1st Cannabis Evaluation, First Half Year 2022

1.1 Introduction

Cannabis products (grass, hashish, pollen, oils, etc.) are extracted from the hemp plant. The main active ingredients are THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is responsible for the majority of the psychoactive effects, while CBD has sedative, neuroprotective, anticonvulsant and narcotic effects. Cannabinoid receptor agonists(cannabimimetics), also known as synthetic cannabinoids, are similar to THC in their effects. Cannabimimetics thus mimic the effect of THC. These substances dock at the same sites in the brain as THC, but with up to more than 100 times stronger binding, resulting in a significantly more intense effect.

1.2 Risk assessment

In addition to the known side effects of cannabis, the presence of synthetic cannabinoids since the beginning of 2020 means an additional health risk for all users that is difficult to assess. Physical symptoms ranging from nausea, vomiting, sweating, rapid heartbeat, dizziness and motor difficulties to signs of paralysis or unconsciousness frequently appeared immediately after consumption. The latter poses the risk of accidents, such as falls. Undesirable psychological side effects include panic attacks, hallucinations or dissociative sensations.

For "normal" cannabis, the higher the THC content, the greater the risk of adverse effects. With high-dose cannabis (high THC content), circulatory problems up to circulatory collapse or even anxiety, panic and paranoia can occur. When consuming cannabis products ("edibles"), the dosage is even more difficult to estimate, making the risks and side effects unpredictable.

Many of the cannabis samples analyzed by DIZ in the first half of 2022 (mainly cannabis flowers containing THC) have a very unbalanced THC-CBD ratio. Most of these samples contained hardly any or only traces of the active ingredient CBD, which has a noise-attenuating and neuroprotective effect (protects nerves and brain cells). These cannabis products therefore pose a greater health risk than those containing CBD. Scientific research suggests that cannabis products with an unbalanced THC-CBD ratio (high THC content and low CBD content) pose a higher risk for the development of psychosis.

Cannabis products cannot be visually and/or taste tested for quality. Synthetic cannabinoids in cannabis products as well as the exact active ingredient content (potency and THC-CBD ratio) can only be determined by precise chemical analysis. In addition, cannabis products are repeatedly stretched with organic and inorganic products to increase profits.

2. analyzed samples

From January to June 2022, a total of 210 cannabis samples were handed in for analysis at the Drug Information Center (DIZ) in Zurich. 140 samples were cannabis flowers, 57 samples were hashish and 13 samples were other cannabis products such as oils, liquids, edibles and dabs.

150 of these samples were given without a suspicion of synthetic cannbinoids. They were brought for analysis by the users, as they were seeking information on the composition of the substances and the associated risks. Contrary to expectations, synthetic cannabinoids were detected in 2 of these samples. In the case of the remaining 60 samples, the users suspected, on the basis of concrete negative experiences, that their substance had been mixed with synthetic cannabinoids. In a total of only 2 of these suspicious cases, synthetic cannabinoids could actually be detected.

2.1 Results Active ingredient content: THC and CBD

191 samples were analyzed for their THC and CBD content in Cannabis Drug Checking in the first half of 2022. In 19 additional samples submitted, it was only possible to determine whether the flower or the hashish had been treated with synthetic cannabinoids.

The results regarding THC content are roughly in line with figures from other black market surveys, such as those published annually by the Swiss Society of Forensic Medicine (SGRM). Data on CBD content in cannabis samples are completely new, as they are not systematically collected in any other context. For this reason, these data are particularly exciting, as for the first time the long-suspected unbalanced THC/CBD ratio could be proven. Thus, 105 of the tested samples have a CBD content that is below 0.1%, which also explains the low average CBD content. In the following, the THC and CBD values of the flower and hashish samples analyzed in the DIZ in the first half of 2022 are given. Not taken into account were all samples that showed a CBD type.

- The average active ingredient content of the cannabis flowers tested in the DIZ was 14.2 % THC. The active ingredient content of the analyzed cannabis flowers varied greatly with between 1.2 % and 27.0 % THC.

- The average active ingredient content of the cannabis flowers tested in the DIZ was 1.6 % CBD. The active ingredient content of the analyzed cannabis flowers varied greatly and ranged from 0.0 % to 14.5 % CBD.

- The average active substance content of the hashish tested in the DIZ was 24.2 % THC. The active ingredient content of the analyzed hashish varied greatly and ranged from 1.2 % to 41.4 % THC.

- The average active ingredient content of the hashish tested in the DIZ was 4.0 % CBD. The active ingredient content of the analyzed hashish varied widely, ranging from 0.5 % to 32.5 % CBD.

Due to the small number of samples of oils, liquids and edibles, these samples will not be discussed in more detail.

