The trend of cannabis legalization in the United States has not only vastly increased access to the drug, but it has also resulted in substantial increases in potency. The competition between products in this new market has accelerated an existing trend toward increased THC levels in these products.
One study showed roughly a doubling in the potency of cannabis plants (from 8.9% to 17.1%) between 2008 and 2017. Another factor that can influence the perceived potency of different cannabis strains is the ratio of THC to CBD. CBD can temper or reduce the effects of THC (while independently having its own biological impact), and over the same 2008 to 2017 period the THC:CBD ratio quadrupled from 23 to 104.
A further complication of this story is the recent discovery of a new cannabinoid in marijuana, THCP, approximately 33 times more potent as THC. This molecule has been implicated in some of the apparent differences between cannabis strains with similar THC levels, and now there is the potential with its discovery for breeding far more potent plants.
These factors have led to some government efforts to regulate the potency of cannabis products. Vermont is the only state so far that has an upper cap on THC levels in flower product of 30%, and concentrates are capped at 60%. It has also been debated on the nation level whether federal agency should impose limits on cannabis potency.
Part of the motivation behind limited THC levels in cannabis is some of the downstream costs to society from high potency cannabis. The number of ER visits associated with cannabis has risen steeply over recent years. There were over 1.5 million estimated ER visits associated with cannabis in 2017, approximately 1% of all ER visits that year, and it was growing at an average rate of 13% per year.
There are Ways of Limiting the Impact to the Medical System
Anebulo Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ANEB) is one of the few companies working on a solution to some of the issues associated with the increased potency and use of cannabis products. The company is developing a drug ANEB-001 designed to inhibit and reverse the effects of THC intoxication. The goal is to have this therapy available in the emergency setting for patients experiencing acute cannabis intoxication (ACI) and its associated risks of psychiatric and gastrointestinal disturbances (among others).
The drug is designed to work by blocking the receptor for THC in the brain (the CB1 receptor) and preventing THC from binding, and it has already been demonstrated to be safe in Phase I clinical studies. The company will be testing it in Phase II starting in 2021.
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