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Cannabis Concentrates Don’t Get Consumers Any Higher, Study Finds

Jun 12, 2020

Cannabis Concentrates Don’t Get Consumers Any Higher, Study Finds

Leo Bear-McGuinness
Science Writer & Editor
@LeoMcBear

Despite their notoriously high THC levels, cannabis concentrates don’t necessarily get a consumer any higher, according to a new study.

Published in JAMA Psychiatry, the study found that while smoking cannabis concentrates increased participants’ blood-THC levels, their levels of intoxication were pretty much on a par with those who smoked flower-based products.

The researchers aren’t sure exactly how those who used the concentrates could have such high THC levels without incurring greater intoxication, but they suspect the participants may have developed a tolerance over time.


High in the blood

Cannabis concentrates, such as dab wax, shatter and THC oil, have risen in popularity in recent years. But as the products can consist of over 80 percent THC, some public health researchers have become concerned over their effects.

To test the safety of the concentrates, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder first recruited 121 local cannabis consumers. Around half (55) were asked to smoke flower-based cannabis products during a five-day interval, while the rest (66) consumed concentrates.

The flower products contained between 16 and 24 percent THC; concentrated products consisted of either 70 or 90 percent THC.

After consuming their cannabis, all participants underwent memory and balance tests with researchers and gave a blood sample in a portable lab van, dubbed a ‘cannavan.’

“We cannot bring legal market cannabis into a university lab, but we can bring the mobile lab to the people,” Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

Compared with the flower group, the concentrate group showed greater blood levels of THC and its metabolites. But despite having more THC in their systems, the concentrate consumers performed just as well as those in the flower group when it came to the memory and balance tests.

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

Among all participants, balance was about 11 percent worse after consuming cannabis, and their memory was also compromised. But after an hour or so, both impairments were gone.


Better concentration?

The results came as a bit of a shock to the researchers, who originally hypothesized that high THC blood levels would lead to greater impairment in consumers.

Faced with a different outcome, the team now believe tolerance and genetic factors could be at play.

“It is possible that the concentrate users have much greater tolerance to the effects of THC,” the researchers wrote in their paper. “Another possibility is that cannabinoid receptors may become saturated with THC at higher levels, beyond which there is a diminishing effect of additional THC.”

“A third possibility is that there may be individual differences among users in terms of metabolism or sensitivity to cannabis that might be associated with genetics or other pre-existing biological differences.”

But while the concentrates didn’t lead to greater intoxication, the researchers are still concerned about the risks the observed elevated THC blood levels could pose.

“Does long-term, concentrated exposure mess with your cannabinoid receptors in a way that could have long-term repercussions? Does it make it harder to quit when you want to?” said Hutchison. “We just don’t know yet.”

In a separate study published earlier this year, researchers found that teenagers who experiment with dabbing cannabis concentrates are the most likely to continue using cannabis and to do so frequently.

“It’s early exposure to the dose of THC used in adolescence that may be likely to drive continued use and increases in the frequency of use,” Jessica Barrington-Trimis, an assistant professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California, said in a statement at the time.

“If someone picks up a vaporizer with a low level of THC, they may not be likely to keep using it. But with concentrates, the high level of THC may increase the likelihood that they continue to use and use more frequently.”

 

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