Colorado marijuana shop the Denver Kush Club. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Op-ed: Limiting the THC in marijuana products is not a reasonable solution

Two separate proposals were filed this week seeking to limit the amount of THC in Colorado recreational cannabis products to 15 percent or 16 percent.

Though the two proposals are similar in nature, one is a tack-on amendment to “sunset bill” HB 1261 and the other is a ballot initiative. The general tenor of these rules is that Colorado marijuana businesses would not be able to sell anything over 15-to-16 percent THC — and all edible products would be limited to a single dosage, which is defined as 10 milligrams of THC.

Those who aren’t deeply familiar with the cannabis industry’s machinations might look at this and think, “Eh, so people get less high. What’s the big deal?” But a closer examination of it reveals a host of issues that seem to show a lack of basic understanding of cannabis itself and also of the industry as it exists currently.

Arbitrary by nature

Perhaps the most basic issue with these proposals is the mysterious origin of the 15-to-16 percent limits. Proponents of the changes have argued that there has not been enough research done to determine the effects of “high levels of THC” on human development, suggesting that the majority of studies about cannabis have been done using product ranging between 2-to-8 percent THC. While they are technically correct on this point, it is spurious at best to then just throw out a number and define anything above that arbitrary number as “high THC,” especially when said number falls short the average THC content of modern cannabis flowers, let alone highly purified concentrates.

Further, the only reason those studies primarily used lower THC cannabis is because it was usually provided by the federal government’s University of Mississippi lab and many of those studies took place 25-plus years ago when properly-grown cannabis was very hard to obtain. The difficulty of performing longitudinal studies on cannabis users is a major problem to be sure, but the solution is not random legislation to prematurely limit purity of products, but rather to create the proper legal and medical framework to perform such medical studies so that we may have answers for some of these questions 10 or 15 years down the line.

It’s also worth asking what happens if both proposals manage to pass, resulting in a change to the Colorado constitution encoding 16 percent as the limit, while underneath that, another limit of 15 percent is also being enforced by state officials. While that would certainly be sussed out in court one way or another, it raises the larger question of the arbitrary nature of the numbers in the first place.

If the proponents argue that there is not enough data for THC levels exceeding 8 percent, then why isn’t the number they are proposing just 8 percent — instead of nearly double that? Why is the initiative’s secondary language requiring a warning of various ill effects required for product above 10 percent set at that limit rather than 8 percent?

The whole thing just makes no sense and is completely lacking in scientific rigor or justification.

Disastrous for business and consumers

Considering that a majority of Colorado cannabis currently on the market is around 17 percent THC, according to a state study, it is difficult to understand how exactly growers and businesses would adjust to these changes without severely curtailing selection and quality. If a flower genetically is normally testing at around 20 percent THC, the only way to get that genetic down to acceptable THC limits would be to grow it substantially worse than usual, meaning that the plant is not allowed to fully develop or otherwise restricted from reaching its full potential.

Failing that type of manipulation, the grower would simply have to stop cultivating that genetic line, which again hurts selection and may eliminate strains that help consumers with specific ailments.

One important point that is not often made when discussing recreational cannabis is that many customers are really consuming marijuana for medical reasons. Remember that users coming from out of state seeking relief with cannabis have no choice other than to shop at recreational dispensaries. This proposed percentage cap would severely limit the medical effectiveness of cannabis products across the board, which puts these people in a tough position and ultimately will result in some users going to the black market — or going on a trip to spend money in a different state with more reasonable cannabis regulations.

This problem is enough of an issue for flowers, but these proposals would effectively ban recreational concentrates in all forms — as any method of extraction will increase the THC levels present in cannabis by 3-to-5 times.

Worth noting: Concentrates normally test in the 55-to-85 percent THC range.

This is definitely an even bigger issue for customers, as many who use cannabis medically require the higher purity and ease of dosing offered by concentrate products specifically; These consumers would likely have to turn to the black or gray market, which may increase illegal concentrate production, something which is already a major concern in neighborhoods across the country.

Read more of Ry Prichard’s op-ed: These proposed THC limits would kill the retail concentrates market in Colorado.