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At the end of August, the U.S. Surgeon General released an alarming advisory. Although cannabis has long been considered one of the “safest” drugs by users, especially as more and more states implement medical and recreational cannabis policies, the Surgeon General warned that cannabis remains associated with health risks for pregnant and adolescent users. One of the main reasons this is true: today’s cannabis is much more potent than decades prior.

Approximately 24 million Americans used cannabis in the past year, double the number of Americans who used the drug 10 years ago. Ten percent of cannabis users say they use it for medical purposes based upon the small but growing body of evidence supporting the use of medical cannabis for a limited number of conditions. But critically, cannabis strength, or potency, is on the rise as well. There is an important and concerning disconnect between the drugs Baby Boomers may remember from the 1960s and the cannabis more common today.

Cannabis in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s typically contained 3 to 4 percent THC, the active ingredient responsible for the “high.” Recent reports indicate that cannabis available in dispensaries in medical cannabis states range from 17.7% to 23.2% THC, a startling increase. Meanwhile, cannabis concentrates - often referred to waxes, shatter or oil - are much stronger than regular cannabis flower, and THC concentrations in these products may reach 80 to 90 percent THC. 

The Surgeon General’s warning is a response to these developments. Our brains develop into our mid-20s, so exposing young people to increasingly potent cannabis may have harmful consequences. Although often disputed, cannabis can be addictive and studies show risk for addiction rises with increased potency. The relationship between potency and other adverse outcomes like anxiety and psychosis is less well defined, but it is likely that increased potency will lead to increased risk as well.

The risks of cannabis use are magnified because people still aren’t fully aware of them. Although adult use and youth use have remained relatively flat in the context of changing policies, perception of risks among both adults and youth have plummeted in recent years. Declining rates of risky drinking and cigarette smoking among young people suggests that we have the ability to educate effectively on risk-taking behaviours, but we have yet to master the complex messages needed to educate our kids on cannabis.

There is also the historical narrative, popularized by movies, advocacy groups and users themselves, that cannabis is safe and good for you. The ubiquity of cannabis coupled with its increasing legalization has fueled this narrative, as well as its popularity among artists and celebrities. 

Continued problems with edibles also underscore the need for better education. Many see edibles as a safer way to try cannabis, but they aren’t aware of how dosing works. A typical infused brownie, for example, contains 100 mg of THC and the average serving size is 10 mg, or 1/10th of the brownie. Most people unfortunately choose to consume the whole brownie, not realizing that only a small portion of the brownie should be eaten to start.

The effects of cannabis also differ depending on whether a person ingests it or smoke it. Smoking cannabis usually results in effects within minutes that peak over 15-30 minutes. Eating cannabis results in effects after at least 30 minutes and can last for hours. This can lead to confusion as people who normally smoke cannabis think something is wrong and eat too much of an edible in an effort to overcompensate for the delayed effect.

The same scenario has played out over and over across the country: people consuming much higher doses of THC than anticipated end up intoxicated with high heart rates, slurred speech, anxiety and paranoia. Luckily, users can’t die or overdose from overconsumption of cannabis, but such an unpleasant and scary experience is entirely avoidable.

Source: https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/weed-becomes-legal-more-states-dangers-potent-cannabis-are-being-ncna1056446

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