The common perception of marijuana as a relatively harmless plant has its roots in the marijuana that existed in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — which tended to be between 1 percent and 3 percent THC, or about 4 percent by 1995, studies have shown. (THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, is the compound in marijuana that causes a high.)
Since then, potency has skyrocketed. In the 2000s, the average marijuana plant had closer to 10 percent THC. By 2021, the average marijuana seized by the US Drug Enforcement Administration had 15 percent THC. Flower sold in Massachusetts’ legal dispensaries today is often advertised as having more than 20 percent THC. Extracted oils and concentrates — like shatter, dab, and wax — can have up to 90 percent THC.
The potency growth came alongside the commercialization of cannabis. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, and since then, a majority of states have legalized medical or recreational cannabis. That let legitimate companies breed more potent strains of plants and develop new extraction techniques. High-potency marijuana can appeal to consumers because it has a greater psychoactive effect — it gives more buzz faster. If consumers build greater tolerance, they buy more marijuana, creating an incentive for companies to market these products.
The danger is the higher the potency, the greater the side effects. There has…