Ask anyone who’s taken that second edible before the first kicked in and they’ll tell you that the more THC content you consume, the higher you will get. Sometimes too high. By that logic, if you’re looking to get as elevated as possible, you’re going to want to only consume strains and cannabis products with the highest THC percentage. After all, more THC means more potency, right?

Continue Reading Below

Not exactly. When it comes to potency, a high or low THC percentage does play a large part in just how strong the effects of that marijuana will be once they hit, but the overall high is actually determined by the specific combination of terpenes, cannabinoids, and other compounds in the plant.

Frosty, green cannabis nuggets with orange hairs inside of a dark brown wooden bowl When selecting cannabis, one should look past the THC potency percentage. photo credit

That’s why a strain with only a 10-15% THC percentage can sometimes cause a far more potent experience than one that’s up near 30%. So what’s the deal with potency vs THC? Why isn’t a high THC percentage the whole story? And how do you find the most potent marijuana strains and products for you?

Potency vs THC: An Example

There’s no question that THC plays a major part in the potency of a strain or product. However, a high THC percentage isn’t everything when it comes to “strong” weed.

Continue Reading Below

Take a weightlifter who can bench 350 pounds and squat 600. No one would argue they are not strong (especially not to their face). But ask yourself, can they do gymnastics? Probably not. Gymnastics also takes an incredible amount of strength, as well as a combination of balance, coordination, and reflexes.

Much like that gymnast, when we talk about potency vs. THC, there’s more than just a high THC percentage in strong weed. There are other substances in there that all work together to have that potent marijuana doing somersaults and backflips through your brain.

Terpenes and The Entourage Effect Create Potent Marijuana

The same THC molecule within a giggly, social marijuana strain is in a couch-locking, stoney strain. Yet it’s not the THC giving the strain its indica or sativa effects or making the strain particularly potent or weak. So if high THC or low THC isn’t everything when it comes to potency vs. THC, what’s the secret sauce?

A budtenders hand outstretched with two green cannabis nuggets in his palm with glass jars below filled with more green cannabis buds Terpenes and other cannabinoids help create the indica or sativa effects. photo credit
Continue Reading Below

The answer is in the other couple hundred compounds in the plant, including other cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids. As far as is understood, terpenes are mostly responsible for the effects (and some potency) of a specific marijuana strain.

Terpenes are essential oils found in all plants. In marijuana especially, each terpene can cause different effects when consumed. Strains high in the terpenes pinene and limonene, for example, tend to cause more energetic effects. Linalool and myrcene, two other common terpenes, cause more sedated effects.

Each strain’s combination of terpenes, flavonoids, and cannabinoids (like CBD) helps shape the experience of THC molecules interacting with the neurotransmitters in your brain. The stronger the synergy between the THC and terpenes interacting with your brain, the more potent the product will feel. This is called the “entourage effect.”

Two dark blue brain neurotransmitters shaped like cones with yellow orbs floating between them THC molecules bind more effectively to neurotransmitters in your brain with the help of terpenes, flavonoids, and cannabinoids. photo credit

Put another way, if your brain is throwing a party, THC is on the guest list. It’s always a good time when THC comes by. But when THC brings their friends along, that party is gonna be off the hook.

One more factor in potency vs. THC is bioavailability. The bioavailability of THC is basically how much available THC molecules your body can absorb and use. Some methods of consumption have more bioavailability than others, meaning they are able to transmit more of the cannabinoids within them. The entourage effect also plays a part in how much of the THC you consume is actually connecting to your neurotransmitters, which also has an effect on potency.

Potency vs THC in Concentrates

If you’ve ever noticed a difference between a high temp vs low temp dab, or a distillate vape cartridge vs a live resin one, you’re not alone. Dabbing at high temperatures may hit you harder, but it lacks that full-bodied, stonier, smoother kind of high. That’s because dabbing at high temperatures means you are burning off most, if not all, of the terpenes contained in your concentrate. This produces a hit that’s mostly THC.

Four different varieties of cannabis concentrates that are different shades of golden-yellow and tan colors, all sitting on a slice of blue rock Depending on the type of extraction, concentrates can vary with the amount of terpenes left in the final product. photo credit

Similarly, distillate vapes and distillate in general are nearly pure THC. While it will get you high, you may notice that it’s not doing much else since the terpenes are artificially added afterward. Full-spectrum, fresh concentrates like live resin and rosin, either dabbed at low temperatures or smoked in a vape cartridge, will generally give you a more potent experience. That’s because THC has plenty of terpenes and other compounds to party with.

How to Choose The Most Potent Strains and Products

So, if potency isn’t just the number next to the THC percentage, how do you determine potency vs THC when picking a strain or product?

With concentrates, look for live resin, rosin, or anything that boasts full-spectrum, all-natural compounds. These types of concentrates have the balance of terpenes and THC that usually boost potency, along with a higher THC level.

A macro shot of a green cannabis nugget with fuzzy orange hairs and white trichomes dusting the bud The stronger your flower's aroma, the stronger terpene profile there is. photo credit

With potent marijuana strains, look for the quality of the bud. It should be sparkling with crystally trichomes, the nug should feel springy and well cured, and the smell should be so strong that you rear back and say “Whoa.” That tells you there are plenty of fresh terpenes and cannabinoids in the plant.

As many in the cannabis industry are fond of saying, “the nose knows.” This is the belief that your body will naturally be attracted to the terpenes it’s wanting. It’s why some people prefer skunky strains, while others prefer fruity ones, or why that strain you tried a few months ago and enjoyed doesn't seem as appealing this time around.

The theory speculates that the body is seeking something different. So, if a strain’s unique bouquet is extra alluring, there’s a good chance it will produce some stronger, more enjoyable effects. Having spent time as a budtender myself, I’d say this is the case most of the time. If you’re able to smell your cannabis before purchasing, try doing your best impression of a certain cereal’s cartoon toucan and “follow your nose.”

When it comes to edibles, THC percentage will play a bigger part, because the majority of edibles are made with distillate. Rosin edibles are on the rise, however, so if you’re finding that standard gummies aren’t doing it for you, consider those.

Perhaps the best way to make sure you’re buying the most potent and highest quality cannabis product for the price is to ask your budtender when you make the purchase. When it comes to potency vs THC, they’ll usually have the inside scoop.

The Wrap Up

High THC is a big factor when it comes to potency, but it’s not everything. Cannabis is a complex plant, and all those terpenes, cannabinoids, and other compounds work the best together to bring you a strong, full-bodied, and enjoyable cannabis experience. So the next time you’re choosing which product to buy, don’t just check the THC percentage. There’s a whole lot more to potency and to cannabis than just one number.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Frequently Asked Questions

Does THC Potency Matter?

The amount of THC in a strain or product matters as to how strong the effects will be, but the terpenes, cannabinoids, and other compounds play a major role in how potent the product will be.

What’s the Difference Between THC and Terpenes?

THC is a cannabinoid that causes intoxication. Terpenes are essential oils that affect the aroma and taste of the strain, but also direct the intoxicating effects of the THC towards specific experiences like relaxation, energy, or pain relief. 

What Does the THC Percentage Mean?

It’s the percentage of the THC molecule that each strain contains compared to the rest of the compounds contained in each tested amount.

Do You Want High or Low THC?

Whether the THC is high or low depends on the experience you’re hoping to have. High THC will make you more intoxicated, but it may not be as full-bodied and potent of an experience as a low-THC, full-spectrum product that’s rich in naturally-occurring terpenes and other cannabinoids.