The decriminalisation of cannabis in Thailand has led to significant progress in promoting its use and various benefits.
However, this advancement coincides with a concerning trend in the potency of dried cannabis flowers observed in the US and Europe over the past two decades. The average strength of smokable cannabis from legal and underground markets in these regions rose from approximately 8-9% THC in 2007 to 17% in 2017.
Whilst the biological limit for the THC that cannabis flowers can contain is reportedly 35%, buds that test above 20% THC are generally considered high potency. Consumer obsession with high THC flower affects various stakeholders in the cannabis industry and dictates diverse aspects from market prices to research funding.
For Thailand to become a global leader in cannabis commerce and to become synonymous with industry expertise, Thai consumers must be educated to think beyond THC potency and learn about better indicators of quality cannabis.
Cannabis – The Pharmacy in a Flower
THC potency has traditionally been heralded as a defining quality factor among many cannabis enthusiasts. However, focusing solely on a single compound overlooks the vast potential and various benefits that the cannabis plant has to offer.
Although the most abundant and pharmacologically active substances in cannabis, THC and CBD are just two of over 100 cannabinoids identified and isolated from the plant. Aside from cannabinoids, cannabis also produces hundreds of compounds that could be of therapeutic value to consumers.
Terpenes from plants, including eucalyptus and thyme, have a long history of aromatherapeutic benefits and have been used in the cosmetics and perfume industries for decades. In non-human and in-vitro studies, the recorded effects of terpenes include anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and memory enhancement.
Interest in colour, flavour and fragrance-enhancing flavonoids has also begun to cause a stir in the scene. One class of cannabis flavonoids, Cannflavins, was 30 times more effective at modulating inflammation than Aspirin.
Alkaloids in cannabis are nitrogen-containing chemicals thought to be made by plants as a defence mechanism against herbivory. Historically, plant alkaloids have proven to be an essential reservoir for drug discovery; well-known examples include caffeine, morphine and nicotine.
The research suggesting the potential recreational and medical value of many of the compounds found in cannabis is increasing. However, conclusive clinical data for their potential therapeutic benefits in treating human diseases is lacking.
One interesting theory that questions the benefits of using cannabis compounds in isolation is known as the “entourage effect.” This is the idea that the various compounds found in cannabis work together to enhance each other’s therapeutic potential in a way greater than the sum of their parts.
Whilst concrete scientific evidence for the theory is limited, the notion that the combined action of multiple compounds in whole-plant extracts or products containing the full spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes enhances their effects is intriguing.
Many researchers are working to try to crack this chemical code to improve our understanding of how to optimise the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and its various compounds.
The Human Endocannabinoid System and the Subjective Cannabis Experience
Measuring a person’s subjective cannabis experience and teaching someone how to determine the quality of their purchased cannabis is a worthy cause. However, until high-THC flowers stop commanding premium prices, the cost of consumer education seems like a riskier choice.
Progress on this front is being spearheaded by companies like US-based Jointly, the first “cannabis discovery” platform that guides its users through the practice of purposeful cannabis consumption.
The subjective experience of cannabis depends on factors like an individual’s endocannabinoid system, the intention behind their consumption, and more subtle elements like their diet and sleep patterns. New research also suggests that the particle size of ground cannabis significantly impacts the potency of a smoked joint.
Whilst many consumers are unaware of the various factors that can influence their smoked cannabis experience, science is beginning to shed some interesting light on the effect of THC potency on levels of intoxication.
A recent study from the University of Colorado compared the effects of smoking dried cannabis flowers containing either 16% or 24% THC.
An increase in the concentration of THC in the participant’s blood plasma did not lead to greater intoxication. In other words, consuming higher-potency THC didn’t make users feel more stoned. This begs the question, what are consumers paying for when they splash the cash on more potent buds?
One worst-case scenario is that they could end up with the opposite effect than the one they were looking for in the first place. Since the 70s, scientists have known that the dose-response curve for THC is biphasic, meaning it can have opposite effects at low and high doses.
In animal and human trials on anxiety, THC was found to decrease stress in low doses but increase it in higher ones. Similarly, animal studies on memory and cognition suggest that low concentrations of THC promote brain function and prevent degeneration, whilst higher doses are associated with short-term memory disruptions and impairments of cognitive function.
