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Why You Should Rethink Shopping Based on THC Content

"...many consumers tend to just buy...the highest THC number. And as a result, high THC numbers fetch more money."​

Imagine you’d like a nice alcoholic beverage or two to help you wind down after a stressful week, or just to have fun with friends. Do you set out to purchase the drink with the highest alcohol content because you will get the most bang for your buck?

Probably not. People typically make alcohol buying decisions based on flavor profile, presentation, quality of the beverage, and what they happen to be in the mood for at that moment. Precise alcohol content measurements rarely come into play in the purchasing decisions.

Paradoxically, this is exactly what happens in cannabis dispensaries every day. Absent much information about the dizzying array of strains and products available in a dispensary, many consumers tend to just buy the cannabis with the highest THC number. And as a result,high THC numbers fetch more money.

"Choosing flower based on THC alone...is bad for the industry."

Choosing flower based on THC alone is not helpful for the consumer, and frankly, is bad for the industry.

Here’s some reasons to look beyond the THC value when making purchasing decisions:

  • THCa (which converts to THC when cooked or burned) is just one of over a hundred cannabinoids that exist in the cannabis plant. Cannabis plants also have CBDa, CBN, CBG and numerous other cannabinoids that work together to produce different effects. Further cannabis features hundreds of terpenes, a class of compounds that provides a variety of aromas and effects, that add to the overall “entourage effect” responsible for any effects experienced by the consumer. Cannabis and its effects can be quite complex, and you may find that a low THC strain might bring you exactly the effects that you want.
  • If you live in a state where testing labs aren’t regulated, the THC number on the package might be inaccurate. In California, for instance, lab tests are not yet highly controlled, so there is a lot of room, and incentive, for putting a THC value on the package that is higher than an actual representative sampling of the batch would provide. Growers may bring in a sample from a flower that they believe is high in THC, but put that test result on lower THC strains. (This is likely to change next year with upcoming changes to testing and labeling regulations.)
  • THC values are not as precise as they might seem. Even among the most well-intentioned growers and the best labs, there is a potential variance in results by as much as 5% either way. So a cannabis flower labeled 18% could be anywhere from 16% - 20%. To further complicate things, the cannabis plant exhibits phytochemical polymorphism, meaning it does not produce the same concentrations or variety of chemical compounds uniformly throughout the plant. So when looking at samples side by side, keep in mind that a few points difference between them is effectively no difference.
  • On average, cannabis flower RARELY tests over 25% THC. If you walk into a dispensary and see several strains on the menu with very high test results, there is a good possibility the numbers have been inflated. And the dispensary probably isn’t supporting a lot of the growers that are producing a wider variety of lower THC strains, some of which might be quite appealing to consumers.
Why is all this THC emphasis bad for the industry?

Since consumers have little else to go on, they are putting their money in the high THC strains. Some dispensaries are catching on to this and keep test results behind the counter so consumers don’t immediately gravitate towards this number. However, it still happens.

As a result, high THC strains fetch a higher price in the market. And that causes unintended consequences including causing growers to “shop around” for labs that will provide the highest results, which in turn provides incentive for labs to compromise their scientific integrity to find ways of inflating THC numbers in the hopes of keeping their client’s business.

While legitimate labs will not fudge results, they do come under pressure, often indirectly, but sometimes directly with threats of non-payment and certainly lost business if a low test result is reported. It is possible that a nefarious lab employee could cheat the system behind the scenes. Regulators in Oregon and other states have put controls and routine auditing in place to minimize this practice, however it still could happen – particularly in states that do not yet have testing regulations in place, such as in California.

So the next time you visit your favorite dispensary, consider avoiding buying cannabis on THC content alone, and instead find the products that have the flavors, aromas, and other features you enjoy. You might just find in your experience that a 14% flower may come off as feeling stronger than that 30% flower that would have cost more money. And if the 14% flower doesn’t seem strong enough with two hits, take a third, and enjoy.