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It's Time To Disrupt Our Market Obsession with THC

The cannabis market is hyper-focused on THC. But the plant contains much more than just a single intoxicating compound.

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Walk into any dispensary today, and you'll find the shelves lined with high-THC flower. While it's easy to assume that consumers are driving this THC-rich trend, this is not the case. The products on dispensary shelves reflect more what growers bring to the marketplace than what customers would enjoy and benefit from the most.

As many of us have discovered through trial and error, high-potency "strains" aren't always fun (over time, I hope we use the term "cultivar" more widely, and that "strains" only refer to viruses). Many consumers have adverse reactions to large doses of THC, like paranoia, anxiety, and discomfort. The high rates of THC found in common strains are a lingering result of cannabis prohibition.

But with prohibition now long behind us, we should focus on the customer experience and not potency. It's time to move away from this obsession with THC.

Related: THCA And THC: What's The Difference?

Prohibition and the rise of THC-rich cannabis

Historically, we can draw many parallels between cannabis and alcohol. Prohibition drove the production of both underground, which meant that distillers and cultivators alike hid their production in small spaces. From a straight business perspective, that logically meant focusing on higher-strength products.

During the era of alcohol prohibition, spirits makers moved away from beer and cider to produce stronger alcohol, namely moonshine, and whiskey. Similarly, cannabis cultivators began selecting for THC-rich cultivars above all else. Producers were more concerned with packing more punch into smaller packages than crafting personalized end-user experiences.

Today, we face the ramifications of these choices. Decades of cannabis prohibition has had a disastrous effect on the plant's genetic diversity. And these are precisely the bottlenecks in the cannabis genome that we want to rectify to highlight all the possible experiences this plant offers.

The problem with high THC

When Biotech Institute first began working with cannabis over a decade ago, they facilitated dozens of market experiments that involved testing and analysis of the most common cultivars in California in the Napro laboratory. As a result, a significant majority fell into a high THC category, and none contained appreciable amounts of other cannabinoids. What's more, most could be sorted into just a few terpene profiles.

Over the years, regulators and researchers have issued warnings about the high-THC trend. Several studies published in the last 15 years have measured increased levels of THC and decreased levels of CBD from samples taken in the US and abroad.

A 2020 investigation explored recreational and medicinal cannabis in several legal markets, including California, Washington, Colorado, Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. After sampling 8,505 cannabis products from 653 dispensaries, the researchers reported that "the majority of THC products had >15% THC from all states." This was the highest category of consideration in their study. As a reminder, THC averaged around four percent in 1995.

Why is this a problem? Although some consumers enjoy the effects of THC-rich products from a therapeutic perspective, low to moderate doses provide the most relief with the least risk of adverse effects. The preliminary clinical guidance on a medically effective dose often reiterates the adage "start low and go slow." An initial dose may be as low as 2.5 mg of THC with a suggested maximum daily dose following self-titration of only 40 mg of THC.

Considering most, if not all, strains filling dispensary shelves are now averaging more than 15 percent THC (and sometimes pushing over 30 percent THC), a consumer could quickly exceed this dosage after a single session with friends.

Many of us have had a bad trip when using too much THC, but there are also more serious safety concerns. Researchers have connected high-potency cannabis with psychotic disorders, cannabis use disorders, hippocampal harm, as well as other addictions and anxiety disorders.

It's time to disrupt the cannabis experience

Despite the scientific findings, the market is still hyper-focused on THC. But this plant contains much more than just a single intoxicating compound.

There are over a hundred cannabinoids and at least 150 terpenes packed into the species. With so much potential beyond extreme intoxication, it's time to open up the genome and disrupt the market obsession with THC. It's time to enhance the cannabis experience.

So, how do we make cannabis better? First, we need to focus on the user experience, whether recreational or medicinal. It has to be fun, effective, and tasty. Not everyone wants to get blitzed. Instead, many consumers seek calm, creativity, relaxation, inspiration, and other nuanced effects or mood enhancements.

Using our evidence-based, targeted breeding model, we set a goal and then breed toward it. For example, we've created a series of cultivars with different cannabinoid ratios (THC-dominant, mixed THC: CBD, and CBD-dominant), all with near-identical terpenoid profiles. Our testing has found that each cannabinoid ratio offers subtly different fun and therapeutic experiential effects.

This means it's possible to curate the journey, but stick within a specific taste profile. From THC-rich to CBD-rich to THCV-rich and everything in between, you can get the terpenes you want with the buzz you desire.

For example, our Limonene Superclass series, with limonene as the dominant terpene, could offer analgesic and antidepressant effects. Combined with high levels of CBD, there may be interesting synergistic effects for mood disorders.

Under our targeted breeding approach, it is now possible to test each side by side in a much more clinically controlled manner. Targeting breeding now allows for controlled whole-plant cannabis research in a way that was never before possible.

Making cannabis more enjoyable and effective

It's hard to imagine a world where the only option at the liquor store is a 190-proof grain alcohol, yet that's essentially what the cannabis sector looks like, even years after the end of prohibition. A dispensary dominated by the high-THC flower is exclusionary, not therapeutically valuable. Too much THC often produces harmful effects that run entirely contrary to the positive results of smaller THC amounts. We know the plant has the potential to craft an experience for just about everyone. Want a CBD-rich cultivar that tastes like Lemon Crush, Happy Pineapple, or Girl Scout Cookies? Looking for a cultivar that specifically targets pain or inflammation or both? Now, we can breed toward particular ends to create better cannabis through this data-driven approach.

It's now possible to find out which option, among many, offers an effective and enjoyable experience for a specified end goal.