In the current cannabis market, THC levels are king. Conventional budtender wisdom will tell you that the higher the THC percentage on the label, the more potent the flower. But user experiences and scientific evidence shows that the “high” of cannabis is likely tied to other compounds present in the plant and their interactions with THC, meaning consumers and retailers have been making a big mistake by chasing higher THC concentrations.

Higher and Higher

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently announced that it had created a method to increase the concentration of therapeutic compounds in cannabis plants. Researchers at the lab of Prof. Alexander Vainstein at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot manipulated a neutralized plant virus to express genes that influence the production of active substances.

The researchers were able to successfully engineer a cannabis plant that had nearly 17 percent higher levels of THC and 25 percent higher levels of CBG (cannabigerol) as well as 20 to 30 percent higher levels of terpenes.

Vainstein says the technology can be used to increase or decrease targeted active cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis plants. But the only aspect of the story that international headlines highlighted was the team’s claim that they could increase THC levels.

It’s become standard practice to assume that cannabis strains with high THC percentages are more potent than others, but the truth is that the most popular cannabinoid in weed might not be the one responsible for the high that individuals enjoy. Understanding the multitude of compounds that can be found in cannabis and how they affect you is key to finding the right strain. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as finding a percentage on a label.

Entourage Effect

Regular cannabis flower users will recognize the difference between the high provided by bud and the one provided by THC extracts. Many users report feeling that concentrates lack something that can be found in flower without being able to articulate the problem.

“It just isn’t the same. I’m not as relaxed,” says Albuquerque resident Jim Carrillo, describing the high of THC cartridges compared to flower. Carrillo has been smoking cannabis for 5 years. While vaping cartridges he noticed “something was missing.” He describes a high that’s less sedating and more paranoid than the traditional one he experienced while smoking flower. He’s stuck to smoking and eating his cannabis ever since.

That “something” could be what researchers call the “entourage effect.” According to many cannabis scientists, cannabinoids and terpenes work together to create more potent effects than when the individual compounds are isolated.

This theory has had a huge influence on how consumers purchase cannabis, with medical patients turning to flower for its supposed synergistically enhanced therapeutic benefits.

A 2020 study published in Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology criticized the entourage effect for being an unsubstantiated theory that’s used to market cannabis products. But even without a synergistic boost, it’s clear that using different cannabinoids in conjunction produces a better high than THC alone.

THC Fallacy

A common metaphor used by aficionados is that the THC is the horsepower, not the engine. While that metaphor encourages users to pay more attention to the other compounds found in cannabis, it might not be all that accurate either. A 2020 study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that the level of THC in a strain did not correlate to the level of intoxication experienced by the consumer.

“Surprisingly, we found that potency did not track with intoxication levels,” said lead author Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant professor in the Institute of Cognitive Science. “While we saw striking differences in blood levels between the two groups, they were similarly impaired.”

The team assessed 121 regular cannabis users. About half of the group typically used concentrates while the other half typically used flower. The concentrate group used a product containing either 70 percent or 90 percent THC while the flower group used a product containing either 16 percent or 24 percent THC.

Participants’ blood was drawn, their mood and intoxication level were assessed and their cognitive function and balance were tested directly before use, directly after and one hour following use. Those in the concentrates group tested at much higher THC levels at all three points than the flower group. The concentrates group saw THC levels up to 1,016 micrograms per milliliter in the few minutes after use, while those in the flower group only saw levels up to 455 micrograms per milliliter.

No matter what group participants belonged to or what the level of THC was in the product they used, users reported the same level of intoxication and tested similarly in measures of balance and cognitive impairment.

“People in the high concentration group were much less compromised than we thought they were going to be,” said coauthor Kent Hutchison, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder. “If we gave people that high a concentration of alcohol it would have been a different story.”

Consumers should keep this in mind as they shop for cannabis products in dispensaries. Most retailers price and display their products based on THC level. But those “high shelf” strains may actually serve up less of a punch than the ones on the “low shelf.” Paying attention to terpene profiles and shopping by smell will always turn up a better product than comparing THC percentages alone.