The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) is an interesting nonprofit that recently launched an educational campaign, called Consume Responsibly Massachusetts. For many cannabis advocates who watched their states legalize the drug, consumer education is a very important part of moving forward. As states across the East Coast implement regulatory frameworks for the cannabis industry, there is a sense of urgency to make sure the rules are right the first time, and that cannabis businesses become responsible stewards of their new market.
In the wake of pesticide recalls in the west and related public health concerns, the issues surrounding consumer safety and how states protect that are now front and center. “The purpose of Consume Responsibly Massachusetts is to keep adult-consumers informed of their rights in the state,” says Jefferson. “It’s also an ongoing effort to bring consumers into the world of cannabis politics and science.”
The MRCC’s mission is to help protect the safety of recreational cannabis consumers by bridging the information gap between businesses, legislators and communities. “We work at the state and local level advocating for sensible recreational marijuana policy and regulations,” reads a press release. According to Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC, bridging that gap requires a lot of community engagement. “I was a field organizer on the Campaign to Tax and Regulate Marijuana here in Massachusetts so this is extremely important to me,” says Jefferson. “MRCC participated in this year’s Cambridge 5K Freedom Run.” He says getting out in the community like this is one of many ways to help provide educational opportunities, help promote local cannabis businesses and get rid of the “lazy stoner stigma.”
For the MRCC, the issue of craft cannabis is a significant part of the organization’s philosophy, in addition to product safety and others. “Craft Cannabis will benefit the consumer in an entirely new way,” says Jefferson. “Members of the community will have a chance to provide products and directly affect the economy.” Because local owners tend to be more involved in their towns, Jefferson says residents will get to make more of an impact than nonlocal owners. And he’s right- small, local businesses contribute substantially more to local economies and communities than large companies. Between 1993 and 2013, small businesses created roughly 63% of all new jobs in the United States. With the new cannabis market comes a promising opportunity for local economies.
“The Massachusetts cannabis industry is developing and growing fast,” says Jefferson. “Aside from the medical marijuana production sites, the new recreational marijuana law grants production participation in the regulated recreational marijuana industry to farmers, in the form of craft marijuana cultivator cooperative systems.” While he thinks this is a good opportunity for small businesses and communities alike to gain a foothold in the market, Jefferson is hesitant to endorse Massachusetts’ regulatory policies. “A lack of regulatory oversight from the CCC [Cannabis Control Commission] places the cannabis industry in a vulnerable position,” says Jefferson. “If we want clear, consistent standards for clean and safe products prioritized, then we need consistent testing data.” Jefferson is arguing for more regulatory oversight for safety issues, such as contaminant testing. This is one of a handful of issues they are pressing for sensible cannabis policy in Massachusetts.
Here are some of the issues they support:
Local Cannabis: Equitable licensing for small and medium sized local businesses from members of the community.
Quality Control: Access to a variety of clean and safe cannabis products in retail dispensaries, tested for harmful contaminants, mold, pesticides and fungicides.
Responsible + Safe Consumption: Access to educational materials about proper dosage, methods of ingestion, quality analysis, understanding product labels and general cannabis information.
High Potency Flowers, Edibles, & Concentrates: Access, non-restriction to high potency marijuana products of all forms.
Home Grow: Ability to grow at least 6 plants per person, 12 per household as stated in Question 4.
Social Use: The ability to consume in designated establishments outside of the household.
Expungement: Sentence commutation and record expungement for convictions involving non-violent marijuana charges that are now legal.
Research: University supported biological, behavioral and cognitive marijuana research to further our understanding and capabilities of the cannabis plant.
Making Cannabis Transparent: The Future of the Industry is Information and Data
The last decade has been marked by great strides in the cannabis industry, as public awareness surrounding the health benefits of marijuana-infused products has spread and products have become increasingly well researched and scientifically advanced. Despite this significant progress, however, cannabis legislation and regulations continue to vary widely between states, ultimately contributing to a lack of clarity within the industry.
