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There’s no question about whether or not cannabis has evolved over the last few decades: its potency is higher than ever. This isn’t to say that marijuana in the 1960’s and 1970’s was by any means “weak”, but rather that the THC levels in today’s pot is registering at higher levels than they used to.

How does this affect you as a consumer, though? Does this mean you should be purchasing products that have a lower amount of THC? This isn’t necessarily the case. Really, measuring THC (and other cannabinoids) and their effect on people isn’t as cut and dry as, say, measuring the effects of alcohol. Marijuana use and its effect on the individual is purely case by case, especially when it comes to all of the different strains and potencies that now exist. With THC-infused edibles and drinks becoming more prevalent in the market, you’ll want to know what you’re buying. So we’re taking a look at what THC is, how you should interpret its levels in the products you purchase, and what you should consider when making your purchase.

What is THC?

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the chemical present in marijuana that is responsible for many of the psychoactive effects you feel when you smoke or ingest it. Typical THC levels range from 0.3 percent up to 25 percent (that’s high!) in the average cannabis plant. The level, or potency, of THC can be altered by a number of things: the climate in which it is grown, the genetics of the plant, and when a plant is harvested and processed. Moreover, female varieties usually have higher levels of THC than male varieties do.

So, higher levels of THC in a particular plant or product you consume will generally mean a more “psychoactive” experience. This typically means a more “stoned” effect; some people may even experience paranoid feelings and extreme self-awareness. However, the effects do still depend on the person consuming the cannabis.

THC’s Effects on Your Brain

THC stimulates the cells in the brain to release dopamine; this helps to create a euphoric feeling. It also can interfere with how information is processed by the hippocampus (the elongated ridges on the floor of each lateral ventricle of the brain), which could then affect how your brain forms new memories, especially while you’re high. Overall, the effects can be quite minimal, but some users have claimed to have had THC-induced hallucinations, distorted perceptions of their surroundings, and negative effects on how they process ideas and information. As we touched on a little before, it can also cause anxiety or paranoia in the user while they’re high. This can be related to the percentage of THC present; people who have negative experiences with cannabis-induced anxiety should keep an eye on THC levels, so as to avoid unpleasant feelings in the future.

As it turns out, cannabinoid receptors are concentrated in the areas of the brain associated with thinking, concentration, memory, pleasure, coordination, and time perception. So if you’ve ever smoked and felt like time either stood still or flew by, this would be why.

But should you fear using marijuana because of possible side effects? Absolutely not. You just need to know what you’re buying and what to look for. You can tailor your experience to provide exactly what you want.

How to Navigate What You’re Buying

When you go into a dispensary it may look or feel a little overwhelming, especially if you’re a first-time buyer confronted with all of the options we now have. There are so many things to consider: which products are best, how much THC is present in each product, which strain works best with your brain, and so on. But don’t worry! More often than not, when you head into one of these dispensaries, one of the staff members will be able to help you with any questions you might have.

When looking at products, you’ll want to understand how much THC is in the product, and what the number means on the label. As we mentioned earlier, THC can account for anywhere between 0.3 to 25 percent of a product. The THC percentage indicates how potent the plant or product you’re purchasing is. A lot can go into determining that number too, like whether the plant is more on the wet or dry side when the measurement was taken.

If you’re purchasing cannabis to smoke, the percentage is supposed to mean that it makes up for that amount of the weight in the sample. If you’re purchasing an edible, you’ll usually see this number reflected in milligrams. For instance, a few days ago I purchased a pack of Synergy mints, with 80 milligrams of THC total in the entire pack. The pack has 20 mints with 5 milligrams of THC per mint. This way of measuring it out can help a bit with really controlling how much THC you’re consuming.

When you’re looking to buy an edible, this number is especially important. While you can’t necessarily overdose on marijuana, you can have a horrible time (one that feels like an overdose) if you intake too much THC. This will happen when people ingest a full serving of, say, a cookie, rather than eating half or a quarter. If you’re purchasing a product with a higher percentage of THC, always start with a smaller portion; really, people need to use that same approach when smoking too. Work your way up to a point that is comfortable for you, or rather stop when you feel comfortable. Don’t push it.

Also keep in mind that when high levels of THC enter the gastrointestinal tract, the effects can last even longer than smoking; instead of 45 minutes to a few hours, you’re looking at six to eight hours sometimes. So again, start with a lower percentage of THC when using an edible, even if you’re not a novice user.

What Do All of the Numbers on the Labels Mean?

You can navigate levels of THC by percentages, or by ounces or milligrams. Colorado legislators passed a law in the spring of 2014 to limit the amount of THC to only 3.53 ounces, or 100 milligrams, in recreational edible marijuana products, according to USA Today. This writer personally intakes products with no more than 10 milligrams per serving, which does sound low, but actually has a very profound effect.

Typically you’ll see about 30 milligrams on the higher end of what a dispensary offers per serving of the edible. This is more than enough. If this is somehow not enough for you, you can always take more, but again, be smart about how much and how quickly you’re taking the product. Many products will also have THC present with other cannabinoids, like CBD, which can slightly alter the experience of the THC.

Understanding Other Cannabinoids

Two of the other more popular cannabinoids (other than THC) are CBN and CBD.

CBN will also have a psychoactive effect on its user, but not as much as THC does. When CBN is present with THC, it can actually reduce the feelings of anxiety caused by THC; CBN is also good for those who may need help sleeping.

CBD, on the other hand, is not psychoactive at all and doesn’t leave the user feeling impaired. Instead, it has far more of a medicinal effect. When paired with THC, CBD also can help reduce feelings of anxiety. It is also known to carry a number of other positive health effects, including the possibility to slow or stop the growth of cancer.

So when shopping for products, keep an eye out for items that also include these cannabinoids – they could end up improving the overall experience. Actually, in recent years some high-THC strains have been particularly bred to include higher levels of CBD as well. This shift could be an effect of the market adapting to the needs and desires of consumers.

When it Comes Down to It….

Your experience with marijuana and THC is completely contingent on you as the consumer. Be smart about the products you’re buying, and pay attention to how much of it you are ingesting. Be aware of how the product affects you, and be willing to work with yourself to determine what agrees best with your mind and body. There’s no use in rushing it: take the time to educate yourself and explore what’s out there knowledgeably.

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