It’s tough being a consumer of recreational or medical cannabis.
The emerging industry continues to go through growing pains felt by operators and consumers, alike, as it continues its transition from gray market to legal market. One of the biggest deficiencies is knowledge. Prior to Prop 64 it wasn’t tough to sell cannabis products. Product had to be really bad to result in it not being able to be sold as flower or, at worst, turned into distillate cartridges. The lack of regulations allowed producers free reign over production methodologies. We know how that went.
An unfortunate truth about humans and late stage capitalism is that profits rule. If corners can be cut and money saved, 99% of operators are cutting that corner. One of our analysts has a compliance background in Banking and claims confidently that, “even in a highly regulated market with many rules companies regularly cut corners for profits.”
Most cannabis consumers, even heavy users, have been getting high without really understanding the science behind “why”. We haven’t understood the delicate and graceful dance between cannabinoids and terpenes dubbed “entourage effect” for very long and still haven’t fleshed it all out from a scientific standpoint.
The average consumer may only know about: their endocannabinoid system, that THC has psychoactive effects and CBD doesn’t, and that cannabis may be able to help improve their lives. They likely haven’t heard about terpenes yet. Remember, we’re talking about the average consumer. Not someone who was buying sacks or reveling over the terps in their turkey bag. The identity of the average consumer is evolving, but Licensed Producers (LPs) and a corrupt, incompetent bureaucracy are muddling the process in many ways.
Let’s Start With Some Quick Cannabis Basics
-The human body has receptors for cannabinoids called endocannabinoid receptors (EC1 and EC2) located throughout. We humans even produce cannabinoids naturally.
-Upon entry to the human body, cannabinoids synergistically interact with these receptors in a variety of ways causing variable effects based on many factors including individual biochemistry.
-The THC/THCA % are only factors in the equation of effect. Purchasing products solely based on this metric is setting oneself up for an inferior experience unless you’ve made the connection between desired experience and THC/THCA %.
-Cannabinoids like THC and CBD work in symbiosis with terpenes, which are essential oils, in a delicate dance known as “entourage effect” working symbiotically to alter the body’s biochemistry. It is this nuance which creates much of the complication behind understanding cannabis, how to it scales, and repeatable experience.
-Cannabis and hemp flowers carry cannabinoids, called phytocannabinoids, and terpenes in oil form.
-The vast majority (almost all) of this oil, or resin, is located in the many glandular trichome heads throughout the buds. Best observed under magnification, glandular trichomes glisten in light like the facets of a diamond.
-The absence of these trichome heads is indicative of inferior flower.
Let’s look at a couple visual aids.
If you imagine the Swarovski crystal grapes on the left are glandular trichome heads, what they’re attached to would be the equivalent of the stalk indicated by the guideline in the picture on the right. The stalks are mainly composed of basal cells, NOT phytocannabinoids or terpenes. The stem attached to the stalks would be equivalent to the actual biomass of the plant. When you break a bud open, you should find trichomes covering enough of the plant matter that they are apparent. Magnification is a huge help. Internally, we evaluate buds with the help of watch repairer’s glasses.
One notable difference between trichome heads and grapes is that trichome heads don’t dehydrate at the same rate grapes become raisins. It happens over a longer period of time, largely due to the oil content in trichomes.
The below pictures are of similar magnification. If anything Pic 1, from a Canadian LP, has a higher magnification level.
If you focus near the center of the nug in Pic 1, you should notice stalks that look like a bunch of tiny maggots sticking out of the green plant biomass. This is because there are not any trichome heads present.
In Pic 2, you don’t see these same maggot-like stalks because the trichome heads are visibly present, and especially noticeable on the leaf located middle-left. One of the slightly amber heads is so bulbous that it looks like a small lens flare.
Cannabis without trichomes lacks the very components we consumers want and patients need.
