The other day, I was driving in a car with a friend who had just gone to a dispensary, and as a cannabis journalist, people often ask my opinion on their buys. He handed me the jar and boasted that the flower tested at an astronomical 35% THC.
Examining the dense, mechanically trimmed buds that smelled like hay, I had two choices:
1: Dominate the car ride by explaining to my casual stoner friend why the idea that high-THC flower is automatically high-quality is wrong.
2: Nod, say it looks good, and keep it moving.
For the sake of that car ride, I chose the latter. But for the sake of consumers being misinformed at large, I want to make something clear: a high THC percentage is not the most important factor when buying weed.
And yet, high-THC consumers comprise the majority of all cannabis consumers, according to data by Flowhub, a cannabis retail management platform. In 2020, high-THC flower (21-28% THC), as Flowhub labels it, accounted for 33% of all cannabis transactions. Medium-THC flower (14-21% THC) came in at 24% of transactions, and low-THC flower (7-14% THC) at 27% of transactions. Very-high-THC flower (greater than 28% THC) accounted for only 12% of sales, and very-low-THC flower (less than 7% THC) accounted for around 4% of transactions.
All together, high-THC and very-high-THC consumers accounted for 45% of flower sales on Flowhub's POS systems in 2020.
When asked why he chooses to buy based on THC percentage, Eduardo Valdez, my friend from the car ride, responded, “THC is what gets you high. So, the higher the THC, the higher the potency of the weed. If I'm going to spend 60 dollars for a few grams of weed, I want to get as high as possible … I'd rather pay a little more for something really strong than still pay a lot for something that sucks. It seems to me that indicas tend to have higher THC than other ones, so I often go for those first.”
Whether they're high-pain patients trying to cope, or recreational consumers trying to party, it seems that most consumers are simply trying to get the most bang for their buck. And I don't blame them. They have little else to go off of aside from following the cues laid out for them by the way the flower is often branded, presented, and sold, which typically feature THC percentages as the only defining characteristic.
“When you can't smell the weed, or really even see it in the jar, there's nothing else to go by. THC is the only thing they tell you about the weed beside the strain [name],” Valdez said.
With so little information to go off of, consumers have come to believe that THC is the only important indicator of overall quality, so the more, the better — right? Wrong.
This falsehood implies that the best flower has the highest THC percentage, and is unfortunately — and in some cases unknowingly — perpetuated by nearly every facet of the industry, from the grower to the brand to the marketing agency to the dispensary to the consumers and back again.
Why good weed depends on your ideal “high”
If having high THC doesn't mean the overall quality of the weed is good, what does make for good weed?
Everyone experiences cannabis differently, so there is no universal “good weed.” For example, maybe someone's idea of a great high is something extremely mellow, barely perceptible, and lets them stay in control and coherent. Another person's idea of a great high is getting couch-locked and binge-watching Too Hot To Handle. One person might gravitate to a flower with lower potency while the other might select something with a higher potency. The level of THC in a flower is, among other things, tied to potency, but that's just one factor in an overall experience.
“I think there are many variables that make flower great flower, and it's not just potency,” said Julia Jacobson, CEO of sustainable cannabis brand Aster Farms. “There's the taste, the flavor, the scent, the pull. There's the immediate effect, the long-term effect. There is also how all of this fits into whatever experience you're having at the moment. There's a lot to consider when you are shopping for cannabis that goes well beyond just looking for something with 30% THC.”
What actually matters when it comes to making an ideal high experience is nuanced and complex, requiring a person to not only learn about cannabis but about her own endocannabinoid system as well. The factors that determine how weed makes you feel are both objective and subjective. First, there's the combination of how the strain's chemical compounds, like terpenes and cannabinoids, react with one another. Then, there's how the plant's chemical makeup reacts with your unique endocannabinoid system. And finally, how all of this reacts with you, while you are reacting to your surroundings.
“Quick sound bites just don't do it,” said Ghislaine Ball, the former managing director of the 420 Archive, and founder of The Terpene Tasting Kit, an educational product that familiarizes people with terpenes. “You have to get into a hole in order to really explain cannabis. You have to get into chemical biology, then you have to get into genetics.”
