the weight in a sample. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the average THC concentration in marijuana is 1 to 5 percent; in hashish, it is 5 to 15 percent, and in hashish oil, it averages 20 percent. THC in recreational doses of marijuana is highly variable and the lower the THC content in the marijuana, the more the user must consume to produce the desired effects.
LEGISLATIVE ACTION MUST BE TAKEN TO INSURE PRUDENT MARIJUANA USE
In the 1970s and 1980s, marijuana contained less than 5 percent THC. Today, the general public believes that cannabis is a relatively weak drug that can be used in social settings like concerts. What is sold today can rock your world and destroy marijuana’s recreational use.
In 2005, about three million Americans used cannabis every day. Today, the figure is eight million. Put another way, about one cannabis user in five uses it daily. By contrast, only one in every 15 drinkers, approximately 12 million Americans, consumes alcohol every day. This huge shift in public attitudes comes even though most Americans do not use the drug. Only 15 percent of people over 12 used it even once in 2017, according to a large federal survey. That year, only three million people tried it for the first time. Marijuana has been shrewdly recast as a medicine rather than an intoxicant.
Meanwhile, legalization advocates have squelched discussion of the serious mental health risks of marijuana and THC, the chemical responsible for the drug’s psychoactive effects. The change in the scientific consensus has gone unnoticed. Americans, in general, are far more likely to believe the drug is safe, and even medically beneficial than they once were. As a result, support for legalization has doubled since 1999.
Making matters worse, the ways Americans use cannabis are changing in ways that further increase its risks.
Should Marijuana be Legal?
Scientists must do much more research to understand how cannabis can cause psychosis and the strength of the link. But hospitals are already seeing the effect of these new usage patterns. According to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, in 2006, emergency rooms saw 30,000 cases of people who had diagnoses of psychosis and marijuana-use disorder — the medical term for abuse or dependence on the drug. By 2014, that number had tripled to 90,000. Federal surveys also show that rates of severe mental illness are rising nationally, with the sharpest increase among people 18 to 25, who are also the most likely to use cannabis. The surveys and hospital data cannot prove that marijuana has caused a population-wide increase in psychosis, but they do offer intriguing evidence. Many people are arrested for marijuana possession, but very few end up imprisoned. California reported in 2013, the most recent year for which this data is available, that only 441 of its 134,000 prisoners were incarcerated for all marijuana-related crimes. If arrests for marijuana possession are a major racial justice concern, the solution is decriminalizing possession, turning it into a violation equivalent to littering. But advocacy groups don’t view decriminalization as an acceptable compromise. They want full legalization, making marijuana a state-regulated and -taxed drug that businesses can sell and profit from.
States that allow recreational marijuana have found that legalization doesn’t end the black market in unregulated cannabis. But it does lower prices, increase availability and acceptability, and drive up use.
Worse — because marijuana can cause paranoia and psychosis, and those conditions are closely linked to violence — it appears to lead to an increase in violent crime. Before recreational legalization began in 2014, advocates promised that it would reduce violent crime. But the first four states to legalize — Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — have seen sharp increases in murders and aggravated assaults since 2014, according to reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Police reports and news articles show a clear link to cannabis in many cases.
As Americans consider making marijuana a legal drug, it would be wise to remember the choices that fueled the devastating opioid epidemic. Decades ago, many of the same people pressing for marijuana legalization argued that the risks of opioid addiction could be easily managed. A half-million deaths later, we have learned how wrong they were.
What’s the best course of action to allow recreational marijuana to be legally possessed and used?
Marijuana’s risks are different from opioids’, but they are no less real. The fact remains that marijuana is harmful when THC levels are above 25 percent. Using our Subjective Probability+Game Theory algorithm (SP+GTM), we conclude that all states that has authorized marijuana use, need to convene a special counsel with a board of states legislators to set a states-wide limit on THC levels. A legislated 20 percent to 25 percent maximum THC level would lead to federal approval of recreational use marijuana and allow for a “controlled” transaction of the substance as a commodity. In this instance, a page from the beer playbook can set an example: The standard serving of beer is a 12-oz. Beer contains between 4 and 7 percent alcohol by volume.