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Alcohol-style THC Units for Cannabis Would Reduce Mental Health Risk, Say Experts

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Oct 16, 2019   
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Introducing ‘standard units’ for cannabis products – similar to those already used for alcoholic beverages – could help improve the mental health of cannabis users, experts say.

Writing in the journal Addiction, specialist mental health and addiction researchers from the University of Bath, King’s College London, and the Australian Catholic University, suggest that introducing a standard unit for measuring the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content in cannabis could help make users more aware of exactly how much of the intoxicating compound they are using, and in turn, mitigate some of the mental health risks that come with excessive cannabis use.

They recommend a unit level of 5 mg of THC, which is roughly on par with the amount of THC found in a small joint. This amount of THC is enough to induce intoxication in the average person, without causing any negative psychotic symptoms, they say.

The case for standard units

Despite the widespread use of cannabis and its legalization in a growing number of states and countries, the practice of using standard units has never been adopted in the same way as it has been with alcohol.

On the whole, cannabis regulation has instead focused on controlling the weight of cannabis material a person can purchase and possess at one time, with relatively little focus being paid to the strength or the potency of that cannabis.

Additionally, the Lower-Risk Cannabis Use Guidelines (LRCUG) – an evidence-based set of guidelines produced by public health researchers – also lacks any recommendations relating to quantity of use. While the LRCUG does advise users to choose “low-potency” cannabis strains, previous research by the same scientists has shown that cannabis potency as a whole has doubled across Europe in the past decade, thus increasing the need for more specific guidelines.

The publication of group’s recommendation for a 5 mg THC standard unit in Addiction coincided with the publication of a second study from the same team in the journal Psychological Medicine, which examined the relationship between cannabis use patterns and key health outcomes. In that study, the researchers drew on data from the Global Drug Survey, covering more than 55,000 people across 175 countries, and found that those people who used higher THC forms of cannabis, such as hashish, experienced more severe health problems than those using lower potency products.

“Our findings add to a growing body of evidence that suggests the health effects of cannabis are dose-related,” the lead author of the cannabis use study, Sam Craft, said in a statement.

“These risks though might be modifiable, and we believe that the introduction of a unit system would help both users and healthcare professionals by providing clearer information on the types of cannabis products they consume and their strength.”

Dr Tom Freeman, the senior author of the opinion published in Addiction, said that “the current lack of information increases the risk of harm to the consumer.”

“We know that many people across the world regularly consume cannabis so we need to consider how we can better support them in making informed choices and to minimize potential health risks such as addiction or psychosis.”

“Where the unit system for alcohol has helped consumers to better manage their alcohol intake, so too do we think this could have important implications for cannabis users.”


Implementing standardization

While the idea of using standard cannabis units is appealing in theory, implementing any form of standardization in practice will require overcoming many tricky obstacles.  

As the researchers note in their writings in Addiction, previous proposals for standard cannabis units have run into trouble when considering the differences between specific methods of cannabis administration, such as using joints, bongs, vaporizers, and edibles. Other proposals were unable to account for the heterogeneity in THC concentrations between different cannabis products. But the researchers affirm that their idea is a workable, practical approach.

To further investigate the idea of a standardized cannabis use unit, the authors have commissioned a team of experts who will meet in Lisbon, Portugal, next week to identify the key challenges in measuring cannabis use, and to develop a standardized tool for assessing cannabis use in international settings. The workshop is being funded by the Society for the Study of Addiction.

“Our hope is that the introduction of a system in locations where [cannabis] is legalized will have knock-on effects to countries where it is not, providing both users and clinicians an important toolkit to guide safer use,” said Dr Freeman.

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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