Colorado marijuana’s potency getting ‘higher’

Updated 12:18 PM EDT, Fri October 21, 2016
CNN
Now playing
02:24
Designer marijuana boost THC potency
Fox News/Twitter
Now playing
01:33
ADL wants Fox News to fire Tucker Carlson over racist comments
CNN
Now playing
02:36
The truth behind Covid-19 vaccines for sale on the dark web
Now playing
04:22
Levi's CEO has message for Mitch McConnell
Now playing
01:54
'You think I'm racist': Former Fox News host storms off camera
Korie Robertson and Willie Robertson of the reality series "Duck Dynasty" attend the Capitol File 58th Presidential Inauguration Reception at Fiola Mare on January 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Korie Robertson and Willie Robertson of the reality series "Duck Dynasty" attend the Capitol File 58th Presidential Inauguration Reception at Fiola Mare on January 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Now playing
01:46
'Duck Dynasty' stars discuss raising biracial son on new show
FOX/"The Masked Singer"
Now playing
01:24
Nick Cannon makes big splash in 'Masked Singer' return
The Drew Barrymore Show/YouTube
Now playing
01:26
'Mom' star speaks out about not having kids in real life
Heinz ketchup packets are shown in New York on Monday, August 22, 2005. H.J. Heinz Co., the world's biggest ketchup maker, said first-quarter profit fell 19 percent on expenses to cut jobs and sell businesses.  (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Heinz ketchup packets are shown in New York on Monday, August 22, 2005. H.J. Heinz Co., the world's biggest ketchup maker, said first-quarter profit fell 19 percent on expenses to cut jobs and sell businesses. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Now playing
01:53
Restaurants face a nationwide ketchup packet shortage
Camerota Berman both
CNN
Camerota Berman both
Now playing
02:33
CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota gets surprise tribute from co-anchor
Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons delivers remarks on the US economy at the New York State Bar Association meetings in New York, January 28, 2009. Troubled US banking giant Citigroup last week named Parsons as its new chairman, the longtime top executive at media giant Time Warner, to steer it through its most challenging period.  AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Citigroup Chairman Richard Parsons delivers remarks on the US economy at the New York State Bar Association meetings in New York, January 28, 2009. Troubled US banking giant Citigroup last week named Parsons as its new chairman, the longtime top executive at media giant Time Warner, to steer it through its most challenging period. AFP PHOTO / Emmanuel Dunand (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:47
Dick Parsons: Georgia law is a bald-faced attempt to suppress Black vote
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
Now playing
02:54
'Godzilla vs. Kong' is a pandemic box office hit
Now playing
01:30
5 ways to cut your plastic waste
CNN/Getty Images
Now playing
04:40
Stelter: After elevating Gaetz, Fox News barely covering scandal
NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona
Now playing
01:08
See NASA spacecraft successfully land on an asteroid
Now playing
06:51
Alisyn Camerota's kids wish her good luck in new role on CNN

Story highlights

There are currently no regulations in Colorado limiting THC levels

The average THC content has dramatically increased in the last couple of decades

(CNN) —  

More than two years after Colorado began selling marijuana for recreational use, cannabis consumers have access to pot that is more potent than ever.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of different strains among thousands of plants grown legally under bright lights and fans in giant warehouses across the state.

“I think we’re the best industrial growers of cannabis in the world,” Medicine Man Marijuana CEO Andy Williams said of his company.

Williams owns a high-tech cannabis grow facility. He gave CNN a glimpse inside one section of it: a 12,000-square foot operation with machines that regulate temperature and humidity, and filter the air to create the best environment for fine-tuning cannabis concoctions.

“While we don’t do genetic engineering here, we’re constantly looking for better genetics. That means good, big and fast. So, it’s been a constant evolution of our genetics over time,” Williams said.

