So there you are at the wine-tasting party, and this rather knowledgeable guy slides up to you with a gleam in his eye and a bottle of unknown vintage and begins his rap, "Hey man, this wine is outta sight! Blue Beaujolais, the real stuff; high altitude grapes... it’ll blow you right away. Here, put a little in your glass and sip it; this is dyna-mite juice! We did the burlap thing, you know, wrapped the bottle in burlap and kept it in the cellar for three months. Really increases the potency. And I just passed it through a Boozifier; turns sedimentary crap into iso-menthyl-ethyl alcohol by simmering it in acetone. Knocks your head off!..." What the fuck. At this point your on the cell with your imaginary friend.
Of course, this is a fantasy. You know, as well as anyone else, that the altitude of the grapes has nothing to do with the quality of the wine; that Beaujolais is red and not blue, that wrapping a bottle in burlap couldn't do a thing to it; and that nobody would put a good wine through a little chem lab without messing up its taste so that it wouldn't be good for anything except cleaning hubcaps. And yet conversations very similar to that one occur daily all over the country about marijuana because of one big difference: we all know how wine is made, but very few people have any idea at all what makes marijuana “good,” what can be done to make it “better,” and what can be done to keep it that way.
The purpose of this article is not to make you into a biochemical Mr. Wizard, but to, at least pass along enough honest information, so that you won’t be bored by myths or fall prey to innocent ignorance. The facts about marijuana potency have been there all along, and they're quite available. It's just all in scientific journals, which rarely get down to the general public, leaving us surrounded by some of the most fantastic tales ever concocted about a plant and its properties.
Inside the Making of Marijuana
In order to distinguish between the myths and realities of potency, it is important to first understand some basic aspects of marijuana's chemical makeup. The chemical component in marijuana that gets you high is known as THC, or tetrahydrogannabinol. THC is created in the plant from an original substance known as cannabinolic acid, or THC acid. THC acid will not get you stoned. When THC is burned during smoking, it rapidly oxidizes into cannabinol. Cannabinol will not get you stoned either. At any time, the THC in marijuana is in these three states: inactive (cannabinolic acid), active (THC), and oxidized (cannabinol). It is important to remember that the THC is always in all three states simultaneously. Immediately, you can see that someone who claims that his weed is “5 percent THC" is talking right through his sombrero.
If all the THC acid were to instantly become THC and none of it oxidize, then you could say that the THC was uniformly at one state. But that never happens. As the THC acid turns to THC over time, it gets better, but as soon as it becomes THC it starts to oxidize and lose its potency. Marijuana is always on the way from useless to useless. If the marijuana is too fresh, then it will have too much THC acid. If it's too old, then it will have too much cannabinol. To have a good idea of what you had in your hand, you’d not only have to know the exact chemical makeup of the exact variety of product you’re smoking (there are literally thousands of different chemical varieties of product, known as “phenotypes”), but also how old it was and what condition it has been kept in. Since you can't tell a strain's potency by looking, smelling, or testing all you can do is smoke it and see what it does to you.
The Power of Cannabichromene
There are a number of other components in marijuana called cannabinoids. Some of them act almost like depressants. There's cannabidiol, cannabichromene, cannabigerol, and about 15 more. THC can oxidize and get worse. Cannabidiol can turn into THC under proper circumstances. Delta 8 THC can turn into delta 9 THC, but, at the same time, the delta 9 is oxidizing. Incidentally, the various percentages of all these components vary all over the map, so any process which works on any of these components would be good for some weed and not so good for others.
As we leave the biochemical confusion, we might point out that the possible THC in hemp ranges from a mind-blowing 6-7 percent to about .05 percent. The latter is the stuff they make hawser rope out of, and it grows wild all over the Midwest. Looks like marijuana, smells like marijuana, even tastes like marijuana, but five pounds in a hookah wouldn’t get a grasshopper high. All it does is make a lot of Kansas farmers rich, because most of us don’t know about phenotypes or the first thing about what makes grass potent.
Myths and Marvels of Potency
There are dozens of formulas which have been bruted about which purport to increase the potency of marijuana. Almost all of them, sad to say, are totally baseless. The reason that some of them seem to have results has more to do with the three states of THC than any outside influences.
Because THC is so active, it would oxidize too quickly if it appeared all at once in the plant and would be of no use to the plant in keeping birds away (this is the main function THC performs in pot plants). This is the precise reason that the hemp plant doesn't actually make THC at all, but rather the precursor, cannabinolic acid. THC acid can be turned to THC simply by heating it. This incidentally is one of the main reasons weed is smoked and why hashish is heated during its manufacture.
When the hemp is harvested, the great majority of the possible THC is in the acid form, and it has to be heated to turn into active THC; body heat isn’t enough to do it in the short time it would be in your body. In the natural state, under the sun, THC is constantly oxidizing and being constantly replaced as the gentle heat of the sun turns the acid form into the active form. But this takes days in the sun. If you try to just heat up your product, you run into a number of problems. There is a temperature range of no more than 40 degrees you must stay within. A little less, and it takes too long. A little more and the heat literally breaks up the THC molecule itself. And if you are doing the heating in the air, you'll be putting the newly-created THC in contact with hot oxygen, which will oxidize it immediately.
To be precise about it, the way to increase weed potency is to heat it at just the right temperature in an inert gas. Such a device has been developed and patented, and will retail for about thirty dollars. You'll probably be hearing more about it later, but that's not part of this story. Suffice it to say that in smoking or baking your marijuana, you are simultaneously creating the very THC which is getting you stoned, and oxidizing varying amounts of THC into non-psychoactive cannabinol.