As legal markets expand, consumer understanding of the various factors that could impact their responses to cannabis is critical. Without an appreciation for these, many will continue to misinterpret factors like potency and associate higher THC concentrations with better-quality cannabis. Whilst the short-term consequences of this could be largely economical, the long-term effects of these choices are more concerning.
The Pursuit of Potency – A Race to the Bottom
Stakeholders across the supply chain are impacted by the “cult of potency,” which heralds THC concentration as the most valuable indicator of the intrinsic value of cannabis. From dictating the market price of crops to determining the type of research that gets funded, shopper-driven potency obsession profoundly affects consumers and abstainers alike.
Many cultivators have spoken against the market hype that forces them to grow high-THC plants at the expense of alternative and more unique cultivars, as high-THC plants often command higher prices when sold. The potency pursuit has also led many to lose money on their crops when, year after year, the threshold for what is considered a high concentration of THC continues to rise. Consumer demand for more potent cannabis doesn’t just affect cannabis producers.
Dr David Hawley is the Principal Scientist at Fluence, one of the world’s leading suppliers of LED lighting technology for controlled environment agriculture. He shared the impact of consumer demand for high-THC cannabis on his work:
“….There is reason to believe that other secondary compounds like terpenes, flavonoids, and phenyls are implicated in recreational and medicinal applications. But as the market continues to deprioritise these compounds, it is increasingly difficult to justify investing research funds into better understanding how the environment influences their biosynthesis and metabolism. This encourages a feedback loop; the longer the market persists in the single-minded pursuit of THC synthesis, the more I am forced to invest only in developing environmental management systems that lead to higher THC content and greater marginalisation of other important metabolites.”
Research and development are critical for improving our understanding of the plant’s potential and its benefits to human health and wellbeing. The descheduling of cannabis affords Thailand a rare opportunity to fund and accelerate scientific research, which is now free from the constraints of illegality. Easy access to the plant means Thailand could compete with Israel and Canada to become a world leader in cannabis research.
Besides limiting scientific progress, chasing THC potency also floods the market with the same type of cannabis.
A stroll around some of the best-known dispensaries in Bangkok highlights that many don’t stock flowers below 20% THC whilst others proudly display product testing over 25% THC. In reality, these levels are rare and, unfortunately, more often related to testing errors or the manipulation of results.
Sold-out signs on dispensary menus also indicate that the best-selling cultivars are the most potent. Disappointingly, hardly any shops sell cannabis with unique cannabinoid profiles or flower testing below 15% THC. Budtenders say these buds simply wouldn’t sell.
Destigmatisation and Sustainable Consumption
There is rising concern among healthcare professionals that shopping based on potency can encourage excessive consumption of high-THC cannabis. Regular use of cannabis over time can also cause a person’s body to become adapted to cannabinoids. This is known as tolerance and is characterised by a decreased response to cannabis, causing frequent users to need higher dosages to achieve their desired effects.
Harm reduction strategies like tolerance breaks are increasingly common among consumers who are paying close attention to their usage patterns and those who are learning to optimise their use of cannabis so it does not negatively impact any aspect of their daily lives. As we learn more about the human endocannabinoid system and its role in modulating the activity of essential processes in the body and its influence on disease, educating frequent users on responsible cannabis use is critical.
There is mixed evidence connecting high-potency cannabis, mental health symptoms, and cannabis dependency. However, with increased cases of emerging disorders like cannabis use disorder and cannabis hyperemesis syndrome, the correlations between regular use of high-potency cannabis and health risks have become too great for public health experts to ignore.
In the last few years, there has been an encouraging increase in the demand for cannabis-infused products that contain very low doses of cannabinoids, i.e. “microdosed” products. These lower potency products are a safer and suitable option for beginners but also the result of demand from experienced consumers who want to harness the therapeutic effects of cannabis whilst avoiding the overwhelming or intoxicating effects associated with higher doses.
Removing THC potency as a top-quality indicator is essential to championing conscious consumption of cannabis and reducing the health risks to new and experienced users alike. Ensuring the Thai market has lower-dosed cannabis products that attract new cannabis consumers and expand the local market is also vital for continued destigmatisation efforts.
Potency Inflation and Testing Fraud
A growing controversy in US legal markets is the problem of potency inflation. One study analysed commercially available flowers from various dispensaries and showed that product labels reported inaccurately high levels of THC.
