No big changes in cannabis analysis compared to first half of 2022

1st Cannabis Evaluation, Second 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 July to December 2022, a total of 188 cannabis samples were handed in for analysis at the Drug Information Center (DIZ) Zurich. 127 samples were cannabis flowers, 51 samples were hashish and 9 samples were other cannabis products such as oils, liquids, edibles and dabs.

154 of these samples were provided without a suspicion of synthetic cannbinoids. They were brought for analysis by the users, who were looking for information about the composition of the substances and the associated risks. Contrary to the expectations of the users, synthetic cannabinoids were detected in 3 of these samples.

In the case of the remaining 33 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 1 of these suspicious cases, synthetic cannabinoids could actually be detected.

2.1 Results Active ingredient content: THC and CBD

182 samples were analyzed for their THC and CBD content in Cannabis Drug Checking in the second half of 2022. In the case of 5 additional samples, 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 studies, such as the figures published annually by the Swiss Society of Forensic Medicine (SGRM)2. Data on CBD content in cannabis samples are entirely 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 has been demonstrated. Thus, 105 of the tested samples have a CBD content that is below 0.1%, which also explains the low average CBD content.

The THC and CBD values of the flower and hashish samples analyzed in the DIZ in the second half of 2022 are given below. All samples that showed a CBD type were not taken into account.

- The average active ingredient content of the cannabis flowers tested in the DIZ was 12.4 % THC. The active ingredient content of the analyzed cannabis flowers varied greatly with between 1.1 % and 29.1 % THC.

- The average active ingredient content of the cannabis flowers tested in the DIZ was 1.1 % CBD. The active ingredient content of the analyzed cannabis flowers varied greatly and ranged from 0.0 % to 7.8 % CBD.

- The average active substance content of the hashish tested in the DIZ was 25 % THC. The active ingredient content of the hashish analyzed varied widely, ranging from 1.1 % to 49.9 % THC.

- The average active ingredient content of the hashish tested in the DIZ was 2.8 % CBD. The active ingredient content of the analyzed hashish varied greatly and ranged from 0.1 % to 30.4 % 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 thickeners such as vitamin E acetate have been added, which according to one study are extremely harmful to health and have led to several deaths in the USA. These cases have become known as EVALI(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. At the beginning of 2020, synthetic cannabinoids6 were detected for the first time in the DIZ. This sudden and frequent occurrence of such samples suggests that various traffickers have acquired cheap, legal CBD cannabis on a large scale 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.

In the second half of 2022, 4 samples (2.1 %) of all cannabis samples submitted for analysis at the DIZ were spiked with at least one synthetic cannabinoid. One of these samples (0.5 %) was spiked with two different synthetic cannabinoids. In the first half of 2022, there were still 7 samples (3.3 %) with an impurity with one synthetic cannabinoid. 2 of these samples (1 %) were contaminated with two different synthetic cannabinoids.

Of the samples for which a suspicion of synthetic cannabinoids was expressed at the time of dispensing, only 1 sample (3.3 %) actually contained such substances. In the samples without suspicion, however, synthetic cannabinoids were detected in 3 cases (1.9 %). The following synthetic cannabinoids were detected in the second half of 2022: ADB-BINACA, 5F-MDMB-PICA, and MDMB-4en-PINACA.

The number of samples testing positive for synthetic cannabinoids has decreased sharply compared to the last two even years. At the same time, the number of samples submitted as suspicious cases remained quite high. This is probably related to the fact that in the last two years, due to harm-reducing offers as well as media coverage, a broad education on the topic of synthetic cannabinoids and their effects has taken place. And the 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 given with suspicion of synthetic cannabinoids, even though they are high-dose THC cannabis products.

The results of the analysis are then presented graphically.

2.4 Delta-8-THC

In the first half of 2022, seven samples with a remarkably high ∆8-THC value were already analyzed at the DIZ. In the second half of the year, 2 more ∆8-THC samples were added.

∆8-THC occurs, if at all, only in very small amounts as a natural cannabinoid in the hemp plant. However, since in some samples a strikingly high concentration of ∆8-THC was analyzed, there is a suspicion that this was applied to CBD flowers by non-natural means or subsequently. This suspicion is strengthened by the often simultaneously measured high CBD value.

∆8-THC is a psychoactive cannabinoid that produces a similar intoxicating effect as ∆9-THC(the "classic" THC), but is less potent. In all likelihood, ∆8-THC is mainly a byproduct of the chemical conversion of CBD (cannabidiol) to ∆9-THC. This conversion is presumably used to produce ∆9-THC from low-noise CBD products or pure CBD. The resulting mixture of ∆8-THC and ∆9-THC is then applied to CBD products in order to sell them on the black market as natural cannabis products containing THC. It cannot be excluded that the by-products resulting from the conversion have toxic effects. Since synthesis by-products are often not completely separated by the manufacturers and thus consumed by the users together with ∆9-THC and ∆8-THC on cannabis products, an unknown health risk is taken when consuming. No clinical studies are available on the short- and long-term side effects of ∆8-THC and the synthesis by-products.

The entire report is linked in the appendix and can be downloaded.


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