Almost all the potency-increasing tricks are, in some way or another, making use of this transformation process without knowing it. One old trick, for instance, has you burying your bud in the ground for a couple of months. If the bud is a bit moist, and it is well wrapped, the heat caused by the composting effect might indeed hasten the change to the active THC, and if it was wrapped carefully enough, it might not be exposed to the air. It's a pretty haphazard way to play around with a pound of marijuana, though, and there's no guarantee it will work. Another trick has to do with dry ice. This one is really all in the head; it's heat that does the transformation, not cold. All you could hope to do would be to keep some of your weed in a carbon dioxide atmosphere, and all that would do would be to preserve it, but not change it in any way. Yet another method suggests the use of an ultra-violet light. This is really interesting, because coincidentally enough, UV light does change delta 8 THC into the delta 9 active form. Unfortunately, it also neatly oxidizes the delta 9 that was already there, so you end up with a net zero at best, and even deader at worst.
In 1973, David Hoye wrote a booklet called “Cannabis Alchemy” in which he discussed a number of very sophisticated biochemical processes dealing with marijuana. The “Isomerizer” was described in detail, not presented as a ready-to-use machine, but as a piece of equipment which you could build yourself to make hash oil and play about with the cannabidiol in marijuana. Apparently, making the device proved a bit more than the average smoker was up to, so Hoye started making smaller versions for the consumer market. The original instructions utilized 55 gallon oil drums stacked on top of each other. It must have made a whale of a lot of hash oil.
At any rate, the small version has been in the market in one form or another for ever. Most of the claims surrounding it involve its ability to change the inactive cannabidiol into active THC. Ironically, the most cannabidiol is found in the varieties with the least THC; samples collected by scientists from places like Minnesota and New Jersey had more cannabidiol than THC, while samples from Guerra, Mexico, and Panama were bursting with THC and had only trace amounts of cannabidiol. You couldn’t get stoned with the Minnesota stuff unless you “isomerized” it, but, on the other hand, putting good Mexican or Colombian weed through the process would have relatively little effect on it. The literature supplied with the "Isomerizer" states that “marijuana with six times as much cannabidiol as THC would have its potency increased sixfold.” This is true, if you could find such a marijuana.
Most of the potency increase realized with the machine is probably due to heating the weed in an alcohol bath, a process which neatly extracts all the THC, and then, as the alcohol is evaporated, allows it to be re-deposited on the marijuana in the device. The “Isomerizer” concept is quite a bit of plumbing, and a real conversation piece, but it's most effective with low-grade grass. The “Isomerizer” process is very sophisticated and would have very different effects on Marijuana depending on what you put into it. To know the exact effect, however, you'd have to invest in a gas chromatograph, which would cost at least ten times as much as the “Isomerizer.”
As we mentioned before, the main reason THC is in hemp is to keep the birds away. It is a terrific bird repellant, which is important because pigeons absolutely love hemp seed. The most potent parts of the plant are the brachs (pronounced “braks”) which are the seed coverings of the female plant. The brachs, and to a lesser extent the rest of the plant, are covered with tiny little hairs. At the end of the hair is a microscopic natural wax cap which protects the THC from the oxidizing effects of the air.
When the seeds are soft and immature, the brachs are wrapped tightly around them. A hungry pigeon, investigating, brushes against the hairs, snapping off the wax caps and releasing the THC. That sends him on his way again. But later on, when the seeds are ripe and hard, the brachs open up. Now the birds can feed, but, since the seeds are quite hard now, many will pass right through the bird and be dropped all over the place. And thus the plant is propagated. Clever, no? It's no more than a fortunate coincidence that we humans get high on bird-repellant.
When it comes to storing and using your marijuana, it is very important to remember those microscopic wax caps and the extreme sensitivity of THC. Both bright light and air have, in laboratory tests, totally destroyed THC within seven days. Scientists have to keep the pure chemical under nitrogen–cold and dark. Anything which brushes against the hairs will break off the caps, exposing the THC and allowing it to oxidize. What this means, simply enough, is to treat your bud very carefully until you are just about to use it. Ideally, you should keep it in a cool, dry place. Don't carry it about in a baggie, where it can bounce up and down and, whatever you do, don't “manicure” it until just before you are going to smoke it.
Three cheers for the Marygin, Grass Master, or other manicuring aids, but you should never use them for more than you are going to smoke immediately. A pile of manicured marijuana is going to go dead a lot faster than the same amount in a dry jar. The best thing to do would be to find an airtight jar and fill it with anything you want, so that you end up with the least amount of free air. An airtight jar packed to the top with marijuana managed to keep its potency for almost two years in a cool shelf in a government laboratory. As we have pointed out, you can't tell what you have in that jar, specifically, but at least it can’t get any worse if you keep it with care, and airtight.
To tie it all up, keep a few basic things in mind. Marijuana is a complex plant, and its internal chemical characteristics vary from plant to plant. Very fine varieties can be found all over the world, and, as with anything else, you pay for what you get. Treat it carefully, and it will last longer. If you get good stuff, there's no real reason to fuss with it anyway. Best bet, as ever, is to pay a decent price to a person whom you know and trust, try it before you buy it, and keep it cool, dry, and untouched until you roll it up or stick it in a pipe. Forget the fancy names, the colors, the hypes, and the techniques, your own head is your best test, and common sense your best tool.