Canna Tsu, Cookies and Cream, Purple Dream and Screaming Gorilla are among the 50 to 60 different strains grown by Medicine Man. Levels of THC, marijuana’s psychoactive component, vary from strain to strain, ranging from 6% THC in Canna Tsu to 28% THC content in Williams’ Screaming Gorilla.

“It’s one product that’s fairly old-fashioned, compared to the hundreds that all these manufacturers and growers in Colorado are currently creating,” said Dr. Kari Franson, a clinical pharmacologist and pharmacist and the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy. “They’re kind of creating a Frankenstein cannabis.”

THC percentages getting ‘higher’

In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, with Colorado implementing it first. There are currently no regulations in Colorado limiting THC levels.

Earlier this year, some Colorado state legislators proposed an amendment to limit THC to 16% in marijuana and marijuana products sold in the state.

Proponents expressed concerns about the effects of THC on adolescent brains, among other health and safety issues.

But their effort to set a THC-limit failed to get enough support. Marijuana industry insiders say setting a limit could fuel the black market. Williams likened it to the end of prohibition of alcohol.

“Those types of actions would be similar to saying we can’t have alcohol on the shelf other than beer, and people who don’t like beer, that want spirits, that want wine, are going to have to make it themselves,” Williams said.

Colorado state regulators do require recreational marijuana be tested for potency at third-party state licensed laboratories for labeling.

“The biggest issue is protecting the public’s health and safety and making sure this industry is based on sound accurate science,” said JJ Slatkin, director of business development at TEQ Analytical Laboratories.

TEQ has tested more than 100 different strains from more than two dozen clients, Slatkin said. His lab tests marijuana flower, concentrates and pot-infused products such as edibles.

While the tests measure potency of five different cannabinoids or components of the plant, THC is the cannabinoid connected to making people feel “high.”

Slatkin pulled up a recent test report showing a flower with about 32% total THC, acknowledging that it’s one of the highest THC levels he had seen in tests at TEQ. CMT Laboratories, another state-licensed testing facility, reported test results with THC content as high as 28%.

In states where marijuana is still illegal, “they’re only growing or getting access to kind of low-grade marijuana,” said Franson.

Nationwide the average THC content found in confiscated marijuana has dramatically increased in just the last couple of decades.

“In the early 1990s, the average THC content in confiscated cannabis samples was roughly 3.7% for marijuana,” according to the NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse. “In 2013, it was 9.6%.”

Another study that analyzed samples from pot seized by the US Drug Enforcement Administration from 1995 to 2014 also showed an increase in potency of “illicit cannabis plant material” from 4% THC content in 1995 to 12% in 2014, which is still far below what marijuana testing facilities are finding in Colorado and other states where recreational marijuana is sold.

Taking a health toll

These increasingly potent strains hit inexperienced users hard.

Data analyzed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (PDF) found that emergency room visits for marijuana-related incidents increased 29% from the years just before commercialization to 2014 through mid-2015.

Another study found that for Colorado residents, marijuana-related ER visits rose from 70 per 10,000 in 2012 to 101 per 10,000 in 2014 – a 44% increase.

While those numbers can’t be attributed solely to highly potent pot, Franson believes that’s part of it “for those few who unfortunately take too much in and have an adverse affect.”

“These people are getting so anxious and uncomfortable with how they feel. They sometimes have a feeling of impending doom and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to die,’ so they go to the emergency room and seek assistance,” Franson said.

Marijuana users can also build a tolerance to THC. So higher potency can become necessary to achieve the desired effect over time, according to medical experts.

However, Williams said THC potency is not the only focus for growers or consumers. Some people use pot to help relax, for pain relief, even to help energize. Different components of the marijuana plant can have different impacts.

Follow CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

For example, Williams said some of his customers prefer a pot product with higher concentrations of CBD, another cannabinoid, believed to help treat epilepsy and other serious conditions.

Williams said he remains focused on growing the best variety to meet different needs. “Having that range of products that has great flavor, that has great effect, that’s repeatable and consistent for our consumers is what our goal is,” said Williams.