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Less Is More: Why Low-Dose Cannabis Is Important

October 25, 2016
A rolled marijuana cigarette made with a light brown translucent rolling paper and a tan colored filter/mouthpiece with a marijuana flower bud positioned below it to form an exclamation point like arrangement. Studio shot on a white background.

According to Jake Browne, America’s budtender and head strain reviewer at Denver Post’s The Cannabist, most consumers are not looking for strains to get them higher than Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson trolling KFC at 3:00 a.m. on a weekend bender in Amsterdam.

“If I had cataloged the most common request at dispensaries where I’ve worked,” writes Browne, “it wouldn’t be, ‘What’s going to get me the highest?’ but rather, ‘What can I smoke that won’t knock me out?’”

Nonetheless, since the 1980s growers keep crossbreeding high-octane thoroughbred cannabis strains to steadily drive up THC content while breeding out an essential cannabinoid: CBD. According the National Institute on Drug Abuse, potency has increased from around 4 percent in the 1980s to 15 percent (as of 2012). Peruse a few menus in Denver or San Francisco and you’ll find plenty of strains topping 20, even 30 percent THC. (Notably, after the Netherlands saw THC increase dramatically from 2000 to 2005, THC content has trended downward for the last 10 years.)

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For most consumers, “high-octane” THC is ill-suited for them on many levels. High THC is therapeutically less effective. It’s not as enjoyable. And, it’s far more likely to produce adverse — short and long-term — effects. So why do growers keep breeding stronger strains? Good question!

As long as cannabis has been used — nearly 5,000 years — medical practitioners have recognized the importance of moderate dosing. The earliest published volume on Chinese pharmacopoeia (circa 2700 B.C.E.), the Pen Ts’ao (The Herbal), warned consuming too many Ma (marijuana) seeds could cause a person to see demons, while moderate doses would enable users to communicate with the spirits. Of course, too much cannabis is unlikely to cause you to see demons, nor will just the right amount grant you mystical powers to “cross over.” But, the point is that for thousands of years, we’ve known moderate doses are better than high doses.

The Biphasic Effect: Why Less is More

Marijuana bud close up

As humans, we’re conditioned to think, “if a little bit is good, then more is better.” Right? Rarely is this the case. Cannabis, like many substances, produces biphasic effects.

What is the “biphasic effect?” Think of alcohol. What happens when you drink a glass (or two) of wine? You feel relaxed, more sociable, the effects are pleasurable. Drink too much, and you can get overly emotional, aggressive, even physically ill. That’s the biphasic effect at work. Low to moderate doses elicit desired effects; high doses do just the opposite.

The biphasic effects of cannabis are subtler than alcohol, but no less consequential. Low doses can make you feel relaxed and happy. Too much THC can impair cognitive function, and even induce intense anxiety or a panic attack.

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When it comes to therapeutic use, too much THC can provide diminishing returns, or worse, exacerbate symptoms.

U.C. San Diego researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial and like many studies, confirmed cannabis is effective for pain relief — but within a narrow therapeutic window (the range in which a drug is effective).

Participants found no relief in either the placebo or low dose THC. The medium dose produced the most significant relief, while participants consuming the high THC dose cannabis experienced more pain. One shortcoming was that the study only considered THC (cannabis has numerous other cannabinoids and terpenoids that can influence outcomes). The authors acknowledged “there might be another compound within the cannabis leaf that we did not measure that may be leading to the increased pain at the high dose.”

GW Pharma came to similar conclusions when conducting clinical trials for Sativex, a 1:1 THC/CBD oromucosal spray. Participants were given three daily dose ranges: low-dose (1-4 sprays), mid-dose (6-10 sprays), and high-dose (11-16 sprays). Predictably, low and mid dose groups achieved superior results over the placebo, while high-dose patients experienced more adverse effects (22% dropped out).

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The biphasic effect has been documented in numerous studies of various conditions, from depression to multiple sclerosis.

Consumers Prefer Moderate THC Over High THC

Above Marijuana Cannabis Plant Growing Indoor Growing Facility

Research has validated widespread anecdotal reports that consumers prefer mildly euphoric effects and therapeutic efficacy over getting as “high” as possible.

In a randomized-controlled trial (RCT) of 18 active cannabis users comparing the effects of vaping to smoking, San Francisco oncologist Dr. Donald Abrams and his team measured subjective outcomes like ‘self-reported high’ and how ‘enjoyable’ the experience was.

Participants were given low, medium, and high THC dose cannabis randomly on different days. Of those who expressed a preference, no one preferred the lowest dose, but twice as many people preferred the medium dose over the high dose.

