As cannabis is legalized in more and more states, the question often comes up: Why is weed so much stronger in 2022 than it was in the 1970s? Many folks who smoked in the 70s have noted a major difference in today’s bud vs. the weed available back then – and they’re right. Since cannabis was named a Schedule 1 drug in 1970, the Natural Center for Natural Projects Research at the University of Mississippi has been testing cannabis samples confiscated in federal raids throughout the past 5 decades. The tests found that today’s weed is up to 57-67% more potent when compared to samples from the 70s! The reasoning for this is complex, but the main factors are: importation vs. domestically grown flower, expanded understanding of the plant, and advances in cultivation techniques.
One thing to note that may affect the data: many of the samples tested by the Natural Center for Natural Projects Research were analyzed months or years after harvest. Since THC content degrades over time, particularly if exposed to air, heat, or light, it is likely that older samples are significantly less potent than they were 50 years ago. Although the discrepancy in THC levels is so vast, there’s little dispute that weed is far stronger than it used to be. This analysis is further complicated by the “strength” of cannabis being relative to individual experience. The strength of a strain can be defined in various ways. For the purposes of this blog, we will define strength as percentage of THC content, but taking into account the additional cannabinoids, terpenes, and the holistic Entourage Effect may paint a more comprehensive picture.
That said, let’s look back on the hippie heyday of weed: the 1970s. In the 1970s, the majority of cannabis in the United States was imported illegally from source countries, and in particular, Colombia. Cannabis came in kilo bricks by boat, trucks, and cargo planes. This brick weed was often full of seeds and stems and very dried out by the time it reached the US. The process of compressing cannabis into bricks made it a lot easier to transport, but also stripped it of a ton of trichomes, flavor, and general quality. Bricks of weed were processed poorly, prioritizing quantity over quality, then endured a long journey, often exposed to air, heat, and light along the way.
Another reason why weed is so much more potent these days is that we have a much deeper understanding of the chemical makeup of the plant and how best to utilize it. In the 70s, much of the weed that was available was leaves, stems, seeds, and flowers. Very little of the brick was actually the feminized flower (sinsemilla) that we are accustomed to now. Sinsemilla is the best source of cannabinoids in the plant, and is what you’ll find in nearly every distribution center today. Essentially, folks were not actually smoking the parts of the plant that had the highest THC content. As our knowledge of cannabis began to increase, so did the quality. Not only because we came to expect better product, but because we developed better and better methods for cultivation, processing, and consumption.
In the 1980s, hydroponic growing systems became increasingly popular, causing imports to slow and leading to the invention of hybridized strains which were grown domestically. This resulted in fresher, stronger flower, and the beginning of a shift toward high quality, connoisseur-level strains. Research shows that potency has been steadily growing since the mid-1990s. In the early 2000s, there was another big jump in potency as awareness increased and agricultural techniques improved. Brick weed was still available and pervasive throughout the 90s, but lost nearly all relevance by 2010. In 2000, around 3% of cannabis came from the potent sinsemilla flower, but by 2010 this number had jumped to 60%! We are so happy to be living in the renaissance of cannabis, a time where we continue to push boundaries and explore all that this incredible plant has to offer.