As with other misleading effect-indicating monikers, like sativa and indica, THC percentage is used to indicate potency but often gets confused with overall flower quality because there isn't an accurate way to simplify what actually makes flower great. As fellow cannabis journalist Dante Jordan reported, every strain is a hybrid.
Potency, terpenes, and THC
While high-THC percentages do indicate a level of potency in the flower, it also indicates a deficit of other compounds that make the flower great in different ways. “Here's the really interesting thing about the potency percentage,” said Jacobson. “The THC percentage refers to how much of the total mass of that literal weed is THC. So if someone is saying their flower is like 35% or 40% THC, then almost half the plant matter has to be made up of THC.”
She continued, “It's important to remember that as the THC percentage goes up, something else is coming down, and what's coming down are other beneficial compounds, and the effects they produce.”
Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC or Delta-9-THC, is a psychoactive compound in cannabis that produces the intoxicating effect we associate with getting stoned. While it definitely determines potency in terms of how stereotypically “high” the flower in question will get you, it has little to do with whether or not the flower is “great,” or whether it produces the effects you are looking for.
How THC became the focal point for generations of weed smokers
How did we become so fixated on THC? According to John Casali, the legacy grower behind Emerald Cup winning Huckleberry Hill Farms, it boils down to the simple issue that weed is a complex plant. “Back in the eighties or seventies, even the nineties, we would sell to somebody that would end up selling to somebody else, and we would never hear back from any of those people. The weed wasn't being tested for levels of different cannabinoids or anything like that,” Casali said. “I think just to simplify it for the end consumer, even back in the early eighties, you know, people could just refer to one compound, which was THC. So they would explain how good a product was to the end consumer by saying, 'This strain is just amazing. It's super high in THC.'”
And because consumers have come to focus on THC percentage, specifically how much THC is in flower, the industry is stuck in a cycle of producing high-THC flower since that's what sells. “People are hunting for high THC to the point that brands have bred out CBD,” added Jacobson. “I will tell you as a brand, whenever your sample reports come back from the lab, it's like this moment of terror looking for the THC percentage. Regardless of how great the weed is, if the percentage is too low, we know it won't sell.”
When it comes to pressure within the industry, Pete Pietrangeli, VP of Cosmic Distribution, agrees. “We're at the point where we're automatically reducing the price of any flower coming into us below 20%,” he said. “Even if we know it's great weed, we know we'll have a hard time with buyers, so we're apprehensive to take it at all. We feel an intense pressure to create a pricing tier that's essentially based entirely on THC percentages.”
This race to push high-THC flower into the market has led to something called “THC juicing,” which can be anything from specifically growing certain flower to produce high THC percentages to the addition of fallen kief in 1/8th jars or prerolls. “The whole juicing for THC thing, like coming up with clever ways to get the THC percentage up, is just a product of all this miseducation and misinformation that's gone on,” Pietrangeli noted. “If people are thinking that the buyers and the consumers only care about THC, then they're going to come up with a ton of ways to accommodate that.”
How to choose the cannabis that's best for you
So, what should consumers be looking for when they hit the dispensary? In my opinion, the first and perhaps most important factor is: who grew it? Familiarizing yourself with legacy farms and their brands — along with distribution and white labels connected to the farm — is more than worth the minimal effort it takes to do so.
Another thing to consider when shopping for weed is what kind of terpene profile matches the high you're looking for. Familiarizing yourself with the five dominant terpenes, how they smell, and what they do, will revolutionize the way you experience cannabis and the control you have in using this powerful plant.
All in all, the best advice I can give cannabis consumers is to do a little research. Check out what a dispensary has online and research the brands it carries. Then, once you've decided on a particular brand, look at the certificate of analysis (COA) for the strain you're interested in. In doing so, you'll have a better understanding of the type of high that flower may produce — but only if you take note of how different levels of cannabinoids and terpenes affect you.
Trust me, when you find that perfect high, it feels worth the effort.
Featured image by Dre Hudson/Weedmaps