Dabs, wax, crumble, shatter—these are all terms for cannabis concentrates, which are increasingly popular ways of consuming marijuana. These extracts often contain 50-90% THC, but does that increased potency actually produce a stronger psychoactive effect than flower? According to a June 2020 study published by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, dabbing concentrates can produce more than twice the blood levels of THC compared to smoking flower, but do not produce greater intoxication or impairment.
Lead author Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant professor at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences, was surprised by the results: “We found that potency did not track with intoxication levels. While we saw striking differences in blood levels between the two groups, they were similarly impaired.” This study came from the CU Change Lab, a research initiative cleverly designed to work around federal restrictions on cannabis. Federal prohibition causes significant problems for cannabis doctors and researchers. For example, researchers are prevented from handling or administering marijuana unless it is plant material provided by the federal government and grown by the University of Mississippi. Unfortunately, this federally sanctioned cannabis typically has THC levels that are far lower than what is sold in recreational dispensaries or medical marijuana clinics, and thus doesn’t provide much insight into the effects of real-life cannabis consumption or the types of products that people purchase at dispensaries. As Bidwell explains, “We cannot bring legal market cannabis into a university lab, but we can bring the mobile lab to the people.” The CU Change Lab created a mobile laboratory of “cannavans,” or vans equipped with laboratory equipment. Study subjects purchase their own cannabis, consume it in the comfort of their home, and then walk out to the van where the researchers can conduct tests. Participants were recruited through fliers posted in a local cannabis dispensary and social media posts targeting people who consumed high potency flower or concentrates. All participants were between the ages of 21-70, used cannabis at least four times per month, reported prior use of cannabis flower with a potency of 24% or prior use of cannabis concentrate with a potency of 90% and did not experience any adverse effects, and were not currently on any medications. The researchers randomly assigned 121 participants to consume 16% THC flower, 24% THC flower, 70% THC concentrate, or 90% THC concentrate. However, the participants were required to purchase the assigned flower or concentrate at a dispensary with their own money. The researchers took baseline measurements for cognitive performance, subjective intoxication, balance, and blood levels of THC and 11-OH-THC (active metabolite of THC). Participants were sent home to familiarize themselves with their assigned cannabis product for several days, and on the fifth day, the mobile van arrived at the subjects’ residences. Participants were allowed to consume as much of the assigned product as they wanted, but they were instructed to immediately go out to the van to get tested after they finished their cannabis session. The researchers assessed short term effects, then had the subjects wait in the van and conducted the same battery of tests after an hour.
Both flower and concentrates worsened subjects’ balance by about 11% on average. They found that cannabis produced short-term memory deficits in both groups. However, any balance and memory impairment faded within an hour. The researchers found that users in the concentrate group had higher blood levels of cannabinoids at all three time intervals, including the baseline assessment prior to use. However, while blood levels were significantly higher in the concentrate group, “concentrate users demonstrate similar or lower levels of subjective drug intoxication and short-term impairment compared with users of lower potency forms of cannabis.” The researchers could not assert definitively how concentrate users could have much higher blood levels of THC and 11-OH-THC than flower users, while at the same time demonstrating similar or less intoxication, but they offer a few possible explanations. They suggest that concentrate users could have much higher tolerance to THC than flower users. Or these data could be due to pre-existing biological or genetic differences in how the subjects metabolize THC or how sensitive they are to THC. Another possibility is that the cannabinoid receptors could become saturated, “beyond which there is a diminishing effect to THC.” The researchers note that this study was conducted on regular cannabis users, and that these same results may not translate to inexperienced users. They hope to conduct further studies to determine if super high potency concentrates could carry any risk factors in the long term. As co-author Kent Hutchinson, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, questioned, “Does long-term, concentrated exposure mess with your cannabinoid receptors in a way that could have long-term repercussions?”
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