It's become very common to see THC percentage numbers listed next to strain names at dispensaries. As I see it, there are two glaring problems with THC content. First, it's easy to 'game' the results by preparing the sample. If I meticulously pick out all the seed bracts and send in a sample of that, it will test much higher than a whole bud, stems and all.
After all, hashish is much more potent than flowers for the simple reason that it is only certain parts of the plant. Second, and most importantly, THC content is not the only variable that determines how 'high' you feel. While my first point is somewhat interesting, I get more excited when I think about the different genetic aspects of cannabis' effects and how we experience them.
Indica VS Sativa
Differences for the consumer
Indicas are often described as tranquilizing or 'down', while sativas might be called 'up', but there are even more differences than that. While Indicas are often more potent, and usually DO have a higher percentage of THC, we often don't experience them that way. One theory I have about that is, the 'high' of Indicas is more one-dimensional, more of a bullet than a shotgun. Sativas on the other hand, often cause paranoia and anxiety attacks. Many modern hybrids have blended effects, so that one experiences a very broad (shotgun) range of 'high'. The shotgun high is often misinterpreted as being stronger than it is, simply because it hits all the buttons. Also, the broad effect can cause a smoker to become confused with input overload, sort of like LSD.
Smoking too much of a strong indica will probably just put you to sleep. No big deal. On the other hand, a less potent, but very stimulating Sativa might give an inexperienced smoker a panic attack. That person would certainly experience the Sativa more strongly, even think that it was the more potent of the two.
Of course, these subtle distinctions need to be experienced and recorded by many people if they are to be studied and become 'hard science'. For that to happen we'll need accurate labeling from seed to the consumer, which is still too uncommon. That's the only way accounts of various people's experiences can be recorded and contributed meaningfully to the growing pool of knowledge of the various effects of different strains of cannabis.
Differences for Growers
The last indica that was pure Hindu Kush mountain region genetics I saw was sometime in the mid 70's. Since then, indica genes have been bred into virtually every good (indoor) strain in the world, to some degree. If you doubt me, just check Hightimes centerfolds from the early 70's and then later in the 80's. The differences from the influence of indica traits are obvious and easy to sort out in subsequent generations after a cross with a sativa, so many strains were selected more for indica traits than for sativa traits.
Part of the problem is because indica comes from only one little tiny area of the world, while sativas come from virtually everywhere else. It would seem silly just to assign a different variety name to something that was similar to the others, but indica is clearly different from all sativas. The first and main difference is potency, whether that is merely a cause of higher THC, or other chemicals in the 'entourage' remains to be seen. But, it makes sense because that region has cultivated cannabis purely for it's drug use for much longer than any other part of the world.
Because C. indica was bred in that part of the world for so long, the plants have many traits that could be called stable. For example, they're usually uniformly potent throughout the crop, and are very reluctant to make hermaphrodites, while 'landrace' sativas could often be described as almost opposite; varying widely in potency throughout the crop, and prone to hermaphrodites. C. indica is compact, high yielding and has thick leathery leaves that store mobile nutrients used in flowering well. Tastes and smells are strong skunk, peppery, pine turpentine.
Younger growers are always telling me that this or that strain is 'pure indica' but I remain skeptical. As I said before, I don't think I've seen a pure C. indica since the mid 70's, but I remember that plant well. I had no male related to her, so I had to cross her with something else. I had been used to regenerating select females for clones, so I had no reason to doubt my technique. I tried regenerating the amazing indica for clones, but failed and lost her. Have since found that plants with lots of indica traits are often hard to regenerate, even with root pruning. Live and learn.
I do have seeds descended from that original indica, but they're only 50% indica since I was not able to clone her for backcross. Note that you often hear crazy claims about indica sativa percentages from seed companys who are too lazy to do math. I can understand how you can get 43.75%/ 56.25, but 40/60? That would be a complicated breeding plan, one that I can't understand yet.
