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Is Weed Getting Stronger? The History of Cannabis Breeding and Potency

Posted on May 22 2019

Everyone’s heard the devilish claims that weed’s getting stronger “every two weeks” or shared a joint with an old-timer who’s motto is “two hits and quit.” Although the claims may just seem like small-talk, the potency of cannabis has actually increased significantly over time, resulting in the many different high-THC strains that are popular among millennials today.

There are a few reasons that cannabis potency has experienced this transition, but there’s no doubt that weed is way stronger today than it was during the height of reefer-madness and disco pants. A little look into the history of cannabis and how it’s bred explains alot about the phenomenon. Next time you take that savory puff of high-THC cannabis, you’ll know exactly how it came to be.


Cannabis Potency Then and Now

Cannabis has been around since probably the beginning of time, with reports of its medical use dating all the way back to ancient Chinese medicine and the Vikings. Originally, the cannabis plant family consisted only of landraces, or naturally occurring plants. However, many species have been spliced and crossed over time, resulting in the hundreds of new cannabis strains you can access today.

Originally, cannabis was expected to have a potency below 1% THC. In fact, data shows that the THC content of cannabis in 1975 was around 0.74% on average. Just ten years later, the average THC content was increased marginally to 2.82%. The data shows a rise in potency to 6.4% in 2003, not even 30 years later. Now, cannabis strains exist with a THC content of 20% and higher, and that number is expected to keep rising.

Although cannabis potency has already increased tenfold, the potency of cannabis products is expected to continue to change now based on improved research efforts. As the legality challenges of cannabis are being overturned all over the country, medical efforts may pose a greater need for these potent strains. In the past, though, the reasons for the increase in potency have been different. In fact, the consistently increasing strength of cannabis can be partially blamed on its legal history, and the rest can be lent to increases in science and genetic breeding efforts.


Why is Weed Getting Stronger?

As we said, there are a few different reasons that played a hand in the massive increase in the potency of cannabis over the years. From the force of prohibition to an increased wealth of knowledge on growing and crossing cannabis strains, there’s been no slight in the growth of high-THC strains on the market. Here are a few of the reasons cannabis has become as potent as it is today:


  • Prohibition underhandedly forced a potency increase, just like with alcohol. The prohibition on cannabis is one of the main reasons for the potency increase after it’s golden disco years. By making cannabis more potent, consumers needed less cannabis to reach desired effects. Smaller portions of cannabis were more easily concealed and transported, which made black market sales easier and less risky. The same effect is seen with the prohibition on alcohol, which was a footstep towards increasing the widespread use and popularity of highly-potent liquor, as opposed to wine or beer.

  • There is a medical need for high-quality THC and potent cannabis. Further, a need in the medical community sparked the increase in cannabis potency over time. Some conditions respond mostly to THC, and others find that large doses of cannabis are needed to control symptoms. This led to growers crossing highly potent strains and creating hybrids that are stronger than their parent strains. Over time, this gradual increase created a plethora of highly potent strains that are a product of the original landrace species of cannabis and all their offspring. A medical need for highly potent cannabis products is what led to the influx of cannabis and CBD concentrates available today.

  • Growing methods have drastically changed and directly affect potency. While cannabis strains have been crossed time and time again to help create the highly potent strains we have today, cross-breeding isn’t the only factor that improves cannabis potency. The method in which cannabis is grown, the nutrients give, the type of soil used, the humidity and temperature of its environment, and how much and what kind of light it gets during it multiple grow cycles will all affect the outcome for each plant. As research and understanding of cannabis have progressed, so has our ability to effectively and efficiently grow cannabis. Now, large grow operations are often completed indoors with artificial light and closely controlled humidity and temperature, which doesn’t leave the plant’s fate up to the sun and wind. Plants grown under the controlled conditions are often much stronger than plants grown outdoors and exposed to all the elements.

  • THC builds tolerance, and highly potent weed is in high demand. The last reason that the potency of THC has increased tenfold over time is due to the effect it has on tolerance and consumer demand. Over time, THC is said to have a tolerance effect. Therefore, those who use cannabis regularly may find that they need more (or stronger cannabis) to maintain the desired effects over time. Today, Millennials are often in search of high-quality cannabis that is highly-potent and produces strong effects.

Benefits and Risk of Increased Potency

Along with this increased potency comes quite a bit of scrutiny, although cannabis’ safety profile is often confirmed in research. There may be both some benefit and risk to the new and improved, even-more-potent strains of cannabis you can find today.

The main benefits lie in it’s increased therapeutic value. While many of these strains have increased THC contents, some also include higher levels of other cannabinoids, like CBD and CBN. High potency products also allow users to use less and still reach the level of relief they need.

However, there is one obvious risk, especially to new users. Anyone who tried cannabis 20 years ago may be expecting the same mild effects and could easily take too much when using a new, more potent strain. The high potency does make it difficult for new users to know how to get started, without experiencing any adverse effects from taking too much THC. Luckily, you can still access cannabis strains with lower potencies, or even high-CBD cannabis strains, which may help balance some of the negative effects of THC and produce synergistic effects.

Whether you're new to cannabis or a seasoned vet one thing is certain: Cannabis has gotten alot stronger, so it’s more important than ever for consumers to learn about cannabis and how to use it safely. If you’re worried about trying cannabis for the first time, you may want to read “Accidentally Over-Indulge? Here’s What to Do if You Get Too High.

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