The authors concluded that a lack of standardised testing protocols, limited local regulation, and financial incentives significantly affected potency inflation.
Instances of “lab shopping,” in which US producers select testing services based on those that provide them with the highest results for THC potency, have called into question the validity of cannabis labelling techniques. Many consumers are unaware that a lack of universal laboratory testing standards for cannabis means that results are not always legitimate and, therefore, they are not always getting what they paid for.
The question is, how can Thailand build on the failings of other legal cannabis markets and protect its consumers from the negative impacts of lab fraud?
For a start, it could develop a national standard for testing procedures that is government-mandated and state-regulated. Tighter controls could build consumer trust and ensure the reliability of other testing parameters like pesticides, mould and heavy metals.
Until then, it should also empower buyers to learn how to subjectively evaluate their cannabis experiences rather than misplacing their trust in easily manipulated certificates of analysis (CoAs). This is an effective way for the country to develop a more discerning consumer base, which demands more from players in its industry.
New research showing that the smell of dried flower and not its THC content was a better predictor of an individual’s subjective preference for cannabis suggests that buyers are already equipped with everything they need to judge quality cannabis, “the nose knows” – you just need to learn how to use it.
Greater control and standardisation of testing are necessary for Thailand to eliminate lab fraud from becoming synonymous with its industry. Investing in consumer education could help the country develop an enviable and world-class local supply chain that delivers a range of unique and industry-disruptive cannabis products to meet the needs of its discriminating buyers.
Supporting Local Growers in Thailand
Taking the spotlight away from THC potency allows consumers to prioritise other quality indicators, increasing their likelihood of a more positive experience and boosting innovation in the local industry. Examples of initially niche categories that later become mainstream, like organic produce and craft beer, can be used to inspire other parameters for attributing value.
Marketing the “how” behind cannabis products could form the basis of newly created certifications that award sustainable farming practices, e.g. organic, ethical sourcing, locally grown, carbon neutral etc. The country’s burgeoning tourism industry could add unique cannabis experiences to its repertoire and provide a platform for various communities nationwide to host curious visitors from the rest of Asia and beyond.
By supporting producers who focus on sustainability and social responsibility, Thailand’s consumers can also actively foster a more conscientious cannabis industry that is future-proofed from the increasing threats of climate change and price compressions caused by illegal North American imports.
Encouraging consumers to explore cannabis beyond its psychoactive properties can also foster a deeper understanding of its cultural value and dispel misconceptions surrounding the plant.
Shining the spotlight on associations that work to preserve the indigenous varieties of cannabis found in South Asia’s highlands is a fascinating opportunity to uplift the native communities that grow and protect wild-grown cannabis with unique chemical profiles that are not found anywhere else on Earth. This rich natural heritage and diversity set Thailand apart from most of the world’s other legal markets.
The Future of Cannabis in the Land of Smiles
Exploring the multifaceted nature of cannabis beyond THC potency offers numerous opportunities for consumers and the industry.
Informed decision-making promotes dialogue, normalises cannabis as a wellness option, and contributes to destigmatisation efforts. Prioritising a holistic approach to cannabis shopping can drive local innovation and establish Thailand as a responsible and pioneering leader in the cannabis industry.
Purchasing behaviour and preferences play a crucial role in shaping the supply aspects of Thailand’s cannabis market. Incentivising suppliers to release products that suit discerning and sophisticated consumers is a surefire way for the industry to drive local innovation and evolve beyond the limitations and failings of its other legal cannabis predecessors.
By prioritising a holistic approach to cannabis shopping, Thailand’s cannabis customers can benefit in various ways. From greater accessibility to products with unique chemical profiles and opportunities to tailor products to their wellness goals to promoting sustainable consumption practices that future-proof the local industry. As a consequence of all of these, the country’s cannabis community can play a pivotal road in regional and global destigmatisation efforts.
By resisting the single-minded pursuit of THC potency, Thailand’s cannabis industry can thrive. By leaving potency in the ashes, it can support the well-being of its consumers and establish itself as a leader in responsible, enlightened and pioneering cannabis experiences.
Educating Thailand’s cannabis consumers on the importance of basing their purchasing decisions on factors beyond THC concentration is a critical challenge. If addressed, Thailand can establish itself as a global leader in cannabis-derived products with a reputation for unrivalled industry expertise.