This issue was at the forefront of the DispensaryNext Conference and Expo agenda held in Denver a few weeks ago. During the expo’s Consumer Safety and Education discussion, a panel of industry leaders including Kevin Gallagher, director of compliance and government affairs at Craft Concentrates and executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance (CBA); Eileen Konieczny, registered nurse and president of the American Cannabis Nurses Association; Kevin Staunton, director of business development at RM3 labs; and moderator David Kotler, a partner at Cohen Kotler P.A., highlighted a number of important issues for cannabis patients and adult-use consumers, as well as what’s next for physicians, testing labs and dispensaries across the industry. A number of common themes resonated in their discussion of opportunities and challenges, ultimately pointing to a need for increased research and data, and most notably, a growing demand for transparency industry-wide.
Medical practitioners and dispensary technicians need qualified and legitimate information.
Konieczny opened by stressing that the industry must stop calling dispensary sales associates “budtenders.” “I prefer the term ‘dispensary technician.’ These are knowledgeable people who are on the front lines, helping patients understand the products available to them. They deserve a title to reflect that our industry and their knowledge is much more than ‘bud,’” says Konieczny.
These are knowledgeable people who are on the front lines, helping patients understand the products available to them. The most prominent information gaps in the industry lie at the level of dispensary technicians and medical practitioners. The ideal scenario for patients who are looking to use cannabis as medicine is that their medical practitioner is educated about the endocannabinoid system and that the products are available locally so that a treatment plan can be developed based on their needs. But the reality is that many patients enter their local dispensary without much knowledge or support at all, relying on the professionalism of the dispensary staff to help them navigate the dizzying array of products.
Putting the patient’s safety and success first, it is imperative that everyone involved has the proper data and information to make the best choices. However, dispensary technicians should be extremely careful to avoid making health or benefit claims. As Gallagher noted, “It is not only illegal, but also unethical to make medical claims as a dispenser. There is a difference between a claim and a personal experience. A dispenser can tell their customer that a certain strain helped them personally, but they cannot tell the customer that the strain will cure their specific ailment.”
The industry needs transparency.
New cannabis consumers may have a certain degree of misunderstanding of the products they are consuming and unfortunately, manufacturers do not offer a high level of transparency in disclosing ingredients, thereby preventing these customers from becoming better informed.
While educating the public is essential, educating the industry is of equal importance.Furthermore, labels often contain small barely legible type, along with confusing and unnecessary content. According to Gallagher, the labels need to be simpler. “Products are overloaded with redundant, confusing language that most consumers don’t understand. This turns them off—especially if they’re inexperienced in this realm,” says Gallagher. When customers who are new to cannabis find products off-putting, it hurts not only the industry, but also their own health. Ill-informed consumers may have trouble understanding how cannabis can help them, and therefore they can miss the benefits it provides.
While these issues are prevalent, there are many ways they can be resolved—with transparency at the core.
Research is critical and paramount.
For cultivators or manufacturers, research and data hold the key to attracting new consumers. By providing details about what is in a product and implementing certifications to show the product is contaminant-free, manufacturers are able to provide transparency and offer differentiation.
During the panel, Konieczny pointed out another common mistake that many manufacturers make—not sharing test results. “Not many are posting their test results, and yet this is one of the leading avenues that can increase revenue,” says Konieczny. “Most people just want to feel well again, so providing test results adds a layer of legitimacy for patients who are wary to try a new product.”
With all of this in mind, it is perhaps most important to consider the way that this information is conveyed. Facts and research are useless if they are not accessible to consumers, who may not comprehend complex data. “We need to present information in plain language, keeping it clear and simple to understand,” expressed Konieczny. The simpler the delivery, the better it will be understood and knowledge is a very powerful tool for patients, consumers and the bottom line.
Educating the educators.
While educating the public is essential, educating the industry is of equal importance. For instance, thoroughly training dispensary technicians to ask the correct questions and identify first-time users will ensure consumer safety while avoiding improper use.