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“This is not your parents’ pot,” is a favorite punchline used by prohibitionists to suggest the reputation of cannabis as a relatively benign substance is no longer deserved. No doubt, they fail to consider that higher concentrations aren’t always a bad thing. Anecdotal and scientific evidence suggest — including the Abrams study — that patients self-titrate and inhale more deeply when THC is lower. If a consumer has to inhale less smoke to achieve the desired effect, clearly that is healthier. However, there’s a point of not only diminishing returns, but where THC levels are simply too high to be therapeutically useful or enjoyable for the vast majority of consumers.

As cannabis becomes more mainstream and savvier consumers start to favor strains (like wines) for properties beyond potency —  bouquet, diverse terpenes and aromas, craftsmanship — growers may take note. Instead of growers trying to outdo each other with their obsession to drive up psychoactive potency, they’ll focus their efforts on creating a wider array of complex strains rich in a variety of terpenoids and cannabinoids beyond THC.

Jeremy Kossen's Bio Image

Jeremy Kossen

Jeremy is a contributing writer at Leafly. He is a best-selling author, podcaster, and entrepreneur.

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  • Everything in moderation, including moderation. Oscar Wilde.

    • Jeremy Kossen

      I always loved that quote. Oscar Wilde has the best quotes!

    • Lorrin Rodrigues

      Hey, that’s just like the
      “Never Say Never” proposition…but with the eloquence that is Oscar Wilde’s writing…

      • Holly Vaughn

        That’s a neat way to put it. I like it.

        I do think of them as being somewhat different when looked at from a usage perspective, though. And this is just nitpicking your well-put message. (sorry)
        I’m thinking of “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” as a suggestion for behavior; a guideline or instructive.
        Where “Never Say Never” is more of a caution or warning. It is also a logical fallacy.

  • Raul Tsi

    there is much to be said about moderation, for one thing, it conserves on valuable resources. I just got my medicinal cannabis card 3 weeks ago and indeed I asked my budtender for the lesser potent variety of indica they had in stock. I did try the sativa next. Since I am taking at night for IOP relief during REM sleep, I need to be sleepy. I loved the sativa, it was like visiting a good dear friend, relaxed and comfortable and then it’s time to leave and you stand in the foyer for 45 minutes having a minnesota goodbye. You keep meaning to leave then another topic of conversation comes up and you’re talking away on that one for another 10 minutes. With the indica, it is like being at home after a good long productive day and now you’re comfy in your own bed. Since I started getting the dispensary cannabis, I’ve noticed that it is quite a bit more potent still than the commercial I used to get before. I now use half as much as I did before (I ingest vs smoke or vape). In spite of the significantly higher price of the dispensary product, it is actually working out to be cheaper than the less costly commercial. The improved cultivation method also results in far less waste from sticks and stems and blessedly no seeds. I’m using less than scientifically accurate methods to size my dose, currently estimated at 1/16 of a gram, we’re talking 62.5 milligrams. I need a scale that can accurately weigh in 5 mg increments +/- .1 mg if I want to make my doses any smaller. I’d like to only take as much as I need to get IOP relief, it will make my purchases go much further.

  • I can’t even begin to count the number of times I thought that if I feel good now, another hit will feel even better.. only to spend the next few hours feeling lousy, because too much feels lousy. I wish it were easier to measure and control dosage. Or at least to control myself :p

    • Jeremy Kossen

      You may want to consider a different form of administration. Have you tried sublingual via a tincture? It’s easier to control dosing and you may feel less inclination to continue dosing (as part of your desire to continue dosing could be influenced by a learned response). Changing (or disrupting) the pattern could help “re-train” your response.

      • Nick

        JEREMY, You sound like a smart guy, and I think you hit the nail on the head.. You see, that’s my problem, Like to tell you about it, but my low-back is killing me. Later

  • Sitkajo

    I like bud where a single toke will get me moderately high. Because I’m an old fart with a professional job, a non-smoking wife and kids and other people that just don’t need to know what I am up to. I can’t spend all my time smoking and its best if I am not out of this world high. So a single toke is best. Also its most discreet. You can do it quick out back or in the park and nobody will ever know. I use a little one hitter that happens to look like the other tools in my tool box. Its just a steel a tube. Looks like a drill bit sorta. So for this middle class, middle aged dad, veteran of the 70’s, a single discreet toke of mild weed is the best. I find that 18-20% THC is about right for me. End of story.

    • MSSwamprat

      I’m a professional in heavy industry with a very similar story. Wife doesn’t smoke, four kids in the house, coworkers that are very careful about when,where and even if they smoke. I am just learning the strains that I like best, but a single hit is about all I can fit in and I don’t want to be obliterated when I have to be around others. I used to use a Dugout, but have recently switched to a small vaporizer. It reduces the odor and makes my stash last longer. I’m starting to experiment with temperatures, which is an added bonus that I could never do with my old lighter.

