Why Weed Strains with the Same Levels of THC/CBD Can Produce So Many Different Effects

We look at the science
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on June 28, 2019

Why Weed Strains with the same THC/CBD Produce Different Effects

In an attempt to ‘sell’ the benefits of marijuana, members of the industry have attempted to simplify what is an extremely complex plant. At present, legal markets only require producers of cannabis to outline the THC and CBD content. Therefore, the uninitiated usually believe that a strain’s THC or CBD content is what differentiates it from other strains.

However, such an analysis doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, at all. If you were to look at hundreds of marijuana strains, you might be surprised to find that the THC and CBD content is not that dissimilar. A significant number of marijuana strains have between 15% and 25% THC and less than 1% CBD these days.

In fact, you will find dozens of strains with a difference of no more than 1% THC and 0.1% CBD. In this instance, you would expect these strains to provide you with the same effects. Imagine your surprise when you discover that one gives you a surge of energy and euphoria, while the other relaxes the body and makes you want to sleep.

What the Hell is Going On?

One of the great things about marijuana is its unpredictability. It is very different from alcohol or pharmaceutical drugs in that regard. When you consume alcohol, whether it is strong rum, mid-strength wine, or relatively weak beer, you have a fair idea of what will happen. When you drink enough, you are likely to experience an impairment of motor movements and a loss of inhibitions.

The severity of these effects depends on how much you consume. Some people can tolerate more alcohol than others. One individual predisposed to violence might become aggressive, while another person, who is already tired, may feel sleepy when drinking wine. However, you are highly unlikely to feel a different kind of drunk after consuming six bottles of Budweiser than you would after drinking six bottles of Coors.

Cannabis is very different. You could feel a completely different sensation after smoking one strain than you would when using the other. The emphasis on THC and CBD content makes people believe it is these two cannabinoids that are responsible for how we feel. However, a significant proportion of marijuana strains contain similar levels of both cannabinoids.

Does This Mean Most Marijuana Strains Act the Same?

I’ve read headlines in articles which suggest that most marijuana strains act the same. I’ve even read claims that all strains are the same! Both statements are utter nonsense. In fact, when I looked at the articles in question, the actual content was completely different from the attention-grabbing tagline… what a shocker!

The most quoted study for these claims is one conducted by Mudge, Murch, and Brown. It was published in Scientific Reports in August 2018. The research team examined 33 strains from five licensed growers in British Columbia in Canada. The study analyzed the concentrations of 13 known cannabinoids, including CBD and THC. According to Murch, the CBD and THC composition was virtually the same in 24 of the strains; over 70% of the samples.

That’s pretty much the supposed proof that ALL cannabis is the same. However, matters are not helped by the fact that the strains studied were marketed as having different THC and CBD levels. This is another symptom of the desire to sell weed in a crowded marketplace. Growers feel the need to exaggerate the level of THC so users believe they are getting a more intense high; or they overstate the level of CBD so users think the strain is more therapeutic.

Murch did admit that the variations in THC and CBD content could be down to degradation in storage, basic errors when analyzing strains, or incorrect packaging. She also stated that weed packages should admit that the values of CBD and THC are estimates because it is “impossible” to provide an accurate level. For example, the calorie content we see on food labels is an approximation rather than a strict and unyielding number.

Should We Take This Study as Gospel?

Hopefully, you will see the inherent flaws in this study as a means of claiming all marijuana strains are the same. I should point out that none of the scientists involved in the study claim that their work proves anything of the sort. In fact, the researchers wrote that there are innumerable strains of marijuana being cultivated in illegal and legal markets. Therefore, it is possible for chemically identical or closely related, plant material to be sold under the same name.

Also, the research covers just five breeders from the same region! There is every chance that they have been using genetically similar strains. Then there is the small matter of focusing on just 33 strains from potentially thousands. Had the study looked at 100+ strains from at least three distinct geographical locations, it would be harder to claim that all weed is the same.

Marijuana is MORE Than Just THC and CBD

Much is made of the relationship between THC and CBD. Certainly, this website has covered it in great depth in the past. In the British Columbia study, the level of THC to CBD was virtually the same in over 70% of the strains analyzed. As a result, it didn’t help answer the question: “How Do THC and CBD Levels Dictate Effects?”

If you believe the British Columbia study, of course, there is nothing to analyze! However, we know that CBD doesn’t have the intoxicating effects of THC. CBD is believed that reduce THC’s ability to activate the endocannabinoid system’s (ECS) CB1 receptors. As a result, strains with a low THC to CBD ratio are less likely to cause anxiety than their high THC to CBD ratio counterparts.

There are other effects to consider too. Strains with extremely high THC content and a low level of CBD have been linked with memory loss. A study led by Valerie Curran of University College London, and published in Nature in October 2010, looked at 134 marijuana users who got high using their own weed.