It's more useful for growers to think in terms of the blending of indica and sativa traits than some percentage of sativa and indica. Just knowing the percentages doesn't tell you anything about how the traits are blended, because even a straight 50/50 cross can be recombined in many ways. Classic F2 breeding schemes exploit the millions of possible phenotypes if the two strains used in the cross are unrelated enough. Instead of each observable trait inheriting a blend of both parents (like an F1 cross), F2's will give both blends of traits and more 'focused' traits of either parent combined for a far more varied grow. By focused, I mean for example, you might have the resin content and potency of an indica combined with the sweetness and mild smoking qualities of a sativa.
Select plants from large grows of F2's are responsible for modern strains like White Widow and Jack Herer. These strains are early examples that have blended and focused traits from both indica and sativas.
Knowledgeable growers often audition clones and seed strains in search of higher yields, more potency and more salable product. One indica trait that can cost growers is slow growth. Second they often don't get very large, even if you grow them a long time. However, indica's do finish in as little as 7-8 weeks, so that can offset slow and small, especially if you start with more seeds/clones. Indica has thick leathery leaves that store nutrients well. It can also tolerate heavy feeding, while sativas' thin, delicate leaves can be damaged by overfeeding during flowering.
Sativa's come in many more variations than indica. So many, that to me, it seems like they need their own varieties. If it weren't for the very distinct characteristics of indica, it's separate classification from the many varied sativa's would seem wrong. But, indica is very different and probably doesn't share a common ancestor with any sativa for at least a few thousand years. With all their variation, sativas are more like each other than any are like indica.
All this means that, though there may not be any 'pure' indica around anymore, the traits themselves are fairly easy to single out and select for.
How important is potency?
Indica's clearly have higher THC. High THC indica dominant strains are certainly more common in the local dispensary not only because they give the consumer more bang for the buck, but because they are easier for the grower to grow. But, the fact remains that many connoisseurs prefer lower THC sativa dominant strains, at least earlier in the day.
Perhaps you've heard the term 'session beer' at your local brewpub. A session beer should flavorful, but not be too high in alcohol. A beer you can sit and have a few and still walk out of the bar. Beginners might jump right for the Barley Wine, but beer connoisseurs will invariably order the low gravity Pils first, maybe have a taste of the stronger ales later in the day.
It's the choices in both cases that make the connoisseur. With choices at the pub, we go for the session beer. For now, connoisseurs stay home with a cabinet full of glass jars. It is my hope that clubs or lounges where people can consume cannabis together will become popular. The sharing of strains will popularize sativas even more.
Back in the day, a consumer would usually go to their dealer, choose a strain and buy a bag. A week or month later the bag was empty, and they'd go back for more. This consumer might really love cannabis. Maybe they can talk for hours about their favorite strains, even recalling smells and tastes from years past. But, I can't consider them a connoisseur because they always buy one bag at a time.
The problem with one bag is that the most important consideration is necessarily potency for money. Flavors, smells and various details of the psychoactive effects become less important than 'bang for the buck'. As soon as you begin purchasing different strains, the first thing you need to understand is that high price doesn't guarantee high THC. Often, a less potent sativa is more expensive because it had a longer flowering period.
Lower THC may also make it easier for us to experience the many other chemicals in cannabis' 'entourage'. I've tried modern hybrids that seemed to have interesting sativa psychoactive effects felt early after consuming. Then, minutes later the 'creeper' indica effects start increasing and the sativa effects seem to fade into the background.
We've had very high THC content in the form of hashish for centuries. Now, we have various extracts that are even higher concentration. It seems to me that there's no real need for higher THC content in bud used for consumption in whole form. Personally, I bred plants in the 70's that were so potent and 'expanding' as to be almost impossible to smoke. With
I'm sure you can imagine I had plenty of friends around to help when it came time to do smoke tests for breeding. With all the choices I had, the most potent, high THC indica plants were rarely the favorites. In fact, it was invariably the sativa indica hybrids that were favored by us. I think the moral of the story is this. As soon as an acceptable level of THC is achieved, connoisseurs shift their attention to things like smells, tastes and psychoactive effects.