The industry as a whole depends on transparencyEducating professionals on better product labeling is another critical way that the industry is working to improve itself. There has recently been a push at the manufacturing level for standardization in product labeling, as establishing a clear standard can aid customers in successfully using cannabis. “In working groups with Colorado’s MED (Marijuana Enforcement Division), we aim to standardize specific product categories, remove irrelevant names, and harmonize medical and retail labeling regulations,” says Gallagher. “Ultimately, we want to consolidate language and make it more transparent in promoting public health and safety so that it can be easily read and understood.”
All panelists agreed transparency is paramount for the future of the cannabis industry and for growing a brand. Using lab data can provide value, setting a brand apart and building loyalty among consumers looking for someone they can trust.
“Transparency is king,” Gallagher urges. “The more we educate consumers and professionals, the more clarity we will see at all levels, ultimately minimizing risk and creating greater demand among those consumers. The industry as a whole depends on transparency.”
Marketing cannabis and the products that accompany recreational use is set to become one of the biggest industries in the United States. With 29 states promoting legal medical cannabis, 14 with it decriminalized and 8 having legalized it completely, you might be thinking this will be the easiest ad-campaign of all time. Unfortunately, science suggests otherwise.
The Science of Marketing
You heard correctly, marketing is a science, but almost half of what we know about the process cannot be applied to cannabis. Why? Because cannabis lives in the grey area of the American psyche. How do I know this?
In 2015, I completed and published The Safe Haven theory, a socio-demographic linguistic analysis of attitudes toward recreational drug use in the United Kingdom. I won’t bore you with the intricacies of the study, but the findings are important.
The study, using theoretical sociological trends, found that even non-recreational drug users in the United Kingdom favor cannabis legalization. A great number of police jurisdictions have chosen to not longer punish cannabis users, meaning that the law is (mostly) on our side – the side of full legalization and taxation of cannabis as a product for recreational usage, not so dissimilar from alcohol.
In the UK, we could easily put a huge billboard of someone’s grandmother smoking a spliff and make a million on the first day.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be done in the United States.
Advertising law aside, Americans just don’t have the same view of cannabis as Brits. In the last two years, I applied the same framework to a host of American demographics, and – as I hypothesized – localism rules the American market.
If you live in a Red town and you’re a recreational cannabis user, stigma will prevail over the scientific data, and changing that stigma is almost impossible without hard scientific evidence to back-up the marketing campaign.
Qualitative research is key when understanding why people buy into particular industries. This might not be the general belief held by most folks in advertising, as stats and numbers are distinctly easier to work with. However, as last year’s General Election and Brexit vote showed: numbers can lie. Therefore, the best means of understanding what people really want is to actually talk to them – and I mean in-person.
Marketing rules are shifting. More and more, the heads of marketing departments are turning to scientific and scholarly data to assess the current trends in social development, molding their campaigns around this data as a means of showing that they are industry leaders in understanding the phenomena, as well as speaking to target buyers in their own language.
Am I being too wordy? Let me put it simply.
Say your new product is an indoor indica strain with sleep/stress aid properties, this is how you should market it to three specific demographics:
Californian recreational smoker in the 50+ age demographic with a moderate knowledge of cannabis strains,“Indoor indica, grown locally with minimal chemical input, good as a sleep aid and positive for stress reduction.”
New York medical user, 30+, business background,“This strain is an excellent sleep aid, can decrease stress without taking off the edge of your day-to-day workload; highly recommended for those employed in a full-time, private sector position.”
Small town with predominantly low-income demographic employed in blue-collar industry, “affordable means of relaxing after a tough day at work that won’t give you the same cancer risk as tobacco.”
We market the same strain to each of these demographics, but the language used in the campaign is more important than the product itself. In the UK, the same strain would be marketed across the country using something like:
“Dank strain with sleep aid and relaxation properties, best for chilling out at the end of the day – definitely not recommended prior to work!”
What this means for the United States cannabis marketing specialist is simple: you need to invest as much as you can in getting scholarly researchers out into the field and figuring out the local socio-demographic linguistic trends for your target buyers. Luckily, this can be a fairly affordable means of research.
Marketing specialists have two options in uncovering this data:
Use students currently enrolled in universities and colleges, either offering paid internships or college credit for bulk research.
Hire an academic consultancy corporation. This is rapidly becoming a norm in for companies looking to expand their marketing by using scientific data, particularly in industries related to sport and the outdoors.