Influential connoisseurs have been part of passing the knowledge beyond “bag appeal” (a term referring to the olfactory traits and visible appeal of the nug structure) on to the masses. This group of innovators includes some well-known Canadients. It’s the knowledge of trichomes and resin and the collective voice of displeasure with LPs that results in a better product for the consumer, whether they prefer flower or cartridges.
Terpenes, Cannabinoids, Medical Use
From a holistic and wellness standpoint, terpenes are a critical component of targeting an ailment or illness. Plenty of evidence exists backing the efficacy of essential oils. Eastern medicine has utilized herbs, extracts, etc. for centuries to millennia. Combining the effects of terpenes with the healing powers that we already know exist in many cannabinoids is a way people can supplement, or combine with, their prescription medication use. Some may even be able to make a complete shift from medications to cannabis for their personal wellness.
Without terpenes being tested and reported properly, we can’t be informed patients. That, frankly, is bullshit. We’ve all suffered long enough under Big Pharma. The amount of money people in the US spend on Healthcare is absurd and prevention should begin taking place of medication. We don’t want to go all “fire and brimstone” on the topic. We’ll only say that we loathe big pharma for many reasons.
Cannabis and hemp offer extremely effective holistic solutions which many people prior to the 21st century would’ve argued were equivalent to snake oil. Our world has become a different place and our relationship with the living organisms on this planet with us is beginning to finally be explored to necessary depths.
Don’t Let LPs Fool You
We often like to use connections between the Canadian market and the California market because not only are they similar in size and projections, but also because California is the most influential market and Canada the global business leader (for now). There is no superiority involved in the comparison at all. Every market has its good and bad. The California cannabis industry was generating hundreds of millions of dollars long before Canada legalized. California has been the home of much cannabis innovation, even if Israel has a scientific lead. The Emerald Triangle has been estimated to produce around 75% of the global cannabis during its peak. California weed is world-renowned and outside the state it commands a premium.
It’s interesting to observe what’s taking place in the cannabis industry on different levels right now. There’s an established industry and subculture that was always going to evolve due to legalization. It was, and still is, an industry long overdue for some maturing. The way it’s being influenced, and who is doing the influencing, are in many ways polar opposite from cannabis’ roots. Cannabis is very regional, but is quick to link a variety of people.
During the “sesh” or show days of late Prop 215, some weekends we would frequent a local sesh held in a repurposed mini-mansion in Oakland. The event was reflective of the Bay Area: a melting pot. One particular smoke circle stands out because in the midst of euphoric high on a particularly sunny day, we observed connection and lively conversation between various groups of people who converged from their smaller cliques to one large circle made up of diverse ages, races, beliefs, classes, and backgrounds.
In a world full of chaos and in an industry wrought with justified paranoia and fear, a dozen or so people who made up several social circles found a common link and were able to create human connection all because of this beautiful and delicate plant. We may enter a smoke circle as strangers, but we generally walk away from it as fellow human beings sharing the turbulent ride of life. It’s in that same spirit with which we share information with you.
Something both the Canadian and California markets share is that most LPs are not honoring their plants or their customers. They have no desire to take the necessary time or spend the necessary capital to cultivate the plant in a healthy way. Many of the cultivation techniques being employed have gray market roots and are relative to weight. You’ll often see one of two cultivation infrastructures: rooms stuffed so full of plants that there is no room for a human to even enter the room, let alone to care for the plants or large uncontrolled-environment greenhouses susceptible to contamination. Neither of these techniques are adequate for cultivating clean cannabis.
Trying to force commodification of something which shouldn’t be commodified, and doesn’t want to be, will turn out to be an expensive fool’s errand. Cannabis, while a plant, isn’t like produce. It shouldn’t be cultivated like or sold like produce. Especially if we all agree, scientifically, that it’s the cannabinoids and terpenes (the minority of the total mass) that we are all after. If we’re going to pay a premium due to the biomass, it should at least be clean biomass.
