It’s been five years since cannabis was fully legalized in California, and, for dispensary owners, one thing is clear: Californians like to get really, really high.
When celebrants descend on Dolores Park and other spots in the city today for 4/20, most will be smoking varieties bred to be high in THC — that is, tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound in marijuana — that can be purchased in identical packaging at almost any dispensary, dispensary owners say.
“High THC percentages is what moves the needle,” said Jose Carmona, a marijuana buyer for Medithrive dispensary, on Mission Street between 15th and 16th streets. To Carmona, the new generation of weed users are like high-school drinkers: Unsophisticated and laser-focused on getting blitzed.
“You don’t go into a liquor store and say, ‘Give me a bottle of Everclear,’” said Carmona. “But cannabis is still so new, being on the legal market. People are rushing to try new things.”
As a wholesale buyer, Carmona has access to sales data showing different strains of marijuana sold in 250 dispensaries across the state. A subscription with BDSA, a market research firm covering the cannabis industry, gives him an inside look at statewide and national trends.
Back in 2019, the average THC percentage was in the low-to-mid 20s, Carmona said. Over the next two years, it became common practice to get north of 26 percent. And then north of 30 percent. Now, the maximum sits at around 45 percent. And that’s just for flower. Pre-rolls can be infused with even more THC, with some varieties testing at around 60 percent.
Al Shawa, the owner of Mission Cannabis club, located on Mission between 20th and 21st streets, said his favorite strain, Forbidden Fruit, is no longer grown because its THC percentage is just too low, at 17 or 18 percent.
Mission Cannabis Club carries 53 kinds of flower and 117 pre-rolls. None of their flower strains contains less than 20 percent THC, and just one of their pre-roll options does. Of the 108 strains of flower and 101 pre-rolls sold at Medithrive, just one strain of flower and four pre-roll options have under 20 percent THC.
“It’s a shame that it became like that, and that’s the only thing that people look for,” said Shawa.
Most buyers are looking for more than 30 percent THC, according to Joseph Hunt, the owner of Union Station, located on Mission Street between 16th and 17th streets. But it’s unclear whether this even leads to a more intense, or more enjoyable, high.
“That’s the perception,” said Mischa Breyburg, the owner of MediThrive. “Whether it’s real or not, I don’t know.”
Several owners and workers at dispensaries across the Mission lamented the fact that their shops have become more like convenience stores than the apothecaries of the pre-legalization era: Big brands dominate, there are standardized offerings across stores, and customers are interested in the most artificial products.
“It’s amazing how quickly it evolved to having pretty much the same thing everywhere,” said Breyburg.
If weed is chocolate and THC is sugar, weed used to be dark chocolate, and now it’s a Snickers bar.
“The community became an industry,” Breyburg added. He opened his dispensary in 2009, when marijuana was medicinal only, and has witnessed its post-legalization evolution. As cannabis brands struggle to compete in a saturated market, he said, breeders differentiate themselves by making their products stronger.
Carmona, for his part, believes that lower THC strains will eventually make a comeback, a parallel to the recent interest in craft beers or natural foods.
Already, some dispensaries bucking the trend: Poncho Brotherz, on Cesar Chavez between Bryant and York, is run by three brothers and their parents. The family owns a farm up in Humboldt where one of the brothers, Isaac Tapia, grows weed for the dispensary.
“For the most part, our strains don’t have high THC,” said Tapia, adding that they test between 12 and 27 percent.
“There’s a lot lost to people looking at the THC percentage,” he added. “I prefer to let my nose tell me, let my high tell me.”
The store, which is temporarily closed due to a robbery, sells just eight strains, in both flower and pre-rolls, and no edibles (though they’re looking into getting a license to bake their own vegan cinnamon rolls and banana bread).
“No one has been as daring as us,” said Isaiah Tapia, the brother in charge of operating the Mission storefront, of their focus on only selling sun-grown marijuana. “People told us, ‘It’s not gonna work, you’re going to need to sell other people’s stuff.’ But we’re not easily persuaded, and we’re not trying to fit in.”
For his part, Shawa, the owner of Mission Cannabis Club, would like to see more shops trying what Poncho Brotherz has. He believes that there isn’t much room to continue increasing the percentage of THC in cannabis.
“I think we maximized everything,” he said. “I would love to see a return to simplicity.”
But it’s a change he does not feel he could make on his own.
“I can’t stop selling those products, because that’s what’s done, that’s what’s out there.”
Owners attributed the fixation on THC also to a lack of education about how to identify good cannabis.
“It’s a lot like wine,” said Shawa, of evaluating the quality of weed. “It’s smell, it’s color. People just don’t know enough to make an educated decision.”