Just like how Pepsi really missed the mark with their latest failed advertising campaign, cannabis companies are at significant risk of ostracizing themselves from a wealth of demographics that would otherwise be open to recreational or medical cannabis use as an alternative to harsh pharmaceuticals, alcohol and even some forms of therapy.
Language is key, and if you can’t talk to your buyers on their level then you’ve already lost your edge over the competition.
Members of Congress last week announced the formation of a ‘Congressional Cannabis Caucus’ in order to organize and affect cannabis policy at the federal level. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Don Young (R-AK) announced the creation of the caucus on February 16th. Cannabis advocacy and drug policy groups were quick to commend the formation of the organization.
In a joint statement issued on Friday, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the Marijuana Policy Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, NORML, Americans for Safe Access, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, and Clergy for a New Drug Policy expressed commendation and excitement for the new group. “We commend Representatives Blumenauer, Rohrabacher, Polis, and Young for their leadership on the issue of cannabis policy,” reads the statement. “The establishment of a Cannabis Caucus will allow members from both parties, who represent diverse constituencies from around the country, to join together for the purpose of advancing sensible cannabis policy reform. It will also facilitate efforts to ease the tension between federal prohibition laws and state laws that regulate cannabis for medical and adult use.”
The members of Congress that formed the caucus all represent constituents in states where cannabis is legal for medical and adult use. “The formation of this caucus is a testament to how far our country has come on the issue of cannabis policy,” says the joint statement by the drug policy reform groups. “We look forward to working with caucus members to translate this growing public sentiment into sound public policy.” According to their statement, 44 states so far have adopted laws effecting cannabis prohibition on the state level, representing 95% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 88% of the Senate.
Representatives Blumenauer and Rohrabacher have been prominent cannabis policy reform advocates in the past. Blumenauer supported the bill to legalize adult use cannabis in Oregon back in 2014 and Rohrabacher introduced the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment to Congress, which prohibits the Justice Department from spending money on interfering with state medical cannabis laws.
According to an article on Roll Call, Blumenauer says the caucus will focus on more medical research and the tax and banking regulations hurting cannabis businesses.
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, chief scientific officer and partner at C4 Laboratories, is currently researching some of the lesser-known molecules in cannabis, and he’s on to something. His research focuses on discovering new molecules, determining their therapeutic effects and expanding our understanding of the constituents of cannabis.
Dr. Hildenbrand received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at El Paso where he researched the molecular architecture involved in hormone-dependent cancers. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, his post-doctoral research contributed to the development of a novel therapy for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukemia, a blood-borne cancer that afflicts small children. He has published over 25 peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and hopes to do the same with his research in cannabis.
After a career of scientific consulting, Dr. Hildenbrand met Ryan Treacy, founder and chief executive officer of C4 Laboratories, in 2015 when Treacy launched the company. In June of 2015, the laboratory began operations, providing Dr. Hildenbrand the opportunity to embark on a new and exciting field of research- cannabis.
They currently collaborate with Dr. Kevin Schug of the Shimadzu Center for Advanced Analytical Chemistry (SCAAC) at the University of Texas, Arlington and together Drs. Schug and Hildenbrand are pursuing a DEA license to expand their current cannabis research. The SCAAC is a $10.0+ million analytical laboratory with instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world has access to.
C4 Laboratories, based in Mesa, Arizona, currently offers a range of services for cannabis analysis including terpene and cannabinoid analytics, microbial, pesticide, fungicide and insecticide testing. In addition to the standard gamut of tests, they also specialize in cultivation analytics like mold and mildew culture testing, viral detection with sentinel plants and comprehensive analysis of environmental conditions.
What makes their company unique is their multidisciplinary effort to characterize the therapeutic compounds found in cannabis, the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative. We sit down with Dr. Zac Hildenbrand to talk cannabis science, his research and what they hope to accomplish with the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative.
CannabisIndustryJournal: What is the C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative?
Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand: The C4 Cannabinomics Collaborative is an open collaboration between growers and scientists to discover new molecules in cannabis and to have a better characterization of individual cannabis strains based on the active constituents found in each sample. We are facilitating the collaboration of some of the world’s best cannabis growers with world-class scientists to find new information about the plant.
What we want to accomplish in this work is identifying novel molecules. Because of the [federal government’s] restrictions in researching cannabis, there is very little peer-reviewed literature on many of the compounds found in cannabis. We want to secondarily find out what those molecules do in the human body and thus make recommendations for strains targeting specific conditions.
We also want to understand the strains currently out there by determining the most established cannabinoids and terpenes via chemotyping. You hear a lot of people talking about the effects of an Indica or Sativa and making recommendations based on that. We want to find chemical signatures based on cannabinoids and terpenes and make recommendations based on that. There are a lot of problems at hand when discussing strain names scientifically. There are nomenclature issues- people calling the same strain different names, people giving multiple names to the same strain to make it appear that their strain portfolios are more diverse.
We can identify the chemical signatures in strains based on the major cannabinoids and terpenes. Based on the terpenes and chemical profile we can determine more accurate recommendations for patients as well as in recreational applications. All of this, again, discovering the new molecules, identifying the current strains, is so we can make more informed decisions regarding cannabis use. It is not a panacea but it is a very robust plant. There are a lot of terpenes with anti-inflammatory responses. Other molecules help with blood flow, sleep, regulating blood glucose, and we all know the cases of CBD helping children with convulsions and epilepsy. We want people to make sure they have the most up-to-date information.
CIJ: How is your collaboration with the SCAAC at UT Arlington contributing to this work?
Dr. Hildenbrand: One of the instruments we use there is a supercritical-fluid-extraction supercritical-fluid-chromatography mass-spectrometer (SFE-SFC-MS). With that instrument, we can do the extraction on the machine with an extreme level of sensitivity. It is ideal for drug discovery and identifying molecules in the parts-per-quadrillion range. This particular instrument allows us to detect molecules with an extreme level of sensitivity without volatizing them during the sample extraction process.
We want to acquire samples of unique cannabis from growers that will work with us to discover new cannabis constituents. We are in the process of getting a DEA license so that we can send products across state lines to the center at UT Arlington to perform the advanced characterization. They have instrumentation that only a handful of people in the world have access to, which gives us the best opportunity to explore the unknown. When we discover new molecules, find out what they do on the molecular level, we can then isolate these compounds and ultimately use this newfound knowledge for the development of effective nutraceuticals.
CIJ: What molecules are you researching right now?
Dr. Hildenbrand: Some of the low-hanging fruit in our research looks at identifying compounds similar to the better-studied compounds such as THC and CBD. THCV has a very similar structure to THC, but has a shorter acyl carbon chain (3 carbons vs. 5).
THCV doesn’t induce a psychoactive response (like THC), but it does improve fat utilization, so it has remarkable potential for medicine. We are looking at what conditions are required for it to occur naturally. Cannabis doesn’t produce THCV in a high amount. 0.7% by weight is the most we have seen in Arizona. In Oregon, where craft cannabis has been refined to a much higher degree, we have heard rumblings of some strains containing up to 3% THCV. We want to find out if this is a possible weight loss tool. Our research in CBDV is very much the same.
CBL is the breakdown product of CBC when it is treated with ultraviolet light. We know absolutely nothing about what CBL does. If we find a strain that produces high amounts of CBC, we can then treat it with UV light and force the conversion to CBL, and then ultimately determine what it does. This is a good example of low-hanging fruit and the versatility of cannabis. Based on the biogenesis of the cannabinoids, we can alter the profile of cannabis products using a series of biochemical reactions.
For example, we have been helping clients in Arizona look for a quality sleep aid in cannabis. Certainly, Indica strains will help, but the molecule CBN helps specifically with sleep abnormalities. As CBN is formed as a byproduct when CBD or THC are oxidized, we see some producers using liquid nitrogen to oxidize CBD, leading to higher CBN levels. I would like to think we are in the age of understanding CBD, THC and the major terpenes,but there are a whole milieu of compounds that require our attention and THCV, CBDV and CBL are just a few that we want to devote our efforts to right away.
