Are More Potent Strains of Weed Actually Better?
A closer look at the space race to grow stronger strains with higher THC content.
Published on December 27, 2016

For some time now, high-THC potency cultivars have been the most revered form of cannabis for recreational consumption; and they often win major competitions, leading to increased demand in the marketplace and higher prices on dispensary shelves. But breeding cannabis solely for its supercharged THC content and trichome frostiness overlooks the synergistic properties of all phytonutrients. So much so, we’re creating a form of genetically modified “steroid”-enhanced mutant weed.

Produce growers do a similar thing. Sunkist oranges are bred for pronounced sugars and sweetness, not necessarily nutrients. Compare the appearance of branded conventional produce versus organic locally grown, and you may notice that conventional options from companies like Dole, Green Giant, Chiquita, and Real Sweet are often sweeter and more uniform in color than like-varieties from lesser-known farms populating the local and organic sections. These characteristics don't necessarily make the products better, or even point to increased quality in any way. We just perceive them to be more appealing. That’s just the way it is in retail. What dazzles on the shelves, sells. And successful companies put in a lot of time producing product that outshines competitors.

A look at cannabis cup entrants in 2015, highlighted in the High Times article “The Strongest Strains on Earth 2016,” shows that cannabis cultivated in the U.S. is clearly inching its way over the 30 percent THC point, with many entrants hovering between the 25 to 30-plus THC mark. In Denver that year, Chem Dog, by Next Harvest, recorded the highest THC potency at a High Times Cannabis Cup to date, measuring 32.13 percent.

Compare this to the most potent Jamaica Cup entrant that year, Kevie Skunk, an outdoor grown hybrid with a THC potency of just 17.8 percent. That’s nearly half the THC. While indoor is grown in Jamaica, a lot of Jamaican weed is grown outdoors by ganja grower associations, representing each province of the small island nation. The grower’s associations are comprised primarily of Rastafarians who have cultivated cannabis in Jamaica for decades, and Jamaica is a place where cannabis is still cultivated by its oldest indigenous people. Jamaica’s cultural traditions of cannabis cultivation have yet to be marred entirely by the U.S. space race to reach the highest THC.

Now, there can be discrepancies in lab results measuring potency—large ones at that. It has been rumored that some labs operate with a 40 percent margin of error when calculating THC potency. Comparing THC potency results can be further skewed due to varied lab testing techniques and by which buds on the plant are tested. Some growers even roll their flower in kief or soak them in hash oil to increase THC concentration before submitting their samples to labs. Nonetheless, THC potency in the U.S. is increasing.

While many lab tests measure the potency of several cannabinoids and sometimes terpenes as well, THC is the cannabinoid connected to making people feel “high.” And when you’re dropping $10 to $20 a gram, it’s assumed the nugs with the highest THC content will not only get you highest, but also stretch your budget. Not to mention, choosing those shiny, hand-trimmed frost-covered nugs is certain to impress your friends.

Yet, regardless of how much THC is in the flower, it’s the lack of CBD and lack of focus on other cannabinoids that’s concerning. Research shows that more than 100 minor cannabinoids in addition to THC and CBD play a role in cannabis’ effects.

It’s interesting to note that among Jamaica’s best indica entrants, roughly one-third of all submissions had elevated levels of CBD above three percent—a level practically unheard of in American super potent high-THC strains.

Before cultivators began focusing so heavily on breeding cannabis for THC potency, CBD and other cannabinoids were more naturally occurring, and this could be the key to keeping cannabis on track to legitimacy. Not only does CBD help regulate the pronounced euphoria and anxiety-inducing properties of THC, but so do cannabinoids like CBG and CBN, as do prominent terpenes like myrcene and linalool. These minor cannabinoids are known to be non-psychoactive. CBG is regarded as the “stem cell” of cannabinoids, a regulating “mother” cannabinoid responsible for spawning all others. The less we focus on these ancillary phytonutrients, the further we mutate hybridized cannabis into something else; something more potent than Mother Nature ever intended.

So, perhaps it’s not coincidental that emergency room visits went up (just a tiny bit) in newly legal recreational states, reportedly linked to the paranoia and anxiety produced from consuming potent high-THC weed. Even in Colorado, lawmakers attempted legislation to cap cannabis THC potencies under 20 percent. While increased regulations aren’t necessarily an answer to these problems, a focus on more holistic growing practices, in accordance with nature, could be.

The cannabis culture I know is a diaspora where all things natural and “of the earth” are celebrated. Breeding cannabis for maximum THC potency, and minimizing the symbiotic value of other naturally occurring cannabinoids, is a departure from nature, and subsequently, the roots of cannabis culture.

When we look at the current day price variance between indoor cannabis versus outdoor, we see that indoor prices far exceed sungrown outdoor prices, pointing to a higher consumer demand for cannabis grown under artificial lights, in man-made soils, nourished with either synthetic nutrients or natural recipes created by growers to either mimic or exceed nature's abilities. This preference for indoor grown cannabis is due, in part, to regulations that force people to harvest cannabis out of sight and smell, but also because high-THC potency cultivation is a result of stringent lighting and nutrient schedules that, so far, can only be achieved by manipulating nature.

In the wine industry, the value of each harvest and resulting batch is a direct reflection of the season’s weather and the surrounding terroir, which is something indoor cultivators work hard to control and emulate, but may never truly replicate.

Sungrown herb is delicious, and like great wine, a great season can produce a harvest with all the finest qualities of the earth, rain, sun, and air. No artificial lighting system has yet to recreate the entire spectrum or unquantifiable metaphysics of the sun. This is not to say that outdoor is unequivocally better than indoor, but it certainly has no place being perceived as inferior—both are gross overstatements. As consumers become more familiar with the subtleties of cannabis, growers will provide. We’ll explore flavor profiles and tasting notes like an oenophile does with wine. We’ll have plenty of cannabis that’s well-rounded and nutritious, sungrown and spring fed.

THC as a molecule is remarkable, and its effects and therapeutic benefits are profound. But simply boasting the most potent bud is as obscure as drinking Everclear to savor its flavor. We can benefit from a greater focus on overall phytonutrient profiles—cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and beyond. Because, ultimately, all of these elements combine to define our experience.

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Zoe Wilder
Zoe Wilder is a media relations professional and business consultant orbiting cannabis, tech, wellness, music, art, wine and spirits. For 17 years, Zoe has worked with hundreds of clients across a variety of industries to develop and execute inventive promotional content and campaigns that capture the attention of tastemakers and influencers from around the globe.
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