      • Nick

        I’m in a similar situation, of course. I use a Dug-out for years now. But I only buy 1-2 grams at 20 a G. Would I get better mileage off a Vape than the dugout ? ALSO TO ” SITKAJO” my pipe for the Dugout looks like a cigarette that’s an idea for you.

        • Dmember

          Go shop at Dynavap…get a vapcap and you’ll be vaping so cheap you won’t believe it. Promise.

          • Raketemensch

            Seconding the Dynavap. You can basically set up a dugout, but with a vape. Very cool little thing.

    • maxwood

      Think about adding a foot-long flexible drawtube to the butt (sucking-out) end of your “steel a tube one hitter” so you can do the Easy-Learn, Heat-not-Burn VapeToke Technique out far enough from your face that your eyes can focus on what you’re doing as you hold the lighter far enough below that the heat entering the topchamber is in the range 300F-400F (vaporizing) and you suck smooth and slow. Also pre-sift your herb to 1/16″ particle size for increased surface area for vaporizing, and use a #40 screen in your device to keep kiefbits from getting drawn down into the interior, and load in 25 mg (1/40 g) for each single toke.
      .
      There’s an illustrated idea how to mount your metalpiece in a wood or other handle at free wiki article “Make-Pipes-from-Everyday-Objects”. Best of luck

      • Sitkajo

        Thanks for the ideas. However what I am going for is an object that looks like other objects in my tool box. This tube I have looks like a drill bit and fits right into my drillbit box. No one else goes in to my tool box. So thats what it is. But I will be checking out your recommended article. Looks good!

  • HighThere88

    So are there any strains out there at all that go for a more balanced approach?

  • FlunkedAgain

    I use a home made Vaporizer; A hot plate; a Pyrex Flask (1,000 ml), and a laser pointer. I have a stopper & glass tubes for the air in, and vapor out. You can get a laser pointer at a pet store.

    Powder the weed.

    The trick is to MEASURE the dosage. I usually use 1/2 to 1/3 of 1/8th of a Teaspoon. That’s 1/16 to 1/24th of a Teaspoon.
    A pipe will last one hit, but it takes time for it to kick in. Wait 10-20 minutes the 1st time to see how long it takes.

    MEASURE and drop it in the Flask, put the stopper in and heat the Flask. It takes about 2 minutes on Medium heat to get the vapor going. That’s what the laser pointer is for. You can see the vapor with the laser pointer before it becomes visible to the naked eye.

    Take a few hits, and then heat it some more for about 20 seconds; and repeat. You can go on for about 10-20 minutes to vape the weed to the point of who cares if there’s any vapor left.

    I use it mainly for Pain, AND the side effects, but I don’t get really really high. The pain killing effects last for about a day, the other side effects last for a shorter period of time.

  • johnd

    I’d been smoking the high powered stuff- 20-30% and one or two hits was great. I found some Acapulco Gold at only 16% but for old time memories I thought I’d give it a try. I took 2 hits and was disappointed. After a couple of hours I gave it another try with several hits. It was one of the happiest highs I’d had for a while. I’ve found by taking more hits from a lower THC the highs are better. I still like the 25% sativa on occasion but I no longer snub my nose at some of the lower THCs.

  • pete

    we have this issue in florida with it being newly legal all shops have is really high THC or really low THC and it sucks because i run a business and everything they sell is too strong for me to use during the day, there is so much more to med mj then just offering a basic sativa, indica and hybrid, there strains are all great but way to strong for me to use if i have anything to do and considering i run my own business i don’t have access to ANYTHING i can use during the day, the only sativa they have is sour diesel which is a great strain but WAY to heavy of an experience for me for during the day, i need a nice lemon haze or some other kind of clear headed energizing strains and it sucks because NO ONE in florida has any so while we may have access to medicine we still don’t have anything anybody can use during the day and again it really sucks!!!!!

    • LoveUSAHateTheHate

      I will never purchase cannabis in a Florida cartel dispensary establishment – Boycott Florida until they allow a full and open market!

      I think the 7 License holders in Florida need to promote a full and open market – as its the only way they will ever earn a dime – there are 100,000 dispensary’s already in Florida – I can have a mobile delivery to my house 24/7 from the gray market –

      • Chris R

        That’s what I said untill they slapped a felony on me. My advice is if your a medical cannabis consumer and live in Florida, move.

  • Xylem

    After a while, most people who consume booze discover that it’s neither fun nor healthy to drink grain alcohol every night. Same goes with cannabis, especially newbies– they’ll smoke joint after joint of high-THC herb just to see how high they can get. In time, though, you learn your boundaries.

  • Merry Christmas Mr Cricket

    If I smoke too much I get some nasty panic and it makes me nervous to smoke again. I prefer the “moderate buzz” – some people can get absolutely annihilated, but I rarely find that experience enjoyable. Low to moderate THC for me please. You can always take more, but you can’t undo a dose.