State-Legal Marijuana and the Potency Issue

Marijuana legalization is still not a settled issue. Though 40 states are on board with medical cannabis and more than 20 have given the green light to recreational use, marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance at the federal level. Furthermore, the medical and scientific communities have not yet reached a consensus on the matter. One of the issues still being debated is plant potency.

It has been asserted by many marijuana legalization opponents that plant potency has increased over the years. There is scientific evidence to back up such claims. One such study published in 2021 demonstrates a 40% increase in marijuana THC content between 2009 and 2019.

The question is this: does increased potency really matter? How you answer probably depends on your view of state-legal marijuana itself. People in favor of legal marijuana with no restrictions likely favor higher potency as well. Those ardently against look at higher potency as yet another reason to keep the drug illegal under federal law.

Potency and Plant Classification

Potency matters a great deal to one particular group: government regulators in Washington. Thanks to the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing industrial hemp in the U.S., regulators had to come up with a way to distinguish between hemp and marijuana. The dividing line they chose was potency.

Cannabis plants are tested to determine the amount of THC they contain. Plants at 0.3% or less are classified as hemp. Plants with more than 0.3% THC are classified as marijuana. So cannabis legality hinges on potency.

The real question about potency has nothing to do with plant classification, though. It is a matter of public health and safety. There are those who believe that higher potency marijuana could be more dangerous to users. Some even believe that more potent marijuana is potentially more addicting.

People Are Capable of Self-Regulating

The other side of the potency argument says that people can self-regulate. A 2021 piece written by NORML Deputy Director Paul Armentano makes the case by comparing marijuana with alcohol. Higher potency alcohol products – meaning those with a higher concentration of alcohol by volume – are not any more or less safe than their less potent counterparts. Armentano makes the case that society trusts people to regulate their alcohol intake.

There is a key difference, however. Alcohol manufacturers are required by law to disclose how much alcohol their products contain. That information must be on product labels. The same is not always true for state-legal marijuana. Some states require full disclosure while others do not.

Cultivators Increasing Potency

Another thing to consider is that marijuana cultivators are purposely increasing plant potency. They are locked in an arms race of sorts to see who can come up with the most potent strain. If potency doesn’t matter, why do this? There must be something to plant potency if cultivators are purposely trying to increase it.

Potency does matter in a medical setting because potency and dosage are directly correlated. And yet plant potency is less important to medical marijuana patients using concentrates instead of unprocessed flower. According to Beehive Farmacy near Ogden, UT, concentrate products are manufactured by combining cannabinoids and terpenes with other ingredients. The cannabinoids and terpenes are extracted from cannabis plants by processors. A higher potency plant would yield more THC, but it would necessarily change the formulation of a given concentrated product.

The issue of marijuana potency cannot be looked at from just one angle. It is a multifaceted issue that affects different stakeholders in different ways. Does it matter? Yes. How to apply it is not exactly clear.

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