Party people, listen up: You need to know your limits. In fact, non-party people, too. But how can you, when there’s almost no way of knowing if that cannabis-infused lollipop is going to get you bong-rip high, or just puff-on-a-jay lifted? For that matter, what is in this joint, because right now you are feeling way more lit than usual.
To wit, no reliable method exists to tell you exactly how high that joint, edible, dab, or bong rip will get you. (Actually, I’m pretty confident that a bong rip is going to get you incredibly high.) This is important, because marijuana is going mainstream. Many of its new customers aren’t lifelong stoners, and want an experience similar to, say, a Budweiser: a predictably intoxicating experience. Problem is, cannabis is one hell of a puzzling drug. Its many compounds can play with your body’s chemistry in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. But the industry is getting closer to a reliable weed label, and in the meantime learning some great science.
“Cannabis is the most phytochemically complex plant on the planet,” says Jeremy Plumb, chemist and owner of Portland-based Newcleus Nursery and the dispensary Farma. Certainly more complex than alcohol. Weed’s most famous ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It gets you high. It can also make you anxious. Cannabidiol is the yin to THC’s yang. It’s non-psychoactive, and Plumb says it levels out THC’s high and attenuates anxiety.
But those are just the big two. Cannabis has at least 60 cannabinoids, many of which can alter your body in different ways, along with other chemicals like terpenoids and flavonoids that can complicate the plant’s effects even more. So this is step one to creating a reliable weed label: Standardize the plant. If you’re sure you’re selling the same bud over and over again, consumers can keep better track of what–and how much–they like.
Standardization is incredibly difficult, though. “If I gave you, and three other producers, the exact same cannabis genotype, let’s say a blackberry Kush, and you all grow it out, you might think that the plants have consistent attributes,” says Plumb. “But that is not the case.” Cannabis plants are incredibly sensitive to environmental factors. Maybe your grow room was two degrees warmer than another grower’s. Your humidity was lower. You harvested a day later. You used your own homebrewed fertilizer. Your lights were a watt brighter. “I’ve seen incredible variance in the THC levels of flowers grown closer to the lights,” says Plumb. “I had one indoor plant where the topmost branches closest to the light were 29 percent THC, the middle were 19 percent, and in shaded undergrowth, 9 percent.”
And then you have to ensure that all those plants do indeed have all the same chemical profile. Which means you need to hire some decent chemists and give them access to good mass spectrometry equipment. “Labs can’t function on 100 bucks for three hours of analytical work,” says Plumb. Those labs exist–Plumb says his is one of them–but no regulation exists that makes sure the chemistry in his lab is the same that is being used in the lab down the street, or in Colorado, or wherever. Oregon, which legalized recreational weed last year, is working on rules that could help keep tests more consistent.
That’s a nice start towards a national standard for plants. But even the most meticulously grown and tested pot can have unpredictable results when it comes in contact with your body. Those dozens of cannibinoids bind to all kinds of cell receptors, creating a potpourri of physiological and psychological reactions. A hit from the same joint might put your friend to sleep, while you get inspired to go jog a few laps around the park.
Step two to creating a reliable weed label, theoretically, would be to have something like a blood alcohol concentration calculator: Input the chemical profile of what you’re ingesting and get an estimate of how messed up you’ll get. But that’s even more complicated because weed comes in so many forms. Smoked or vaped cannabis goes through your lungs, directly into your bloodstream. Ingested weed passes through your liver, which usually cranks up the drug’s intensity and delays its onset. And the same weed can affect you in different ways depending on things like what you’ve eaten, when you’ve eaten it, and how much sleep you’ve gotten. Unless you’re consistently smoking weed, your body is something of a black box.
Complicating all of this is the fact that no reliable test can tell how high a person is. “The amount of THC and other cannabinoids in the blood is not an indication of a person’s level of intoxication, like with alcohol,” says Kevin McKernan, founder of cannabis testing company Medicinal Genomics. He says a better way to test intoxication would be through smartphone apps that simulate driving or other motor activities.
And these tests wouldn’t just be for the cops to test you between the dispensary and your car’s steering wheel. They’re important for tying together the scientific understanding of what it means to be high, and how to standardize that for all people.
Plumb suggests that of-legal-age beginners who live in, or visit, states where weed is legal approach marijuana like they would alcohol. Just like downing tequila shots and funneling beers is a bad way to introduce yourself to alcohol, hold off on hotboxing your car and don’t be so quick to buy that monster four-chamber bong. Use a vaporizer, which is probably the best way to control your dosing, and start with very small amounts. Increase the dose over time until you feel good. And a little tip from your friends at WIRED: Buy snacks beforehand.