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THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the principal psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Prohibitive cannabis laws define the plant based on THC levels, and in the United States, cannabis with less than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis is non-psychoactive and therefore considered hemp.
Until recent years, consumers at the dispensary counter were primarily only concerned about jockeying for the cannabis and concentrates with the maximum amount of THC. Today, they’re smartening up and asking more about terpene and other cannabinoid content. THC, however, remains the most crucial compound overall in terms of the plant’s psychoactive high.
There are multiple reasons for seeking high-THC levels in products beyond shooting for the most potent effect. One benefit of high-THC products for medical patients, for instance, is that high-THC products can provide relief while limiting the amount of smoke and thus reducing harm.
The Chemistry of Higher THC Products
SC (Science of Cannabis) Labs opened in 2010 in Capitola, California. Co-founded by Jeff Gray, Josh Wurzer, Alec Dixon, and Ian Rice, the company helped develop some of the industry’s first testing standards.
“Early on, we emphasized testing cannabinoids and specifically THC,” SC Labs President and Co-Founder Josh Wurzer says. “The THC content became very associated with the perception of quality in cannabis. That was the only quantitative metric you had to describe the cannabis—the percentage of cannabinoids.”
Examining high THC levels is one of Wurzer’s focuses, as he applied for several cannabis-related patents, some related to the improvement of the extraction of cannabis.
Today, many people still equate higher THC concentrations with better quality.
“That’s just not the case,” Wurzer says. “When we look at these different events—High Times Cannabis Cups and The Emerald Cup—the winners usually don’t have any higher THC percentage. They almost always have a greater average terpene concentration. What consumers should be looking for is the terpene concentration of the products they’re buying.”
The over-emphasis on THC is partly due to chemistry and the way THC is quickly depleted. THC is, in fact, surprisingly quite delicate once the smoking process begins.
“The THC percentage isn’t really that important in an inhalable product,” Wurzer continues. “You’re exhaling the vast majority of the THC you’re inhaling. Really, you could just hold the hit in longer, but the THC concentration doesn’t even necessarily get you higher. What makes [cannabis] taste better and makes the effects more pronounced is the terpene concentration, and that’s where consumers should be looking.”
While it’s the most powerful psychoactive compound in cannabis, THC is best experienced the natural way, combined with other compounds.
The Highest THC Concentrates
Just how high in THC percentage can concentrates get? Some approach pure THC.
“I’ve seen people make 99% concentrate distillate—purified THC—but I wouldn’t want to smoke it,” SC Labs Director of Client Relations and Co-founder Alec Dixon says. “I wouldn’t want to consume it. It would taste bad. It would be harsh. The higher concentration concentrates are generally not the most desirable.”
If the taste matters, a better metric for determining the quality of concentrates would be quite a lower amount of THC, he says. The way terps are preserved in live resin is one of the ways concentrates have improved over the past decade or so.
“Good live resin concentrate should be anywhere from 60 to 80% [THC], and that’s going to be the most flavorful,” Dixon says. “I’ve seen the best effects on live resin, and it’s generally considered to be a much more premium product than, say, like a distillate that’s in the 90s and that has artificial terpenes added to it.”
Dixon says that on the cultural side of things, it’s always been known to farmers that terpene content is way more of a predictive indicator of quality, evident when you open up a jar and bomb the whole neighborhood with the smell of great pot.
“Smell and aroma directly coordinate toward effect,” Dixon says. “In their absence, it’s quite a bland THC effect. Unfortunately, the market is so focused on THC. It’s bound to be terp-less and, [therefore] soulless. Part of what we do with the Emerald Cup and California State Fair is to sort everything by terpene. It comes down to personal preference. To me, my favorite profiles are gas and Haze, that terpinolene Jack Herer strain.”
SC Labs is among many labs that test for THC content, and variance depends on where the samples are taken.
“When it comes to potency, the top versus the middle versus the bottom bud, they can test very differently depending on how the farmer prunes their plant,” Dixon says. “The more leaves on the plants in the crucial parts of development, the bigger the variance is going to be from top to bottom.”
He says that most farmers who do canopy management and remove foliage remove way too much leaf, way too late in the flowering stage. As a result, areas in the middle and bottom sections are shaded by leaves, leading to massive variance in the potency levels of the buds depending on where they are grown.
High THC from a Consumer Perspective
Greenwolf dispensary has won many Cannabis Cup awards, too many to list in full, but a few concentrate wins stand out. In 2017, Greenwolf took home a barrage of awards at the Cannabis Cup, winning first place with MNG for “Best Sativa Concentrate” with their offering Nectarine. In 2018, Greenwolf won “Best Non-Solvent Hash” for Clementine in collaboration with Rosin Brothers. Greenwolf is known throughout Southern California as a trusted retailer.
Greenwolf hosted the Greenwolf Winter Zalympix Awards Ceremony on Jan. 22 in Los Angeles, featuring YG and Larry June, among other performers. It was an exotic cannabis competition with judges’ kits and an awards ceremony. Greenwolf also presented the Zalympix Championships on June 11 in collaboration with Secret Sesh. Competitors representing the winners of the summer and winter Zalympix events competed in a “Battle of the Champions.”
The Greenwolf team is used to people asking about THC levels and their importance to the smoking experience. Come to find out, they are bombarded with this question daily.
“I’ve been talking to actual customers all morning about this!” says Liz Caffrey, owner and COO of Greenwolf. “And it’s interesting because I feel like maybe two years ago, people literally just came in, and they didn’t care what the strain was called or who grew it. All they wanted to know from a budtender was what the THC percentage was.”
Caffrey says in the last year or so, people are getting more and more educated about what defines quality cannabis, and they’re starting to realize that the THC percentage is not always the sole compound that produces the plant’s effects.
“The terpenes play a large role in the actual effects that you feel,” Caffrey says. “And I do believe that the consumer is starting to realize this.”
Caffrey doesn’t really see anything over 40% THC—except for infused pre-rolls when it comes to flower. Infused pre-rolls are enhanced with concentrates such as wax, distillate, or diamonds. Caffrey says labels can be quite deceiving, as one brand could have stunning packaging with disappointedly subpar effects.
“I do feel like the consumer is finally starting to have brand loyalty in what I call ‘the new market.’ And they’re doing their own research, which is great,” she says.
Caffrey explains that people don’t realize that the feeling they get from a good sativa that has 20% THC but is grown well might also have a high limonene percentage, which can provide a mood boost.
“I feel like [THC levels] go hand-in-hand with pricing,” she says. “Like the consumers more willing to pay a higher price if the THC percentage is above 30. I consider high THC 30 to 40%.”
Caffrey says that in retail in California, pre-rolls are probably the number-one seller, and infused pre-rolls are the top-tier of these types of sales.
“A customer will look at an infused pre-roll in awe, as it can have a 50 to 80% THC profile, and they think, ‘I’m getting all that in this one gram!’”
When choosing a high-THC product, consider taking the advice from laboratory leaders such as SC Labs or retail leaders like Greenwolf. As anyone with experience will tell you, inform yourself of the terpene content as well as the THC.