The marijuana people smoke today is much stronger than the drug they inhaled in the 1970s or 80s. Researchers say the potency of the most widely used illicit drug in the western world has tripled in recent decades.
A recent analysis of cannabis samples confiscated by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency revealed a steady increase in tetrahydrocannainol (THC) content, from 4 percent to 12 percent between 1995 and 2014.
This increasing potency, along with new ways to ingest the drug, and the development of synthetic marijuana, has raised concerns that pot is considerably more harmful than many people realize. New research from the Hazelden Betty Ford Institute for Recovery Advocacy, and the University of Maryland School of Public Health indicates there are good reasons for concern.
Traditional forms of marijuana have long been linked to cognitive problems, underachievement in school and risk for dependence, especially for youth.
Researchers say high-potency marijuana may put users more at risk for negative outcomes, including emergency department visits, mental health problems, and structural brain alterations, such as decreased hippocampal volume and disturbed white matter connections in the corpus callosum (a bundle of nerve tissue which connects the two halves of the brain).
In multiple studies, researchers have established a connection between cannabis use and increased risk for psychosis. The risk might be even higher for those who use stronger marijuana, according to a 2016 study at Cambridge University in England.
Individuals who used high-potency cannabis on a daily basis were found to be five times more likely to experience a psychotic disorder than non-users. Among subjects showing evidence of psychosis, daily users also experienced their first episode of psychosis an average of six years earlier than non-users.
Another new danger is synthetic marijuana, the use of which has increased dramatically within the past decade. Synthetic THC is a designer drug made from lab-synthesized chemicals to replicate mimic the effect of naturally occurring THC. It can be sprayed on dried, shredded plant material to be smoked (herbal incense) or sold in liquid form to be vaporized and inhaled in e-cigarettes and other devices.
Synthetic cannabinoids are often marketed as “safe,” legal alternatives to the natural drug. However, research shows they can have a much more powerful effect on the brain, with unpredictable, sometimes life-threatening results.
Users of synthetic cannabis have been found to be 30 times more likely to visit an emergency room than those who use traditional forms of cannabis. Also, a 2017 study of high school students found that those who had used synthetic marijuana were at increased risk for using other drugs such as cocaine, heroin and ecstasy; getting into a physical altercation; having unprotected sex; and riding with intoxicated drivers, compared with those who only used marijuana only.
With the availability of more potent marijuana, users have come up with a new method to consume it, called “dabbing.” Dabbing involves heating a strong cannabis concentrate (containing as much as 80 percent THC), usually in the form of an oil or wax, and then inhaling the vapor. This gives the user a quicker and more intense intoxicating effect but can also lead to serious health problems.
A recent study at the Department of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine analyzed 5,000 tweets from Twitter to gain insight into the use and effects of dabbing. Among other findings, it noted that:
Twenty-two percent of the tweets about dabbing referenced extreme physical effects, and 15 percent mentioned using an excessive amount or engaging in several sessions back to back.
The most common physiological symptom mentioned was passing out/losing consciousness. The second most common symptom mentioned was respiratory effects such as coughing, loss of breath and lung pain. However, only 2 percent described disliking respiratory effects.
Less common symptoms included loss of body control or inability to move, nausea and vomiting, perspiration and crying/ tearing up.
“Our study adds to the limited understanding of marijuana concentrates and dabbing, which are increasing in use and accessibility across the U.S. and among young people especially, who are most vulnerable to marijuana-related harms,” says Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, PhD, co-author of the study.
“Our findings signal potentially intense experiences associated with dabbing (e.g., passing out), thereby stressing the need for continued surveillance of marijuana use in this form.”