DEA Report Reflects Average Potency of THC in Illegal Cannabis at 16%

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently released a report on May 9 with details about its 2024 National Drug Threat Assessment (NDTA), which is dedicated to compiling data in relation to illegal drugs and trafficking trends within the U.S.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram introduced the report to warn of the many threats to public safety as well as national security. “The shift from plant-based drugs, like heroin and cocaine, to synthetic, chemical-based drugs, like fentanyl and methamphetamine, has resulted in the most dangerous and deadly drug crisis the United States has ever faced,” Milgram said. “At the heart of the synthetic drug crisis are the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels and their associates, who DEA is tracking world-wide. The suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, and money launderers all play a role in the web of deliberate and calculated treachery orchestrated by these cartels. DEA will continue to use all available resources to target these networks and save American lives.”

Individual chapters include the Sinaloa and Jalisco Cartels and their reach within the U.S., and individual substances such as fentanyl, nitazenes, heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, “marijuana,” controlled prescription drugs, new psychoactive substances, illicit finance, and DEA response.

The chapter on cannabis explained that legalization on a state level illegal cannabis continues to thrive. “Despite these measures, the black market for marijuana continues, with substantial trafficking by Mexican cartels, and Chinese and other Asian organized crime groups profiting from illegal cultivation and sales, as well as exploitation of the ‘legal’ market,” the DEA wrote. “The price of marijuana in illegal U.S. markets has remained largely stable for years, even as the potency of marijuana has increased exponentially.”

The administration noted the increase in “average Delta-9 THC Potency in Marijuana” between 1977-2022, as according to information provided by the University of Mississippi Marijuana Potency Monitoring Program. In 1977, the percentage of potency was recorded at approximately 1%, followed by approximately 3% in 1982, 1987, and 1992. This rose to 4% in 1997, 6% in 2002, 8% in 2007, 12% in 2012, 15% in 2017, and finally 16% in 2022. “The potency of THC in leafy marijuana is at an all-time high, increasing the potential risk of negative effects on users of any form of the drug, and on children who may consume edibles made with these substances,” the DEA stated.

The rest of the DEA report focuses on Asian organized crime and illegal cultivation. “Many of these home-grows pretend to operate under business registrations granted by state licensing authorities in jurisdictions where marijuana cultivation and sales are ‘legal’ at the state level but, absent overt evidence such as the trafficking of marijuana across state lines or the commission of non-drug crimes such as money laundering and human trafficking, it can be difficult for law enforcement to immediately identify violations or discover an illegal grow,” the DEA explained. The administration’s Dallas Division seized $2.8 million in cannabis linked to four Chinese nationals growing illegally in Oklahoma. Two of those nationals were convicted of drug trafficking in January 2024.

The report also described the rise in emergency room visits by children, as well as the environmental damage caused by illegal cultivation.

The University of Mississippi’s potency percentages pale in comparison to the potency percentages of current cannabis strains. In March, a study analyzed Colorado cannabis samples to determine if the THC percentages were accurate, and found that more than 70% of products were at least 15% higher than reported. Many THC potency reports showed a range between 12.8%-19.3%, as well as a higher range of 28.07%-31.28%. “THC levels averaged 9.75% back in 2009, based on testing of DEA-seized cannabis flower,” wrote report author Anna Schwabe, a professor at University of Colorado, Boulder. “Today, levels reportedly surpass 35%, though they’re not as common as consumers have been led to believe. DEA-seized cannabis flower averaged 13.88% in 2019, which is closer to my observed mean of 14.98% than the reported mean of my samples, which was 20.27%-24.10%.”

According to Headset data obtained by SFGATE, the median THC potency for cannabis has decreased over the past six months in California, with a 7% decrease in the past three months. In December, the average potency levels were recorded at 30.7%, but dropped to 28.5% in March. The potency shifted due to new regulations on cannabinoid testing, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2024. According to Zach Eisenberg, Anresco Laboratories vice president, the potency decrease was an expected result. “We certainly heard from customers and potential customers that they’re seeing potency values dropping at other laboratories,” Eisenberg said to SFGATE. “Some labs were even proactively saying, ‘Be prepared for our results to be lower after this change.’”

In reality, the more recent reports are just reflecting current potency percentages. “I highly doubt anything has changed in terms of the actual composition of the cannabis products,” Eisenberg told SFGATE. High Times received a statement from Vicente LLP attorney Andrea Golan, based in Los Angeles, about the recent change. “For years, the efficacy of cannabis lab test results has been widely discussed across the California cannabis industry due to inflated potency test results and inconsistencies in results due to labs using different methodologies for testing cannabis,” Golan said. “The change in law ends the practice of shopping for labs with less strict testing methods in order to inflate THC content. Therefore, rather than cannabis getting weaker, recent changes may now provide a more accurate reflection of true potency.”

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