Even if flower tests at 20%+ total oil at the lab it is probably closer to 3/4 of that by the time it’s in your hands. This significant discrepancy is largely due to poor post-harvest processes (including, and especially, machine-trimming) which knock precious trichome heads from their stalks, leaving you purchasing more of the biomass you don’t want and less of the cannabinoids and terpenes that you desire or need as medicine. Don’t worry, though. LPs collect those trichomes and find other ways to profit off of them.
There are other, human factors involved in lab discrepancies that we’ll get into in Part 2 of this series.
Companies like Canndescent, Dosist, and a growing number of other LPs market “experience” over strain names. Strain is most definitely a flawed categorization, but promoting a repeatable experience is no better. It may even be worse. The science and our individual biochemistry don’t work that way.
“Experience” marketing/branding is misleading and not a great way to build consumer loyalty. It only serves to dumb down how complicated cannabis can be. Understanding the intricacies and nuances of cannabis can be complicated. It can, and should, be simplified. Consumers don’t need it dumbed down, though.
They need someone to explain it to them in a way that makes sense to them, as an individual consumer. Cannabis is about elevating oneself in all ways, not just getting high. Terpenes, cannabinoids, and how they fit into our individual lives and wellness looks different for different people. Cannabis is not necessarily for everyone.
As an example: if one of us uses a “calming” product and it provides a consumer an unwanted surge of energy and a feeling of anxiousness because of the reaction to that respective LPs’ proprietary “calm” recipe, the consumer is unlikely to try that product again. (As a quick side note: these experiences being marketed are, at best, a LP’s best guess as to how you should react and at worst just a strain renamed.) Without knowing which terpenes are present, and at what levels, we can’t really control our individual consumer experience or remain informed about it in any way. We’re at the whim of a producer who has no intent other than to generate revenue for their own bottom line. More bullshit.
That system does not work for me and shouldn’t be acceptable because it leaves all of us in the dark. Sure, it gives companies opportunities to stand out if they test and report terpenes, but terpene testing and reporting should be the standard, not some exception to be lauded for.
Production Consistency Challenges
The little-known truth is that each plant has different combinations of secondary metabolites (including cannabinoids and terpenes) in different locations on the plant. Colas will have different combinations than sides, sides from lowers, etc. Fresh off the plant material has different combinations than dried material and cured material. Each of these specific combinations in the different parts of the plant are going through critical metabolic processes(I.e.: changes) throughout the harvest and post-harvest stages.
This is to say: a specific phenotype/chemovar/strain/(whatever you want to call it because no one can agree on a term) of OG Kush is one combination of cannabinoids and terpenes on the plant or when it is fresh-frozen, another when it’s harvested, changes as it’s drying, and another when it’s in the cure phase.
Throughout the entire process, the levels of chemical compounds are constantly changing. CBG (Cannabigerol) is where this entire process begins and it’s from there the secondary metabolites progress from. This process doesn’t stop. If you kept track of a mason jar of weed and tested it every week until it was all consumed, your results would indicate significant changes and show the progression of secondary metabolites over time. Even though the flowers are off the plant, they are still metabolically active.
This all begs the question what really is OG Kush? Or [insert strain name here]? We can go down that rabbit hole together in another article. As much as this is challenging for consumers, it presents a variety of challenges for LPs. Capitalism, especially late-stage Capitalism, wants standardization, automation, and most importantly-profitability.
Capitalism, Cannabis, “The Green Rush”
We are in the early stages of what’s been dubbed “The Green Rush”. A record number of states have already considered some form of cannabis legalization so far in 2019. There are publicly-traded LPs worth millions to billions of dollars. Private companies are using a variety of creative options to go public, others are choosing to remain private. Some eye federal legalization in the US as their catalyst for entry. Current industry leader Canopy Growth, which is Canadian-based, and US Multi-State Operator (MSO) Acreage Holdings already have an agreement in place for when that legalization switch flips.
Publicly-traded cannabis companies are having a rough go of things, especially lately. Many of these companies are based in Canada, but the problems aren’t provincial or even national. The entire market has been in a summer downtrend, which isn’t abnormal, but the news accompanying the downturn isn’t really helping their case right now.
