Why Experts Say You're Buying Marijuana the Wrong Way

May 5th 2017

There are at least 113 known ingredients in cannabis, but just one seems to get most of the attention: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.

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THC is the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces the high.

Studies show that the chemical compound also has a wide range of therapeutic benefits. That said, experts are encouraging users to look beyond THC when selecting strains or cannabis products.

Marijuana is more effective as medicine — and produces a more dynamic high for recreational use — when it contains a diversity of ingredients, according to Samantha Miller, chief science officer at the cannabis company Hmbldt. It's a phenomenon known as the "entourage effect."

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Total effects that you experience from cannabis [aren't] due to one or two constituents, but to the whole spectrum of chemicals that are present in the cannabis," Miller told ATTN:. "There's this dynamic interplay between THC, CBD, and all of the other cannabinoids, as well as terpenes and flavonoids — and probably a lot of other constituents in the plant as well that we haven't focused on yet."

The entourage effect was first discussed in a 2001 study published in the Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics.

Dr. Ethan Russo, the lead researcher, determined that "secondary compounds in cannabis may enhance the beneficial effects of THC," reduce negative side effects of THC such as anxiety, and produce their own sets of therapeutic benefits, ranging from increased cerebral blood flow to reduced inflammation.

In a follow-up study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology in 2011, Russo offered specific examples of how different cannabinoids interact. One side effect of THC is short-term memory impairment, for example, but that appeared to be counteracted by acetylcholine, a chemical compound that's also found in cannabis.

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In spite of these findings, though, dispensaries in legal states around the U.S. tend to market strains that fall in one of two categories: high-THC strains that are genetically bred for maximum psychoactive effects, or strains high in cannabidol (CBD) for patients who want the medical effects without the high. CBD, a non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that actually counteracts the high is the second most popular and well-researched compound.

Cannabis users would be better served if they sought out stains that contain other chemical compounds, Mike Pizzo, content manager at Reef Dispensaries, wrote in a blog post for the dispensary Tryke Cultivator on Friday.

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Dispensaries in certain regions such as Northern California have already begun to innovate, providing information about the concentration of ingredients other than THC and CBD on product labels, Miller said. But if your dispensary only lists THC and CBD content on their strains, you can consult sites such as Leafly, which works with cannabis analytics firms to compile detailed chemical breakdowns of the most common strains.

Here's what that looks like for Green Crack, a popular strain that produces an uplifting, energetic effect:

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What are you seeing here? If you're an entry-level cannabis consumer, you might recognize that 13 to 21 percent THC is about average for today's standards in the legal market.

But how is that THC affected by the other ingredients, and how will that affect your experience? This will take some research. THC will get you high, but if you're the type of person who experiences anxiety from certain strains, you might want to steer clear here. That's because it contains less than one percent of CBD, which inhibits anxiety and counters the psychoactive effects of THC. It also contains up to 1.4 percent Myrcene, a terpene that boosts THC's psychoactive effects.

That said, if you're looking for a strain that makes you feel energetic and creative, Green Crack is for you based on that chemical combination.

Think about cannabis compounds as ingredients in a soup recipe. THC is your broth — the base. It's what you add to broth that complements the dish and gives it its distinct taste. That's why going into a dispensary and selecting strains based on their THC content alone is the wrong approach; to get the effects you desire, whether medical or recreational, you need to understand how other other chemical compounds interact with the THC. Generally speaking, ingredients that account for one percent or more (beside THC) will have a noticeable impact on the strain's overall effects, Miller said.

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She expects that the market will continue respond to rising demand for increased chemical diversity in the legal cannabis market. She offered an anecdote: seven years ago, hardly anybody in the audience listening to her seminars on cannabis knew what CBD was — but now the ingredient is common knowledge. People are "hungry for more" diversity in the industry and "the research is lagging behind just a little bit."

"What's really amazing about the cannabis marketplace [is that] as this environment of permissions around the use of cannabis starts to change... I think you'll start to see more products that start to take that approach — that start to take a more nuanced approach that acknowledges the entourage effect," she said.

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