The research team divided the groups into those who used marijuana with 0.75%+ CBD and those who used strains with less than 0.14% CBD. The THC level remained constant. Ultimately, Curran and her team discovered that those who used the low CBD strains were “significantly worse at recalling text” than those who consumed the high CBD strains. In fact, users of the high CBD weed showed no noticeable memory impairment.

As I said, a lot has been written about THC to CBD ratios; but this does a great disservice to the other 100+ cannabinoids in marijuana. There is a possibility that cannabinoids such as Cannabinol (CBN) and Cannabichromene (CBC) are doing a lot of work behind the scenes. Aside from a legal obligation to only showcase THC and CBD content, the other reason why we don’t hear much about these cannabinoids is that they are usually only available in weed in small amounts.

CBD and THC are the most abundant cannabinoids in marijuana, and we have become guilty of assuming they play the most important role without enough research to back it up. In the British Columbia study, Mudge and her team discovered over 20 unknown cannabinoids! According to Mudge, it is imperative that we learn more about the other cannabinoids to offer crucial information to the medical marijuana community.

Remember, marijuana remains federally illegal in the United States, and only recently became legal in Canada. Over the last few decades, breeders have been restricted in the strains they could grow. As cannabis remains a prohibited substance in many countries around the world, the plant’s true heritage has likely been improperly documented.

The Entourage Effect

The main problem right now is the lack of scientific evidence to support ‘the entourage effect.’ This is the idea that the hundreds of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds within marijuana work together to provide the apparent effects of the herb. The prohibition on weed has made it incredibly hard for scientists to study this alleged phenomenon properly.

Chris Emerson of Level Blends, a marijuana vaporizer company, is a firm believer that the sum of the plant’s parts is why it works so well. He is a trained chemist, and like others in his line of work, Emerson believes that he can create different vaping mixtures by including different concentrations of cannabinoids and terpenes.

Margaret Haney is a neurobiologist at Columbia University, and she is not convinced that the entourage effect is even real. She says there isn’t a lot of data available right now; a fact that allows marijuana breeders and sellers of weed products to make a host of unsubstantiated claims.

The entourage effect claim is not completely without foundation, though. For example, non-THC cannabinoids such as CBD have neurochemical action and are capable of impacting the cannabinoid receptors in the central nervous system (CNS) in unique ways. Ethan Russo is a marijuana researcher in Washington State, and he believes that CBD is the most pertinent influence in the entourage effect.

Russo referred to a study by Bhattacharya et al., published in European Neuropsychopharmacology in January 2015, which gave 36 volunteers 10mg of THC. The study showed that this relatively small amount of THC was enough to cause toxic psychosis in 40% of the volunteers.

Russo once worked for GW Pharmaceuticals who have released a prescription drug called Sativex. The drug has a 1:1 ratio of THC to CBD. According to Russo, fewer than 2% of patients had toxic psychosis when using 48mg of THC along with 48mg of CBD. He used this example as the main reason for believing in the impact CBD has on THC. Russo did acknowledge that other cannabinoids could also have a similar synergistic effect but was yet to be studied.

Is a Single Cannabinoid Enough?

Not according to Russo. He referred to THC as a ‘lousy drug’ when consumed by itself. Marinol, a drug containing synthesized THC dissolved in sesame seed oil, has been available for well over 30 years. Russo stated that a significant number of Marinol users had to quit the drug because of side effects. He believes this is because of a lack of other cannabinoids. Negative side effects included anxiety and an inability to think clearly.

Syndros is another prescription drug that has been approved by the FDA. It is synthetic THC dissolved in alcohol. The active ingredient is the same THC molecule that comes from the marijuana plant. Remarkably, Syndros is a Schedule II drug, whereas the marijuana plant is a Schedule I drug, which makes it federally illegal. I’m confident that this decision is based on a concern for the wellbeing of Americans rather than a cynical money-making strategy.

Back in 2011, Russo published his own paper on the interactions between THC and different terpenes and cannabinoids. One example he gives is that the terpene, alpha-pinene, helps preserve acetylcholine, a molecule which can help with memory formation. Remember, a side-effect of THC consumption is short-term memory impairment. According to Russo, adding alpha-pinene to the mix can counteract these negative effects.

As I mentioned above, the theory of the entourage effect doesn’t have a huge amount of scientific data to support it. In fact, the biggest plus point in its favor is the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence from satisfied users of marijuana. Scientists such as Haney need more than anecdotes to be convinced.

According to Barth Wilsey of the University of California, San Diego, people are guilty of having preconceived notions that terpenes will work for them. Wilsey wants to see clinical trials where people are given real and fake terpenes to see if the positive effects, they report are legitimate. Haney also disputes Russo’s claim that Marinol is an ineffective drug. She claims that the drug works well when treating pain and a lack of appetite.

Meanwhile, Russo is sticking to his guns. He acknowledges that there is a lack of scientific data, but he backs his experience. For 40 years, he has studied the herb and is aware of the differences between various types of marijuana. Emerson claims that over 80% of people tested by his brand fall straight into the effect that Level Blends say they will.

Final Thoughts – Does Weed with Similar Levels of THC and CBD Have Different Effects? If So, Why?