CannTrust was recently caught selling product from unlicensed rooms it hid from regulators and subsequently had its license suspended pending investigation. Organigram, a company which prides itself on being organic certified (hence the name), has now been busted for pesticides and admitted that their novice understanding of the plant resulting in a cloning debacle which negatively impacted quarterly financials.
It turns out running a cannabis company isn’t easy and maybe jumping from mining or crypto or banking or just being a “serial entrepreneur” isn’t cutting it for C-Suite and Board positions unless you learn something about the plant and the people who consume It, maybe?
Cannabis is a plant. It doesn’t really care about what capitalism wants or how to pad a bottom line. It just wants to be a plant. It wants to live and either produce seeds (female) or produce pollen (male). Live, procreate, die. The nature of all living things. The beautiful cycle of life our society has become too far removed from and that cannabis, psilocybin, and the other natural hallucinogens are trying to bring us back in touch with. Cannabinoids, and their sophisticated symbiotic relationship with terpenes, are part of that reconnection.
Some may argue cannabis is a gateway to other consciousness-expanding drugs. We’d argue that for some people it should be. There’s a reason America feels like the 1970’s again. Our country, and our world, could use some spiritual enlightenment and consciousness expanding. Most of us could use a level up and are long overdue for one.
A Broken System
I was recently kicked out of a dispensary for professionally and politely explaining, in private, to the manager that they need to find a more scientifically accurate way of having their budtenders start conversations with customers than, “so are you looking for an indica or a sativa.” Apparently he was angry that I presented a complaint without being willing to tell him specifically how to run their business. One of my suggestions was to take the training of their employees into their own hands instead of letting any of the almost 100 brands on their shelves do the training for them. That idea seemed so unthinkable to him you’d have thought I insulted his family.
I mentioned earlier that retailers are charging brands for shelf space. Retailers know they have an amount of leverage, but no one that we see is using it to raise the bar. If a product doesn’t have terpene and cannabinoid results on it, or has any detected pesticides (even within approved limits), it shouldn’t be allowed on shelves. It’s pretty simple. Are we all going to wait for another Monsanto to appear or are we going to demand pesticide-free cannabis?
Consumers will buy what they have access to right now. The demand still far outweighs the supply and only two out of seven municipalities or so in California have legalized. There are currently multiple lawsuits against the state that could have significant impact on what the industry looks like. Nothing has been settled, by any means.
It’s a joke that we have a market blended between Rec and Med and budtenders are allowed to act like mini-pharmacists with no training other than from the companies whose products they sell and, in turn, insure their employer generates revenue to cut them a check. It’s guano nuts!
Anyone selling a product that is considered medicinal in use should need some type of certification validating their knowledge in the subject matter. We don’t let just anyone from off the street work as a pharmacist. Curaleaf was just warned by the FDA for medical claims it was making on its CBD products, but it’s okay for a budtender to tell you a product will help with a medical issue? Very contradictory. No offense to budtenders. Most of them don’t understand the plant science because their bosses don’t, either.
Every time we visit local dispensaries we witness someone in the 55+ demographic looking for genuine healing guidance and budtenders refer them products that is insufficient or just plain wrong. One of us recently saw a budtender recommend a mild topical for nerve pain and it took everything not to butt into someone else’s business. They were about to come out of pocket for something very unlikely to work for them.
We envision a friend or relative looking for some relief and it pains us to see them misguided and coming out of pocket for it. That’s not much different than the way the current Healthcare system works in tandem with pharmaceuticals. Cannabis is supposed to be different. It’s trying to show us a different way.
Shelling out dispensary prices and paying the numerous high taxes should could with some expectation of equivalent potential relief, not a muted experience or one doomed to fail because it wasn’t right to begin with. In the case of the topical for neuropathy: most of the available science shows efficacy via inhalation, not a topically applied balm or cream which may not even get to the nerve causing the pain.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series.