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Is the Legal Limit of THC Putting People at Risk?

Marc Moulin
LEGAL LIMIT OF THC IN HEMP being tested by scientist

The EFSA says the legal limit of THC in hemp food and supplements is a consumer risk. 

THC-rich cannabis is popular as a recreational and medicinal drug. Hemp, while derived from the same cannabis sativa plant, boasts over 50,000 different uses that exist across several industries. One of those industries is food and beverages with massive growth expected in the coming years.

According to Zion Market Research, the global hemp-based food market was just short of four billion dollars in 2018. Experts now expect it to generate almost five billion dollars by 2026. Consumers can use hemp seeds to make a variety of foods, such as hemp oil, hemp milk, cheese substitutes, and hemp protein powder. They can eat or combine these products with any number of other foods. The sky is the limit. But with one caveat — all must meet the legal limit of THC in hemp products.

What is the Legal Limit of THC in Hemp Products?

The legal limit of THC in hemp varies by country. In the United States, hemp can legally contain up to 0.3 percent THC by dry weight. In the European Union, the set THC limit is 0.2 percent. Governments put these restrictions in place for a myriad of legal reasons, but also for public safety. Of course, it would be problematic for a hemp product to contain enough THC to cause an unsolicited high.

These low concentrations of THC should prevent that from happening. However, the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) is questioning whether high quantity hemp consumers could be at risk of cardiovascular complications due to accumulating amounts of THC.

LEGAL LIMIT OF THC IN HEMP plant pictured

The EFSA Warning

In 2015, the EFSA Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain published an expert opinion on the risks for human health regarding the presence of THC in foods of animal origin. They considered central nervous system effects and increased heart rate as relevant for the risk assessment. The panel established a lowest-observed-adverse-effect level for both single and repeated doses of two and a half milligrams of THC per day.

They translated this to what they called an acute reference point of one microgram of THC per kilogram of body weight. Then the researchers carried this acute reference point forward for this report. The researchers estimated acute exposure to THC by matching food consumption data with occurrence data. They did this by using twelve scenarios based on proxies of hemp and hemp product consumption.

The data used to assess acute exposure came from 588 samples from thirteen hemp and hemp-derived products. Based on the scenario proxies, the EFSA calculated a lower bound and upper bound level of THC exposure.

In both lower bound and upper bound scenarios, the EFSA acute reference point went over. This is one microgram per kilogram of body weight in high-consuming adults for most of the hemp and hemp-derived products. Does this mean high quantity hemp consumers are at risk for neuro-cardiovascular complications? Based on the available scientific evidence, probably not.

Cannabis and Neuro-Cardiovascular Risk

There is some scientific research that demonstrates an association between cannabis consumption and adverse neurological and cardiovascular events. In a study published in Medicina (2017), the researchers found that the frequency of admission to hospital for acute myocardial infarction and heart arrhythmia was significantly higher in cannabis consumers compared to non-consumers. Moreover, in another study published in Stroke (2019), the results showed that regular cannabis consumers had a substantially increased risk of ischemic stroke.

There is also some evidence to the contrary, however, like this new study published in the Journal of Cardiac Failure (2019). Here researchers found that cannabis consumers admitted with acute heart failure had better hospital outcomes than non-cannabis consumers. However, this data was not on edible forms of cannabis consumption. Like the majority of data from previous cannabis-related studies.

In a 2018 review of cannabis routes-of-administration and health outcomes, the authors found that the adverse health outcomes associated with edible forms of cannabis were because of acute overconsumption and delayed onset of effects. Fortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that there are any adverse effects from edible forms of THC in low doses (like those put forth in the EFSA report). As the evidence stands, the neurological and cardiovascular risks associated with THC are from cannabis smoking.

LEGAL LIMIT OF THC IN HEMP being looked at by farmer

Limitations Within the EFSA Report

The authors of the EFSA report note that there are some important limitations in their findings. “The use of proxies for the consumption of hemp and hemp-containing products, the limited number of occurrence data and the analytical limitations in the quantification of (THC) represent the most important sources of uncertainty. Overall, exposure estimates presented in this report are expected to represent an overestimation of acute exposure to (THC) in the EU.”

These investigations should take place in the real world. Furthermore, the established lowest-observed-adverse-effect level of two and a half milligrams of THC per day is problematic. The report states this dose may cause central nervous system effects and an increased heart rate. However, there is no evidence that this dose causes severe adverse effects.

The Risk of Hemp-Related Neuro-cardiovascular Events is Low

Fortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that low doses of edible forms of THC cause neuro-cardiovascular events. The studies linked to these adverse events consist of recreational consumers who are consuming large amounts of THC. And they are most likely doing so through smoking. Considering the vast size of the hemp food market, it seems reasonable that if consuming large quantities of hemp were dangerous to consumers in any way, the scientific community would have let the world know.

References 

EFSA Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM). (2015). Scientific Opinion on the risks for human health related to the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in milk and other food of animal origin. EFSA Journal13(6), 4141.
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Arcella, D., Cascio, C., & Mackay, K. (2020). Acute human exposure assessment to tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9‐THC). EFSA Journal18(1), e05953.
Desai, R., Fong, H. K., Shah, K., Kaur, V. P., Savani, S., Gangani, K., … & Goyal, H. (2019). Rising Trends in Hospitalizations for Cardiovascular Events among Young Cannabis Users (18–39 Years) without Other Substance Abuse. Medicina55(8), 438.
Parekh, T., Pemmasani, S., & Desai, R. (2020). Marijuana Use Among Young Adults (18–44 Years of Age) and Risk of Stroke: A Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Survey Analysis. Stroke51(1), 308-310.
Wu, L., Narasimhan, B., Ho, K. S., & Li, P. (2019). Marijuana Use is Associated with Better Hospital Outcome in Patients with Acute Heart Failure: A Propensity Match Analysis from National Inpatient Database. Journal of Cardiac Failure25(8), S158.
Russell, C., Rueda, S., Room, R., Tyndall, M., & Fischer, B. (2018). Routes of administration for cannabis use–basic prevalence and related health outcomes: A scoping review and synthesis. International Journal of Drug Policy52, 87-96.

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Marc Moulin
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