Quirks and Quarks

Cannabis in a van: American researchers get creative to study high potency products

High potency marijuana products result in a quicker buzz, but come with unknown health risks
This University of Colorado Boulder van travels to private homes to test study participants under the influence of high potency marijuana. (Dan Boyce)

The legalization of recreational marijuana in Canada means you'll only be able to buy conventional cannabis plant material, such as the dried flower, or "bud," and cannabis oil. 

But there are other kinds of products only available on the underground market. These products are made mostly of chemically extracted THC, which can end up concentrated to levels approaching 90 per cent. 

These products are much more concentrated than levels of THC found in natural plant material, which averages in the high teens. High potency products have names like "shatter," "wax," or "dabs." Their consumption results in a much quicker high. A decision on whether these products will be available legally in Canada won't be made until next year.       

High potency marijuana products like 'shatter' can have as much as 90 per cent levels of THC. (Cameek33, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0)

Rocky Mountain high

In the United States, cannabis was legalized in the state of Colorado in 2014. For Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant professor at the Institute for Cognitive Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, this has led to a legal conundrum.

Recreational and medicinal cannabis products, including high potency products, are legal for purchase in the state. But Bidwell can't study these products in her lab because of she has to comply with federal regulations, which limit what kind of cannabis that she can test in the lab. 

The solution for testing products that people actually use, including the high potency products, was to bring the lab to the people.

She and her team converted a van into a mobile lab to take cannabis research on the road. 

Dr. Cinnamon Bidwell (far right) and research assistants Parker Gross and Leigha Larsen with the University of Colorado Boulder van used to test the effects of high potency marijuana. (Dan Boyce)

A-buzz with concern

Bidwell said their data is still very preliminary, but she is finding that users of high potency products seem to be modulating their use to reach a similar intoxication level they would have if they smoked more conventional cannabis products.

Research assistant Leigha Larsen runs radio producer Dan Boyce through the tests taken by University of Colorado Boulder cannabis study participants (Parker Gross)

"it does seem like, once you get to very high potency products, they're using sort of the right amount for them to get to a certain intoxication level."

However, there are differences. "Their blood exposure is much higher. So we're getting blood levels that are higher than I've really seen in the literature in terms of their THC intoxication level." Bidwell says this suggests that users of high-potency cannabis products are adapting to very high levels of THC exposure.

This, she says, raises the possibility of dependence or addiction to these products.  "Some of our data suggests possibly higher dependence or problem use in these concentrate users."