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Cannabis Usage, THC Potency on the Rise

Published on: March 2, 2020

Written by: Confirm BioSciences.

Cannabis usage is on the rise in the United States as the drug continues to be legalized across the country. That could potentially have an impact on the drug testing programs of companies, as more employees either feel emboldened to use it, have medical clearance to use it or unwittingly ingest it with a mislabeled Cannabidiol (CBD) product.

Not only is cannabis usage itself going up, but the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in cannabis is increasing, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

In the 1980s, cannabis had about 4% THC content. Mexican cannabis, which was considered to be among the most potent during the ‘80s had between 6-11% THC.

In contrast, today’s cannabis has 13-20% THC concentration while hashish and hash oil can have 20-40% THC and newer concentrates like shatter can have 40-80% THC concentrations.

Between 1995 and 2014 the average THC potency of traditional cannabis (just the actual cannabis flowers) increased from 3.96% to 12.21% while the average THC potency for concentrated cannabis products rose from 13.23% to 55.45%.

What this increase in THC potency means is that people experience the “high” from cannabis from smaller amounts and for a much longer time. So, if someone smoked cannabis back in the 1980s and then went to work an hour later, chances are they would only be feeling minimal residual effects, if any, at that point.

However, if a person smoked a cannabis concentrate like shatter and then went to work an hour later, there is a very real chance they might still be experiencing the full effects of the drug at that point.

These can include:

  • Cognition
    • Impaired short term memory
    • Difficulty with complex tasks
    • Difficulty learning
  • Executive Function
    • Impaired decision making
    • Increased risky behavior
  • Mood
    • Anxiety
    • Potential psychosis

With its increased potency and legalization, cannabis can have a negative impact on workplace safety, even if employees are using it outside of work in accordance with state laws.

More cannabis stores

Another facet of cannabis that is on the rise is its commercialization. Washington state has more cannabis stores than McDonald’s or Starbucks and Colorado has more cannabis stores than McDonald’s and Starbucks combined.

But while the number of stores go up and production of recreational cannabis goes up, the price, naturally, comes down. The price for a gram of cannabis in Washington state started at $25 in July of 2014 when it was legalized, but as more stores opened and production rose, the price for a gram dropped down to as low as $9 in March, April and May of 2016 (before bumping back up to $10 in June of 2016).

In fact, production of recreational cannabis has skyrocketed so much that Oregon actually has too much of it and last year was looking at ways to curb its production.


Along with recreational cannabis, CBD products are also on the rise. And while these are not supposed to have any THC in them, it is virtually impossible to be sure they do not contain THC because there is no regulation of the industry.

In fact, Epidiolex, a CBD product that is currently undergoing research for its effectiveness in treating seizures, is not supposed to have any THC in it, but patients who are administered the new drug have to be advised “of the potential for positive cannabis drug screens.”

Although various states are legalizing cannabis medically and recreationally, it remains a Schedule I drug under federal law and, therefore, any business can use that technicality to test for it as part of their corporate drug testing program.

To ensure continued safety in the workplace, businesses can still maintain a zero-tolerance policy and conduct testing for THC. To maintain more flexibility in testing, saliva testing kits can detect recent usage of cannabis and the tests are becoming more mainstream in workplace drug testing, as they can be deployed virtually anywhere.

With its increased potency and societal acceptance, cannabis is posing new challenges for businesses, but workplace safety is still every company’s top priority.