Personally, I've only enjoyed a few of the concentrates that I've tried. I don't mind high potency, in fact I love it. But, the problem I've always had was that the psychoactive effects seem somewhat one dimensional, or flat. Kind of like smoking resin. It could be that some of the oil and wax extractions I tried were from a mix of many strains, because they can be made from excess trim. That might result in 'unfocused' psychoactive effects.
One extract that I tried that I enjoyed very much was called 'bubble hash'. Bubble hash is made with ice water and a series of filters. It has a very natural, fresh taste that is as recognizable as the plant it was made from. I thought it was plenty strong enough for me but of course, I have very low tolerance.
Which brings me to the fascinating subject of T breaks. T is short for tolerance, and in case you hadn't noticed, are all the rage, at least on reddit. The subject is interesting to me because consumers have been noticing changes in their reactions to cannabis since I've been a teenager. It's an old conversation, but in recent years, it's taken an almost 180% turn.
Back in the day, consumers would brag about their sensitivity to cannabis. “I'm SO baked”. “I'm as stoned as a monkey!” Newer smokers wouldn't feel much of anything. Part of this was that they hadn't learned to inhale. But, a good part was that there was no cannabis (in bud form) with over 15% THC available in the late 60's. We didn't just learn to inhale, we also learned to be more sensitive to the effects of cannabis.
Alcohol or cocaine are substances with effects that can be discussed in direct terms. The effects of even very high THC cannabis are moderated by the consumers preexisting state of mind. Alcohol and cocaine work pretty much the same way on everyone. Cannabis works quite differently for each individual. I think it's reasonable to assume that this is because each person has so much ability to mediate it's effects through their preexisting state of mind.
Drugs like alcohol and cocaine do all the work for us. For us to get the best benefits from cannabis, we need to meet it half way. I think the old guard culture that promoted greater sensitivity to cannabis' effects was wiser. The young people who brag about their high tolerance are simply not getting Mary Jane's point.
To be fair, high tolerance is another consequence of lack of choices. It's a lot easier to build tolerance when you're only consuming one strain. The new bag often seems more potent than the old one, simply because it's different. There is probably a physical side to this, but I'd guess that most of it is driven by preexisting state of mind.
The connoisseur with many jars in his/her cabinet has a preexisting state of mind. It is one of sensitivity to the various subtle differences in smells, tastes, colors and effects. The connoisseur seeks to experience more, not less. That preexisting state of mind leads towards lower tolerance.
To put it simply, low tolerance practiced. It is a learned sensitivity to the subtle differences in effects of cannabis. High tolerance is nothing more than boredom with cannabis' effects. State of mind can lead in either direction.
What's up with holding hits?
Sorry for that title, but as I wrote it I pictured Jerry Seinfeld saying that line while holding a bong hit. At some point in the early 90's, I noticed that some of my younger friends would take huge bong hits and then basically blow them right out. This is quite different from 'back in the day'. My older friends can tell you that we used to hold 'em. Heck, we even had contests. I saw a recent epidemiological study that traced daily cannabis using men over 25 years into their 50's and found that they all had larger lung capacities than non smoking men their age.
Recently, in support of the no-hold-hits movement, there have been numerous online articles written about how you get just as much effect from holding in 5 seconds as you would if you held it 5 minutes. So far, I've seen no science to back up.
Imagine how stupid we were in our generation! All that time holding those hits in for minutes, and not even getting any more high for it? You'd think we would have noticed that it wasn't working. All sarcasm aside, it does work. You get higher if you hold hits longer. Not only that, but I've noticed that it makes quite a big difference with low temperature 'oven' style vaporizers for whole flowers. It's almost as though it takes longer for the vapors to be absorbed into the lungs than the resulting gasses from combustion do. In any case, I've modified my style. Now I hold vaporizer hits extra long.
Conversely, blowing hits out immediately keeps you from getting 'too high'. I understand that there are certain bragging rights (however misguided!) among young men in regard to having high tolerance to cannabis. It seems quite obvious that you could smoke your friends under the table if you simply blew the hits out faster than they did. Sort of like spitting out three quarters of each shot of tequila. Everyone else would be drunk, and you'd still be fine.