For every weed smoker who wants to get as high as possible, there's someone else who has a light-duty panic attack—or maybe a heavy-duty panic attack—whenever they try cannabis. Most of these people eventually just decide they're "not a pot person." They want to relax, and even the strains that are said to be relaxing don't help them relax. Many of these people wholeheartedly support the legalization of marijuana, but they aren't getting to enjoy its benefits.
I'm one of them, and it sucks.
While I used to love pot, and want to love pot again, it hasn't been easy to do. Ninety percent of the time, I get super high, much higher than I would like, and it is a terrifying experience for me. Instead of enhancing life, it sends my mind spinning into a tornado of anxiety and paranoia. Recreational budtenders will tell you that sativas are the high-energy strain of weed, giving you a "head high" that's perfect for daytime, and indicas are the relaxing strain of weed, giving you a "body high" and preparing you for sleep, and but even trying a range of indicas didn't work for me. They made my heart pound and my mind race. Since there are now so many varieties of legal weed available, I've been looking for a way to fit pot back into my life, but I kept failing to find anything anywhere near calm enough for me.
My friend Nick, a local DJ who also doesn't partake as often as he'd like to, summed up the search perfectly.
"I'm looking for some dad weed," he said. "Like, weed you can smoke and still pick somebody up at the airport."
He's not alone. There are plenty of people out there looking for weed they can smoke that doesn't cancel their plans. They want to go hiking, they want to read and comprehend literature, they want to be able to relax, they want to ride the bus without feeling everyone's penetrating gaze—they want to do all manner of other normal fun stuff. They want to be lightly stoned. They don't want to be thunderfucked.
Though there is a lot about weed we still don't know, it's generally agreed that the THC in weed is what makes you high. And both indicas and sativas in the recreational market usually have about 18 to 25 percent THC in them. Why is there so much THC in weed? Because in the old days, on the black market, the higher you got, the better the weed was considered to be—the more bang for your buck—and black-market weed plants were the foundation for most of the weed now grown and sold in the recreational market. Most of the customers in the recreational market still have that mentality: If two products cost the same, and one of them has more THC than the other, that's what customers will buy.
But THC is just one of many cannabinoids in marijuana, and now that the state is filled with expert cultivators, some growers are cultivating for other cannabinoids—including cannabidiol, commonly referred to as CBD. High-CBD products are primarily associated with medical marijuana, as CBD has fantastic painkilling and epilepsy-fighting properties. It isn't psychoactive the way THC is. It doesn't turn your brain into a bouncy ball the way THC does. In fact, it's thought that the CBD in a plant is what regulates the THC high. A plant with high CBD levels and low THC levels is awesome for anybody who is looking to enjoy some of the many benefits of pot sans mental debilitation.
"I recommend CBD to all novice users," said Dr. James Lathrop, founder of Cannabis City, the city's first recreational pot store. Lathrop is a doctor of nursing practice and a third-year PhD student at UW with a research focus on cannabis. "Certainly for people who are prone to anxiety, someone who doesn't want that high-THC effect, the high-CBD strains can really do it."
Strains like Sour Tsunami, AC/DC, or Charlotte's Web are primarily CBD, often containing less than 1 percent THC. The plant you see on the cover of this magazine, being grown in a greenhouse in Ellensburg, is Life Gardens' high-CBD Blueberry Essence strain. The strain's THC content ranges from below 1 percent to as high as 5 percent, with CBD content ranging from 5 percent up to 15 percent. The ratio of CBD to THC varies, but it is never usually lower than three to one, said Rachael Lowatchie, administrative director at Life Gardens. While these strains aren't very psychoactive, meaning you won't feel more than the faintest head high, they still have profound effects. People love CBD, and for good reason. In addition to being an extremely promising medical compound—one that caused CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta to change his tune on cannabis and come out in support of legalization—it's got a whole host of more mundanely awesome benefits.
"I find it to be a really beautiful molecule because I'm not somebody who likes to be out of sorts," said Lathrop. "I like to be in control. I don't like to get drunk and I don't like to get super high. CBD gives you a clear head, it relaxes you, it calms you, it's mellow, it helps with pain, it's a good anti-inflammatory, and it's a natural cancer preventative as well. It's like broccoli. It's like a health food on top of everything else."
Lena Davidson, marketing manager for botanicaSEATTLE, a cannabis processor in Seattle, said that trying CBD was a revelatory experience for her.
"It has transformed my relationship to cannabis," she said. "A petite drop of CBD oil turned to vapor gives me an immediate sense of physical ease and well being with only the gentlest edge of psychoactivity."
Even some stoners who do smoke a lot of high-THC weed swear by CBD. Carl William Larsson, a line cook at King's Hardware and a smoker of regular pot said that, despite his high tolerance for THC, he was a big fan of CBD strains for their more curative properties.