2.2 Extenders and impurities

It has been known for some time that cannabis products are sometimes stretched with different substances (e.g. Brix, lead, sand, etc.) in order to optimize profits (more weight). Furthermore, mold can form due to improper drying/storage. These substances are sometimes visually recognizable on the blossoms. In the case of sand, a clearly visible layer sometimes forms at the bottom of the storage vessel. With Brix, a small amount of the bloom may be burned. Samples mixed with Brix burn very poorly, the ash is rather hard and feels greasy and oily when rubbed. Further, fertilizers are often used in cultivation to promote growth, and if not handled properly, they remain as residues in the plant. Consumption of all these substances poses an increased risk to the health of the consumer. With the analysis in the DIZ, these extenders cannot be detected. However, apart from fertilizer residues, most extenders are relatively easy to detect by eye or by smell. A detailed list of the most common cannabis extenders can be found on the website of the German Hemp Association.

In the case of illegally purchased liquids, there are known cases in which thickening agents such as vitamin E acetate have been added, which according to one study are extremely harmful to health and have already led to several deaths in the USA. These cases have become known asEVALI(e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury). However, no further deaths associated with EVALI have been reported since the publication of this study. Nevertheless, it is recommended to use cannabis drug checking when possible with illicit e-liquids or, if this is not possible, to test cautiously.

2.3 Synthetic cannabinoids and other constituents in cannabis samples

THC and CBD are naturally occurring cannabinoids in the cannabis plant. Since the beginning of 2020, synthetic cannabinoids have been detected at the DIZ in Zurich. This sudden and frequent occurrence of such samples leads to the suspicion that various traffickers have acquired legal CBD cannabis, which has become cheap due to overproduction and the associated price collapse, and have added synthetic cannabinoids to it in order to subsequently resell it deceptively as illegal cannabis with a high profit margin.

In the first half of 2022, 7 samples (3.3%) of all cannabis samples submitted for analysis at the DIZ were spiked with at least one synthetic cannabinoid. 2 of these samples were spiked with two different synthetic cannabinoids. In the second half of 2021, these were still 22 samples (13.1 %).

Of the samples for which a suspicion of synthetic cannabinoids was expressed at the time of dispensing, only 2 samples (3.3 %) actually contained such substances. In the samples without suspicion, however, synthetic cannabinoids were detected in 5 cases (3.3 %). The following synthetic cannabinoids were detected in the first half of 2022: MDMB-4en-PINACA, 4F-MDMB-BICA, 4-F-ABUTINACA, and ADB-4en-PINACA.

The number of samples testing positive for synthetic cannabinoids has decreased significantly compared to the last two years. At the same time, the number of samples submitted as suspected cases remained quite high. This is probably related to the fact that in the last two years, among other things through harm-reduction offers as well as the media, a broad education on the topic of synthetic cannabinoids and their effects took place. Consumption of high-dose cannabis products in large quantities leads to undesirable side effects that can easily be confused with the effects of synthetic cannabinoids. Thus, these samples are then dispensed with suspicion of synthetic cannabinoids, although they are high-dose THC cannabis products.

Subsequently, the analysis results are presented graphically. Graph 1 shows all analyzed cannabis samples without suspicion of synthetic cannabinoids in the 2nd half of 2021 (n=133) and in the 1st half of 2022(n=173):

Graph 1: Samples without suspicion of synthetic cannabinoids, 2nd half 2021 (n=133) and 1st half 2022 (n=173).

Graph 2 shows all cannabis samples with suspected synthetic cannabinoids in H2 2021 (n=35) and H1 2022 (n=60):

Graph 2: Number of cannabis samples with suspected synthetic cannabinoids, 2nd half of 2021 (n=35)and 1st half of 2022 (n=60).

2.4 Delta-8-THC

In the first half of 2022, seven samples with a strikingly high delta-8-THC value were already analyzed at the DIZ. Delta-8-THC occurs, if at all, only in very small quantities as a natural cannabinoid in the hemp plant. However, since a strikingly high concentration of delta-8-THC was analyzed in some samples, it is suspected that this was applied to CBD flowers by non-natural means or after the fact. This suspicion is reinforced by the simultaneously high measured CBD value.

Delta-8-THC is a psychoactive cannabinoid that produces a similar intoxicating effect to delta-9-THC (the "classic" THC), but is less potent. In all likelihood, delta-8-THC is primarily a byproduct of both chemical conversion of CBD (cannabidiol) to delta-9-THC. This conversion is likely used to create delta-9-THC from low-noise CBD products or pure CBD. The resulting mixture of delta-8-THC and delta-9-THC is then applied to CBD products for sale on the black market as natural and THC-containing cannabis products. It cannot be ruled out that the by-products produced during the conversion process may have toxic effects. Since synthesis by-products are often not completely separated by the manufacturers and are thus consumed together with delta-9-THCand delta-8-THC on cannabis products, an unknown health risk is taken when consuming them. No clinical studies are available on the short- and long-term side effects of delta-8-THC and the synthesis byproducts we analyzed.


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