Natural is a popular buzzword.

It’s interesting that trends in the food market are also to some degree mirrored in the drug market – people want food that is less processed, because there is a perception that processed foods, being more chemically saturated and further removed from their natural state, are likely to entail initially unseen but harmful ramifications for their future health. A similar perception seems to have crept into the drug market, where pain medication and psychotropic medications are being passed on in favor of cannabis, because it is seen as being “natural.” This is complemented by the idea it is somehow better to self medicate than to risk addiction to prescription medications, and there has been promotion along this same line that pot is better for you than other drugs.

The idea that marijuana is “natural” as opposed to other drugs out there is more than a little problematic — it totally neglects the well established fact that pot is no longer “natural.” Growers have been selecting strains with higher and higher THC content for years and this tend is likely to continue if legal pot becomes comes to dominate the market.

On average THC levels have jumped from 3.4 percent in 1993 to 12.3 percent in 2012 according to data from the University of Mississippi’s Potency Monitoring Program. A lab in Colorado conducting a similar analysis shows a similar increase in both recreational and medical marijuana while conversely, another component in pot, CBD which is said to have therapeutic value, has declined.

Another interesting trend is that the quantity of contaminants in the various pot strains is also increasing which ranges from fungi and microbial impurities, to butane and other chemicals. This has prompted an as yet incomplete conversation about what kind of thresholds need to be put in place.

Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), attributes the rise in ER visits by users to the rise in THC which is increases the likelihood of toxic reactions such as psychosis. Some of this is attributable to the fact that it is harder for users to measure the dose of THC they are getting which is a problem not prevalent before these newer strains were developed.

Lewis Nelson, Professor and Vice Chair for Academic Affairs at NYU’s Department of Emergency Medicine and Director of Medical Toxicology Fellowship at the New York City Poison Control Center, points to this as a possible contributing factor to users taking excessive doses without being aware of what they are doing. In fact, self medicating with substances of uncertain and varying composition may be more damaging because of these alterations made to cannabis which affect its THC content. In many ways this negates the misconception that pot is more “natural”. Perhaps this viewpoint will change as people come to understand what is causing the toxic reactions — the artificially increased THC content — that results from changing marijuana from its “natural” state.