"I smoke recreationally on weekends and at night mostly," he said. "But if I have a headache or I'm just feeling kind of worn down, I'll smoke CBD, especially earlier in the day."
Jeremiah Wilhelm, a budtender at Dockside Sodo who smokes plenty of THC-rich weed, was similarly enthused about CBD as a headache remedy, albeit for a more specific kind of headache.
"For hangovers, it's a fucking godsend," he said. "Or if you get too high or if you binge-ate the night before. It lives in the weed ecosystem in a very complementary way [to THC products]."
Lathrop said, "The CBD basically counteracts the THC side effects—getting high, and secondary to that, anxiousness, paranoia, or whatever," he said. "With a balanced CBD weed, you won't get as high. It's a nice buzz and you won't get whacked-out."
Zachary Iszard, chief chemist at Redmond pot lab Confidence Analytics, concurred. "CBD fights both in short-term and in long-term many of the negative side effects that are normally associated with THC," he said. "Cognitive impairments related to short-term memory and spatial reasoning. It eliminates anxiety and mitigates depression. It does all these sorts of things when it is present in recreational weed. It's almost like CBD is weed vitamins!"
Informed of my own issues with anxiety, Lathrop said, "For you, CBD would be a magical molecule."
Here's the bad news: Low-THC, high-CBD marijuana isn't terribly common. Most of the consumers who would benefit from it don't even know what to ask for. Most people still think that the more THC weed has, the better weed it is. Even budtenders who are asked for a relaxing weed still aren't very well acquainted with high-CBD weed.
This is because most of the pot on store shelves is bred to do one thing: get you higher than a kite. Super-high-THC strains are coveted above all, and since that's what sells, many stores won't even bother looking at anything that tests under 20 percent. Many growers, seeking to make as much money as they can in a highly taxed new industry, want to grow the weed the stores want and customers say they want. Recreational consumers have been trained by the black market and years of weed culture to seek out the most potent, mind-melting pot possible.
Because we know so little about the myriad other cannabinoids in pot, THC numbers have taken top billing. Lathrop pointed out that THC and CBD are the only cannabinoid molecules we even test for, out of more than 100 different ones. There's a lot more going on in there.
Lauren Downes, who manages Ponder, a new pot shop in the Central District, pointed out that it's not just THC that has an impact on how high you get. She said that without the aid of terpenes, the molecules responsible for the distinct aromas of pot, THC itself wasn't all that jazzy.
"Terpenes are the true magicians when it comes to getting high from cannabis," she said. "THC itself is energetic and cerebral. It is only in conjunction with terpenes that you begin to feel the variety of effects. For example, limonene is what is responsible for citrus smelling strains. It actually thins the blood brain barrier and enables your body to absorb more terpenes and more THC, thus producing a stronger high."
Nick Mosely, one of Confidence Analytics' cofounders, agreed that the ratios of "cannabinoids to terpenes" are as important as the ratios of THC to CBD. "This is not a single molecule drug, this is a very complex drug," he said.
Lathrop said that breeding strains to get the highest possible THC definitely comes at the expense of diversity: There are so many different kinds of plants out there that are all being bred for one cannabinoid, the one that gets you as whacked-out as possible—THC—which means we're potentially missing other chemical combinations that would have different effects. "One of the interesting things about the plant is that it has only so much energy that can go into producing cannabinoids," he said. "That basically tops out at about 20 to 25 percent. After that, it can't really make any more cannabinoids. What we've done with the street strains, just by economics, is we've washed out all of these other cannabinoids." As a medical student, he's particularly curious about those other cannabinoids, which is why he's studying them—because there's still so much we don't know.
"If you push that THC to that 20 percent and beyond, you've lost all the other cannabinoids," he said, including CBD. "When you're like, 'That's got only 12 percent THC,' it's probably got other cannabinoids in there that haven't been washed out. They're not tested for, they're not on the label, but that's what you're paying for. You're paying for this whole product, not just the THC."
Despite the ostensible benefits one misses out on when you go for a 25 percent THC strain, we don't seem to know enough about what we're missing to even miss it.
"CBD is not a fully understood component of cannabis at this point, especially CBD and THC consumed together," said Alex Cooley, who owns Solstice Cannabis, a grow in Sodo. "As people become more educated on it and engage with it and experience it more, I wholeheartedly believe that it would become a larger segment of the marketplace."
However, that's still a long way off, as things stand. Stoners have been trained for years to get the most bang for their buck, and, as far as they've ever known, THC is that bang. Thus, it continues to be the deciding factor for many.
"Without a doubt, easily 80 percent of the people who come through the door are looking for the hottest, newest, dankest weed you can get," said Wilhelm, the budtender at recreational store Dockside. While it may turn heads in the medical marijuana world, CBD is no one's darling in the recreational market.