First and foremost, the notion that all weed contains the same amount of THC and CBD is as likely to be spurious as it is to be true. The idea comes from a tiny sample of marijuana strains grown by breeders within the same geographical region. If it were a study trying to get the FDA to approve a pharmaceutical drug, it wouldn’t be anywhere near enough evidence.

However, it IS true that there are probably hundreds of marijuana strains with similar levels of THC and CBD. Yet anecdotal evidence from hundreds of thousands, if not more, users suggest that these strains have different effects. IF this is true, why is it the case?

By far the most likely explanation is the existence of well over 100 more cannabinoids, not to mention hundreds of terpenes. As the only legal requirement as to the ‘ingredients’ of weed relates to CBD and THC, breeders and sellers don’t feel the need to measure accurately, or outline, the level of other cannabinoids in marijuana. It could be that the likes of CBN, CBC, and CBG all play a major role in the effects of weed.

If other cannabinoids ARE relevant, then it is down to the entourage effect, a theory which posits that the hundreds of compounds within marijuana work better together. At present, there isn’t anywhere near enough evidence to positively prove the entourage effect theory. What we have is evidence that CBD could counteract the effects of THC; potentially reducing the instance of side effects such as anxiety and paranoia.

Ultimately, no one who has used a few different marijuana strains should believe they are essentially the same thing. There are strains such as Harlequin which are profoundly different to behemoths like Gorilla Glue #4. Try smoking a gram of each and see what happens! I’m willing to bet that you’ll know the difference!

As will remain the case until marijuana becomes federally legal, the weight of scientific evidence is not enough to make any definitive claims on the potential differences between the effects of weed. However, countless cannabis consumers believe they can tell the difference.

14 comments
  1. Cameron
    Great article

    Great article, I wish it went a bit more in depth about terpenes and their effects. Overall it was pretty well thought out and it’s definitely true that different weed does different things and even to every person for that matter.

  2. Alicia Keys
    Could we use data of turpetines form essenatil oils effects to shorten or skip a step in the resurch process?

    Obviously more studies of cannabinoids is needed, such a small study doesn’t prove much. But as for the turpentines couldn’t they take that data from studies done on essential oils? It seems like this might help to lessen the amount of studies needed.

  3. Alicia N Keys LMT #15489
    Could we use data of turpetines form essenatil oils effects to shorten or skip astep in the resurch process?

    Interesting, I understand that cannabinoids need to be studied more, and a much larger study would be ideal but as for the turpentines couldn’t they just use the research from turpentines in essentail oils? Seems like it could shorten if not skip a whole step in the research process.

  4. Mike
    Worth the read.

    This article is a easy read. Nice way to put it.

  5. Sandra
    Very informative article

    Thanks for the article, very informative! Gotta learn new things about cannabinoids properties and medicinal values without all the hype.

  6. Sandra
    Very informative article

    Thanks for this article, very informative, gotta know new things about cannabinoids properties and medicinal values without all the hype.

  7. Keiron Wright
    Relief from migraines

    Since I was a teenager I have suffered chronic migraines. Ironically the only relief I get during chronic stabbing headaches is the chronic (cannabis), I discovered this on a trip to Amsterdam, my obligatory destination for vacations. I look forward to the day when I will be able to self medicate legally at home in England until then I have to do the best I can with the medications available, articles like this are a god send to help with my self medication regime thanks to Marijuanabreak

  8. Tarik Zaki
    Marijuana Chemistry

    Marijuana testing has just basically begun being tested in great lengths.Our knowledge will change in many areas for this plant in the near future and probably far as well.As science progresses so will are understanding of this beautiful plant.

  9. Deborah L Anderson
    Excellent info!

    Thanks so much for this info! As a long-time cannabis user, I still didn’t understand the difference between strains. This will help me make better decisions about how to treat both my depression and pain. I’ll be using your products very soon.
    Again, many thanks!
    Debbie

  10. Ken McMillan
    hundreds of compounds within marijuana work better together

    To even say that in the infancy of legitimate research on this plant, that there is no difference in different strains is ludicrous. You cannot take a plant from nature and single out any one component and say that it is the only part of the plant with any affects.
    To me, one of the biggest hurdles to proper research is the apparent need of scientists to dissect things down to single components to the point of completely forgetting about the whole.

    The heart pumps blood throughout our body, but without the air that we breath it is fruitless.
    The harmony of nature is just that, a multitude of components working as a whole. If one or more of those components are removed or reduced ,I think it would be fair to say a different outcome would be observed.

    Take for instance the affects of hormones in our bodies, the perfect balance of all the different components creates the optimum result of well being. Remove or reduce just one of those many hormones and the affects are just not the same. There is not a woman on this earth that would argue that pointe or for that matter a lot of men in the modern age of estrogen dominance in products we consume.

  11. KRIS
    Keep trying. It works.

    Best way is to try different blends and types, when you find one you like, stick with it. Can’t always go by the numbers.

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