CIJ: What are your plans in the immediate future?
Dr. Hildenbrand: We are in the process of finalizing the documents to bring a C4 laboratory into Oregon where we can do quite a bit of research and where we’ll have access to some very unique cannabis. We will offer full compliance testing per ORELAP and OLCC regulations, but we also want to acquire samples (free of charge) from growers that want to collaborate with us to discover new molecules. We’ve been lucky enough to start working with growers like Adam Jacques and Chris West in Eugene, but we also want to be available to other growers who want to contribute to this research.
CIJ: What are your long-term goals with this project?
Dr. Hildenbrand: At a basic level, we hope to expand the current understanding of the cannabis plant. There is a lot of “bro science” and anecdotal claims out there. There is so much that we don’t know about cannabis that we cannot simply rely on anecdotal claims for each strain. We want to bring cannabis into the same light as any pharmaceutical-grade or biomedical research.
We need to be characterizing this plant with the same level of detail as other pertinent molecular therapies. In doing so there are a lot of potential discoveries to be made and we might be able to unlock the future of medicine. A drug like Marinol, for example, has been met with mixed reviews because its only one dimensional. Furthermore, we find that the terpene molecules are tremendously beneficial and this interplay between cannabinoids and terpenes is something that we want to explore further. All and all we wish to further illustrate the therapeutic capacities of cannabis within the contexts of specific ailments and medical conditions, while discovering the medicine of the future.
On August 11, 2016, the widely anticipated Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announcement on federal cannabis policy yielded fairly anticlimactic results. According to the statement, the federal agency denied two petitions to reschedule cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted a scientific and medical evaluation that deemed cannabis “does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse.” The announcement reiterates the agency’s previous statements on the matter, stating that they believe clinical trials under the investigational new drug (IND) applications and the drug approval process are how the FDA can assess the safety and effectiveness of cannabis-derived medicine.
This avenue for bringing a cannabis-based drug to market is extraordinarily cost-prohibitive, allowing only pharmaceutical companies with deep coffers in the space. The DEA did however make one announcement in the statement that has the potential to lift many barriers to researching the plant’s medical value. The policy change allows more institutions to grow cannabis for research, which was previously allowed only at the University of Mississippi under a contract with NIDA. This is a very significant policy change that could be viewed as a step in the right direction. There is plenty of research currently that proves cannabis’ medical value and its safety and efficacy, but allowing more research opportunities signals that the DEA could be open to revisiting a rescheduling recommendation in the future.
One can speculate endlessly about when the DEA may reschedule cannabis, but in reality, no one knows when that might happen, no one knows what a new administration would do, if Congress would act on it or if the courts would. It seems even the FDA and DEA are sitting on their hands as the federal government does what they do best– inaction.
However, one important ruling in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit highlights the baby steps taken toward some form of federal acceptance of legal cannabis. The court ruled that the Department of Justice couldn’t prosecute individuals in states where cannabis is legal. More specifically, the court ruling “prohibits the Department of Justice from spending funds to prevent states’ implementation of their medical marijuana laws.” The ruling basically reaffirms the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which states that the DOJ cannot interfere with states where cannabis is legal, but this time also for those individuals complying with state law.
The DEA’s inaction on rescheduling cannabis should not be perceived as a loss to the legalization movement, rather as an upholding of the asinine status quo. Policy change in the United States is an arduous and very slow process. These things take time. One can look to the same-sex marriage movement and find striking similarities to the cannabis legalization movement. For example, Massachusetts and California were some of the first states to introduce legislation legalizing same-sex marriage and are also some of the first states that have introduced legislation legalizing cannabis. These states that are typically drivers of national policy have opportunities to pass important ballot initiatives this November that could have ripple effects throughout the country. Five states have ballot initiatives for recreational legalization and potentially up to eight states with initiatives for medical legalization, all being voted on this November.