The consumer fetishization of THC has lots of consequences. A recent analysis of publicly available testing data by Dr. Jim MacRae, of Straight Line Analytics, noted that the cannabis testing labs that consistently returned the highest THC results were most popular with growers, suggesting a financial incentive for labs to nudge their THC numbers. This led to the formation of new industry group, the Washington Cannabis Lab Association, that will enable labs to double check one another's work, ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules.
Meanwhile, there's an artificial supply-side deficit of high-CBD pot. Because THC-rich weed is so sought after, it takes the lion's share of the state's canopy space. Cooley, of Solstice Cannabis, said that, while he's a huge fan of high-CBD pot, the market for it isn't there. Plenty of growers grow great high-CBD stuff—Cooley noted that many CBD strains grow "like a weed"—but it isn't exactly their cash crop.
"We'll harvest 20 pounds of [high-THC pot], and it'll be sold in a day. Whereas we'll harvest 20 pounds of Sour Tsunami, and it'll be sold in eight weeks," said Cooley. "That's the Washington market."
April Roth, the store manager of Uncle Ike's, confirmed that low-THC weed was hard to move. "Recently, one of my top vendors had some beautiful weed that tested at 11 percent THC," she said. "It's so pretty, I took pictures of it. And it's as great to smoke as it is to look at—but if I hadn't put it out at a lower price than comparable, higher-testing strains from the same vendor, it would have sat on the shelf for a long time."
Life Gardens devotes only about a tenth of its canopy to such strains. Lowatchie, their administrative director, said, referring to retailers, "Even if we happen to have a coveted strain, if it's not high-THC, they're not interested."
Life Gardens still grows high-CBD strains, said site director Matt Begni, because it's not any more difficult or expensive to grow than regular high-THC strains, but they don't grow more than the market can bear.
"We don't lose money on it, because usually retailers that do like CBD come along and buy it all," he said.
Because of the low demand for high-CBD stuff in recreational stores, growers tend to minimize those strains in favor of big-ticket (i.e., higher-THC) varieties, leaving even those CBD-interested retailers that Begni sells to in the lurch at times. While there is a significant amount of high-CBD weed out there, it's not exactly an endless supply.
After Lathrop and I chatted about the benefits of high-CBD pot in his office at Cannabis City, we went downstairs to find an evenly balanced THC to CBD strain he'd been recommending. They were out. They were also out of Life Gardens' high-CBD stuff. In fact, they were down to just one high-CBD strain.
While most recreational stores carry at least one high-CBD product these days, and many places strive to carry more, it's still an afterthought.
Many budtenders, when faced with a customer complaining of weed-induced anxiety, don't even think to recommend high-CBD strains as an alternative.
"I would say it's based on the environment," said Wilhelm, the Dockside budtender. "You have places that are more turn and burn, trying to do volume. People might not be as educated on the effectiveness of CBD because they don't use it, and they're just like, 'You wanna relax? Indica.' I can see the mental connection they make, but it's not correct."
It certainly isn't. If you're one of the unlucky few who doesn't react well to THC, a high dose of it can send your mind racing and set your heart rate on overdrive.
As Wilhelm put it, "It's like putting rocket fuel in a Datsun. You're going to go from 0 to 300 miles per hour, especially if you're more prone to anxiety."
Or as Iszard, the chemist, aptly put it, smoking pot that's all THC can be like "stabbing yourself in the third eye."
Lathrop, despite his temporary lack of inventory, said that, as a medical professional, educating consumers (and his own budtenders) about CBD was a high priority for him.
"Quality is not based on THC, neither is potency," said Downes, from the pot shop Ponder. "We have high-CBD and low-THC products in every category, and we buy based on quality, not THC. In fact, we really try not to purchase products with unrealistically inflated THC numbers."
While Lathrop, Wilhelm, and Downes are clear proof that low-THC strains have some advocates in the recreational retail sector, knowledge and inventory continue to be in short supply. Sadly, the hegemony of high-THC pot means that alternative options are often left off the table entirely.
So what can we do about it?
Well, growers could plant significantly more CBD crops, retailers could start asking for more CBD products at wholesale, and budtenders could make it a more regular recommendation. But it ultimately falls to the consumer. Money talks, and we're the ones spending.
Buying pot based on the outdated method of "highest THC for the lowest price" discourages growers from experimenting with new strains, encourages shady lab testing practices, and robs many of us of what could be a very positive experience with pot.
Ironically, it could be the least snobby potheads who bring about a change in the recreational market, by eschewing the "hottest, newest, and dankest" for some good ol' dad weed. For your own sake and the industry's, all of you anxiety-ridden, "tried it once and hated it" types should really give high-CBD pot a chance. I did, and I couldn't be happier.