Marijuana Advocates Want to Establish a Standard Unit of Highness

What’s the weed equivalent to an alcoholic drink?

Lew Robertson/Corbis

In the last few years, marijuana advocates have made impressive strides. As of this week, 24 states and Washington, D.C., have legalized medicinal marijuana, and more cities and states are moving toward legalizing or decriminalizing it. However, as advocates and regulators grapple with weed’s changing legal status, there’s a big question on many people’s minds: how large should a standard dose of weed be?

When it comes to alcohol, this was settled a long time ago. According to the National Institutes of Health, a “standard” drink in the United States contains 14 grams of pure alcohol. In terms your bartender would understand, that’s how much booze is usually found in either a 12-ounce glass of beer, a 5-ounce glass of wine or a 1.5-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor. But while marijuana and alcohol affect people differently, there is no similar standard of what a single “unit” of weed should be, Gabe Stutman reports for Motherboard.

“Understanding your dose is essential,” George McBride, a policy officer at the Beckley Foundation, a UK-based drug policy think tank, tells Stutman. “Recommended units in alcohol is rife with problems, but at least it gives you a means to compare a shot of tequila with a pint of ale. Cannabis users have no way to compare a dab with a joint.”

Most often, weed is sold in units according to its mass or weight. Its potency, however, can vary wildly from strain to strain and has gotten much stronger over time. A recent study by researchers in Colorado found that on average marijuana is about 20 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), its primary psychoactive chemical. That’s a big jump up from the 1980s, when weed often contained only about 4 percent THC, CBS News reported in 2015.

"As far as potency goes, it's been surprising how strong a lot of the marijuana is," researcher Andy LaFrate says in a video released by the American Chemical Society as reported by CBS News. "We've seen potency values close to 30 percent THC, which is huge."

Modern weed may be much stronger than in the old days, but its potency can also vary greatly depending on how a person ingests it. Right now, the closest there is to a standard “unit” of marijuana is any quantity that contains 10 milligrams of THC. As of 2015, that’s the legal limit of THC that an individually wrapped edible can contain in Colorado. But while that seems simple enough to figure out, several reports made during the last few years have found that edible manufacturers often misrepresent how much THC is in their products, albeit likely unintentionally, Stutman reports. And the same amount of THC can affect someone very differently depending on whether it is eaten, smoked, or inhaled via vaporizer.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that marijuana’s legal status is left up to individual states instead of being decided at the federal level. While many regulations on food and beverages are levied by agencies like the Food and Drug Administration or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, lawmakers have to approach it on a case-by-case basis, which can make it confusing for consumers and producers alike.

Settling on a regulatory standard of how big a hit should be might be tough, but some in the rapidly growing marijuana industry say that they would welcome the change. While it might mean more scrutiny of their products, settling on a standard would make it easier for producers, patients and recreational users alike to know just what it is they are getting in each puff or bite, Ricardo Baca wrote for the Cannabist in 2015.

“In clearly marking what the dose is, hopefully that will lead to more responsible use and public education,” John Lord, who owns several Colorado pot shops, told Baca. “It keeps us safe, and it provides uniformity for the product itself.”

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