What can the average citizen do to help with progress in cannabis legalization? For starters, you can vote. If you live in a state that has a ballot initiative for legalizing cannabis, show up at the polls and make your voice heard. If you live in a state where no such ballot initiative exists, you can still take action to get cannabis legalized. You can sign this petition or write your member of Congress to support the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act (S. 683). The CARERS Act, among many other important changes, would most notably reschedule cannabis to Schedule II.
So not all is lost with the DEA’s inaction. As more states legalize cannabis, we are seeing a rising tide lift all boats.
Studying cannabis genetics is a convoluted issue. Strain classification, medicinal effects and plant breeding are particular areas in the science of cannabis that still require heavy research. Marigene, a company researching cannabis genetics, is currently working with universities and research institutes to help map the cannabis genome and catalog genetic variation.
According to CJ Schwartz, Ph.D., chief executive officer and founder of Marigene, their mission is to “to classify, certify, and improve cannabis.” After studying genetics and cellular biology at the University of Minnesota, Schwartz received his Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin. His research in the past decade has focused on genetic variations that control flowering time, discovering the expression of a gene called Flowering Locus T leads to differential flowering time of plants and is dependent on their native locations. We sat down with Schwartz to learn more about his research and collaborative efforts.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Why are you researching mapping the cannabis genome?
CJ Schwartz, Ph.D: We seek to identify the genetic differences among cannabis strains and the genes responsible for these differences. Genetic differences are what cause different strains to have different effects. DNA allows reproducibility, consistency, and transparency for your cannabis strains.
The more information we gather about cannabis genetics, the more tools we have available to create tailored strains. Cannabis is a targeted compound. It interacts with a very specific system in the human body, similar to hormones, such as insulin. Understanding the cannabis genome will help bring legitimacy and integrity to cannabis products, and allow us to better understand how chemicals from cannabis interact with the human brain. Genetic identification can provide a method of certification to more comprehensively describe plant material.
CIJ:How did you get involved in cannabis research?
Schwartz: My interest in cannabis guided my research career. Cannabis may not be a cure-all, but it has significant and measurable medicinal effects for many patients.
To allow true development of cannabis products, we need more science! Our genetic analysis is required for normalization and acceptance of cannabis products, but also essential for future breeding efforts to develop better and more useful plants.
Our sister company, Hempgene, is applying all of the same technology and techniques for hemp research. One focus of Hempgene is to manipulate flowering time in select hemp cultivars so that they mature at the appropriate time in different environments.
CIJ:What do you hope to accomplish with your research?
Schwartz: We can develop or stabilize a plant that produces a very specific chemical profile for a specific condition, such as seizures, nausea or pain. By breeding plants tailored to a patient’s specific ailment, a patient can receive exactly the medicine that they need and minimize negative side effects.
The current term describing the interaction of cannabis compounds is called the entourage effect. Interactions among compounds can be additive or synergistic. The entourage effect describes synergistic effects, where small amounts of compound A (e.g. Myrcene) vastly increase the effects of compound B (e.g. THC). Instead of flooding one’s body with an excessive amount of chemicals to get a non-specific effect, cannabis plants can be bred to produce a very specific effect.
Currently our goal is to catalog the natural genetic variation of cannabis, and to identify DNA changes that affect a trait of interest. Once superior variants of a gene are identified, those variants can be combined, by marker-assisted breeding, to produce new combinations of genes. How different cannabis chemicals interact to produce a desired effect, and how different human genetics influence the efficacy of those chemicals should be the ultimate goal of medical marijuana research.
We are working closely with academic institutions and chemical testing labs to gather data for establishing correlations between specific cannabis strains and desirable chemical profiles. Our closest collaborator, Dr. Nolan Kane at UC-Boulder, is working to complete the Cannabis genomic sequence and generate the first high- resolution cannabis genetic map.
We are currently accepting samples and we produce a report in roughly two to three months. For one sequencing run, we identify 125 million pieces of DNA that are 100 base pairs long. We get so much information so there is a considerable time commitment.
New Frontier, a financial data analysis firm, recently released a report that caused a media frenzy over the cannabis industry’s alarmingly high energy bill. The Washington Post published an article with the headline “The Surprisingly Huge Energy Footprint of the Booming Marijuana Industry.” Denver news publication, Westword, posted an article with the headline “Legal Marijuana Used Over $6 Billion in Energy Last Year, Report Says.” There are dozens of articles published suggesting the legal cannabis industry’s energy consumption has a $6 billion price tag, which is misleading.
