Washington state is making moves to limit THC content in cannabis products, arguing high-potency marijuana can increase the likelihood a user will develop a psychotic disorder. House Bill 2546 says the concentration of THC within marijuana flowers is limited biologically and can only reach so high (more on that later in this article), and the THC in edible products is already influenced in Washington state. However, there is no potency limit on cannabis concentrates such as those consumed by vaping. Violation of the proposed law would come with a $1,000 fine for each individual instance. According to the bill, in 2019, the sale of high-potency marijuana (defined in the proposal as anything exceeding 10%) made up nearly 40% of sales of marijuana products.
Why limit THC percentage?
The 10% marker seems to be based on a study from 2019 that the bill’s author references without specifying the name of the study or who conducted it. The bill explains researchers in a nameless study, “analyzed data from patients with first-episode psychosis and found that, compared with participants who reported never having, ‘... used high-potency cannabis daily had four-times higher odds of psychosis in the whole sample, with a five times increase in London and a nine-times increase in Amsterdam.’” The fear of marijuana contributing to mental disorders is not a novel concept. The United States National Institute on Drug Abuse agrees marijuana use is linked to a number of psychiatric disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety. The NIH does concede that it's difficult to determine whether marijuana use causes those conditions, rather than contributing to their onset. The NIH says the strongest evidence suggests marijuana use has a greater influence over those with a genetic predisposition to psychiatric disorders, or other vulnerability towards them. “Recent research suggests that smoking high-potency marijuana every day could increase the chances of developing psychosis by nearly five times compared to people who have never used marijuana. The amount of drug used, the age at first use, and genetic vulnerability have all been shown to influence this relationship,” the NIH writes in its Research Report Series on Marijuana.
Lack of scientific consensus
A study released by the University of Washington in 2017 offers an important distinction to the view presented in the bill: “The prevailing view is that marijuana use itself is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause psychotic disorders.” Part of the problem is that, because marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government, research on the drug’s effects have been extremely limited. Several political candidates are trying to change that; Joe Biden, for instance, has said that he doesn’t want to legalize cannabis nation-wide until more research has been done. Initiative 502 legalized recreational marijuana in the state of Washington in 2012. It allows adults over the age of 21 to purchase up to one ounce of marijuana flowers, a pound of marijuana-infused edibles, 4.5 pounds of liquid marijuana products, or 7 grams of marijuana concentrates. Cannabis can only be sold and purchased in stores licensed by the state, and cannot be taken outside of Washington. House Bill 2546 would serve as an addition or addendum to the existing law.
Opposition mounts against the bill
Meanwhile, a petition is already underway to stop the bill. Its author, Kyle McMullen, argues the potency cap would force legal consumers to the underground market. McMullen notes on Change.org that the underground market is largely blamed for the production of tainted vape cartridges, which McMullen claims have caused dozens of deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes vitamin E acetate, which is an additive in some vaping products, is likely to blame for the outbreak in a lung disease called EVALI. As of January 2020, the CDC has confirmed 2,668 cases of EVALI, which have killed a total of sixty people. Of those people, 82% reported using THC, and of those studied, 78% said they got their products from family, friends, dealers, online, or elsewhere, rather than a licensed commercial source. Another 6% said they used both informal and commercial sources. There are also reports of CBD and THC products being laced with street drugs that can put people in the hospital when they vape the product. The combination of risks between laced THC products, and those containing vitamin E acetate is likely what McMullen is referring to in the petition when he warns of tainted vape cartridges that can and have killed people. McMullen’s petition argues, “this is an attack on consumers and cannabis enthusiast[sic], it would have no measurable affect [sic] except for less tax revenue and more health issues with black-market, unregulated products as well as the potential for deadly fires as individuals may try to make there [sic] own product.” The petition proposes that the 10% limit was an arbitrary number assigned at random, rather than one that was reached upon study of what would be considered “high potency.”
How potent is 10% THC?
A study published in the Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association and shared by the NIH argues that 10% is indeed high-potency, particularly when compared to the 1960s-1980s, when THC content hovered closer to 2%. The study’s author, Dr. Elizabeth Stuyt, recommends initiating regulations to THC concentrations. “Ideally this would be to less than 10% as there is no good research on concentrations greater than this for any medical condition and there is significant literature on the negative effects of high potency THC,” Dr. Stuyt writes. It's worth noting, right now there are marijuana strains available that far surpass the 10% mark. For instance, Wikileaf has reported before on the underground breeding collective “Cookie Fam” that have reached THC levels of up to 28%. McMullen’s petition doesn’t spend much time on the numerical limit argument, and continues,
“The creation of a black market and the problems it would create for not only for cannabis manufactures [sic] and dispensaries but those consumers who use concentrate is as medicine is downright unethical, even if you smoke recreational it is still an attack on our civil liberties. SAY NO TO HB 2546, Demand our politicians stop this unjust crusade. We can make the change.”
The petition has gathered nearly 23,000 signatures.