Continued legalization of medical and recreational marijuana has prompted millions of curious individuals to raise a number of questions: Is there any difference between medical and recreational weed? Does medical marijuana have THC? Is illicit marijuana more dangerous than the medical variety? After decades of stigmatization and harsh legal consequences for illicit cannabis use, it’s hardly a surprise that public curiosity around the substance is growing.
Are you curious about what the difference is between medical and illicit marijuana? Read on to find out.
Marijuana’s Ever-Increasing THC Concentration
Decades ago, much of the marijuana that circulated around the United States was brought in en masse from other countries. Although it was illegal throughout the country, the demand for marijuana largely outpaced supply. And with mass quantities entering the country from Central and South America, growers were able to get away with producing a less-than-potent plant. Today, however, public preference has changed dramatically.
Today, US growers produce most of the cannabis distributed throughout the country. And unlike the foreign cannabis of decades past, modern marijuana is now grown as an experiment of sorts. Rather than approaching the production process with a singular focus on quantity, growers now conduct careful interbreeding of various strains of the plant to produce a highly concentrated psychoactive substance.
As a result of modern interbreeding and experimentation, THC, marijuana’s primary psychoactive component, now composes a much greater percentage of the plant’s molecular structure. How much greater? According to a study published in Biological Psychiatry, the average THC concentration in marijuana samples seized by the DEA now hovers at approximately 12%. Compare that to the meager 4% THC concentration common in the past and the increase is profound.
Potential Benefits of Marijuana: Can It Actually Help Treat Medical Conditions?
According to researchers, the cannabis plant contains approximately 540 active compounds, many of which elicit beneficial effects when ingested. Cannabinoids, a class of naturally occurring compounds found in the cannabis plant, are responsible for many of these effects.
Of the over 100 cannabinoids scientists have identified so far, five of those, THC, CBD, CBN, CBC and CBG, produce notably beneficial effects. While researchers continue to study these compounds, here’s what’s currently known about their positive effects:
- THC. Tetrahydrocannabinol is the primary psychoactive component and most well-recognized compound in marijuana. While it produces the notorious high associated with weed, it also delivers a number of beneficial effects. Researchers have found THC provides pain relief, mood enhancement, digestion improvement, relaxation and elation. Currently, THC is used to help treat chronic pain, seizures, insomnia and a variety of other medical conditions.
- CBD. Cannabidiol is the second most well-known compound in marijuana; However, it does not produce the high associated with consuming the plant. Rather than psychoactive effects, CBD produces more physiological effects, including increased appetite, relaxation, improved sleep and pain relief.
- CBN. Cannabinol, a marginally psychoactive cannabinoid, is well recognized for its sedative properties and ability to prolong sleep time among users. It has analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic, anticonvulsant and anti-cancer properties as well. Researchers have also found that CBN stimulates appetite and encourages bone growth.
- CBC. Cannabichromene, another minor cannabinoid, has anti-inflammatory properties and also plays a role in neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. As such, researchers believe the compound is beneficial in encouraging brain growth.
- CBG. Cannabigerol, a minor cannabinoid, works to reduce inflammation, slow the growth of cancer cells, reduce nausea, and decrease intraocular pressure caused by glaucoma. Currently, high-CBG strains of marijuana are used to help alleviate symptoms associated with cancer, Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
Medical Marijuana vs Illicit Drugs: Which Is Safer?
Marijuana’s ever-increasing potency, both on the street and in medical dispensaries, begs the question, “Is one safer than the other?” The answer, unfortunately, isn’t cut and dried (no pun intended).
While most medically legal states have regulations surrounding marijuana production, transport and storage, even regulations can’t ensure a psychoactive compound is necessarily safe. And although prescription marijuana allows medically qualifying individuals to avoid legal issues, not even a prescription can guarantee a lack of negative side effects.
That said, marijuana purchased off the street is never subject to regulations, which means it could potentially contain any number of harmful substances. Lacing, a common practice with many illicit drugs, involves adding weight to a substance to bulk up profits, and marijuana is not immune to the practice. Lead, rat poison and even embalming fluid are commonly added to illicit marijuana, and unfortunately, unsuspecting buyers end up suffering the consequences.
Another danger with illicit marijuana is the prevalence of man-made substances created to mimic the drug. While street dealers often peddle these synthetic substances as acceptable substitutes for the naturally occurring plant, their effects are largely unpredictable and more powerful than those produced by marijuana. In some cases, the effects of these synthetically produced compounds prove life-threatening and even fatal.
The bottom line: Although the safety of medical marijuana is never guaranteed, state regulations control its production, potency and purity to some degree. As such, medical marijuana is largely considered a safer option than its illicit counterpart.
Potency: Does Medical Marijuana Have THC Like Recreational Marijuana?
Although recreational cannabis is currently legal for adult use in 11 states plus Washington, D.C., scores of people continue to apply for their medical cannabis cards. Why? Does medical marijuana have THC? Does it even get you high?
The research says yes. According to a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Plos One, the majority of cannabis products sold at both recreational and medical dispensaries were advertised as having a THC concentration of greater than 15%.
In medical dispensaries, the average THC concentration was approximately 19.2%, and in recreational programs, the average concentration hovered around 21.5%. Factoring in a margin of error, the potency difference between the two was negligible.
But what about illicit marijuana? Is it less potent than its dispensary counterparts? For the most part, yes. Referencing the Biological Psychiatry study mentioned earlier, the current average THC content in illicit marijuana hovers around 14%.
Marijuana Dependency Is Real
Whether you opt to use medical, recreational or illicit marijuana, the potential for dependency is real, despite what you may have heard. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, recent data suggests that up to 30% of cannabis users experience marijuana use disorder, which can morph into addiction in severe cases.
Marijuana use disorder, characterized by an inability to discontinue using the substance despite its interference with daily life, can be serious. In 2015 alone, approximately 4 million people met the diagnostic criteria for the disorder, and over 138,000 voluntarily sought treatment. As the potency of the drug continues to rise, increasing numbers of users are finding themselves struggling with an inability to cease using the substance.
If you or a loved one is struggling with marijuana use, please know you never have to face the issue alone. At FHE Health, we provide a comprehensive approach to substance abuse treatment using a combination of both therapeutic and medical resources. If you’re ready to reach out for help, our compassionate team is available 24/7 to take your call. Contact us today at (833) 596-3502 or connect with us online to begin your journey toward recovery.