What’s the problem? The $6 billion figure that New Frontier cites comes from a 2012 research study that estimates the energy footprint for legal and illicit markets. That means the $6 billion estimate includes the legal cannabis industry and the black market’s energy footprint. To put it in perspective, the size of the entire legal cannabis industry in the United States was less than that in 2014 at $4.6 billion, according to the ArcView Group.
According to Giadha Aguirre DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, only including the legal market would significantly reduce the size of this estimate. “Dr. Mills’ study looked to assess the total energy use associated with marijuana in the US, not just that of the nascent legal marijuana industry; including this holistic view is an important growth determinant for the legal market as the U.S. transitions from a predominantly illicit production environment,” says Decarcer.
Dr. Evan Mills, energy analyst at the Department of Energy and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conducted the 2012 research study and is a senior advisor on the New Frontier report.
Brett Roper, founder and chief operating officer at Medicine Man Technologies, believes those numbers still need to be adjusted. “Dr. Mills’ study is based on pre-2011 data and sources that date back as far as 2003,” says Roper. “The study provides figures that are, quite frankly, outdated based upon changes in the industry related to cultivation and production efficiency.” The study focuses on cultivation increments of sixteen square feet consuming 13,000 KW per year that, according to Roper, is not reflective of current indoor cultivation technology and energy consumption metrics.
According to Roper, today’s efficiencies, scalable cultivation operations and new technology could explain the overestimate from five years ago. “We are a Tier III operator that produced approximately 5,100 (+/-) pounds of dried cured flower in 2015 and have a total power bill of approximately $420,000 for the year,” he says. Note that the company had roughly $18 million in revenue in 2015. “Using this metric we have a total energy billing of approximately $83 per pound grown.” According to Roper, they cultivate completely indoors with HPS lights that are not particularly energy-efficient, so this estimate is relatively conservative.
Dr. Mills’ research cites much higher numbers for the cost of energy per pound of finished product than Roper’s findings. “From the perspective of a producer, the national-average annual energy costs are approximately $5500 per module or $2500 per kilogram [roughly 2.2 pounds] of finished product,” says Dr. Mills. That would suggest the average cost of energy for indoor growing to be above $1,000 per pound, roughly half the current average wholesale price. These numbers would mean that cannabis growers, on average, lose roughly 50% of their total revenue to their energy bill. Medicine Man Technologies’ energy usage is less than 3% of their total revenue.
The New Frontier report does provide caveats on the use of Dr. Mills’ research. “While this analysis was conducted before many of the recent advancements in cultivation technologies, it highlights the significant energy-related environmental impact of marijuana production, and makes the issue of energy efficiency not just one of competitive advantage but also one of environmental sustainability.”
New Frontier’s CEO, DeCarcer, stresses that their report is intended to serve as a starting point to a much broader exploration of energy use in cannabis. “We are already in the process of establishing a partnership through which New Frontier will ingest real time energy-use data from cultivators across different legal markets for analysis in our next report,” says DeCarcer. “Our goal is to build on the work done by Dr. Mills and others in order to ensure that we are providing the most accurate representation of where the industry currently is, and where it is headed.”
Regardless of the discrepancies, this kind of discourse is great for prompting innovation and getting people to think about the environment. It is very important to examine the energy footprint of cannabis cultivation as it raises questions regarding energy efficiency, which would help the industry’s long-term environmental sustainability.
I am excited to look at the amount of success the cannabis industry saw in 2015 and know that 2016 and the next five to eight years will see even more growth. With the upcoming presidential election and ten states that have either a medical or adult use legalization initiative on their ballot, the industry could rapidly accelerate.
Five of the states listed are located on the East Coast. The industry has, almost solely, existed in the West and it is relieving to see the East finally catch on. We saw the East grow more of a presence in 2015 than any other year. New Jersey is beginning to settle into it’s market, Delaware is getting off the ground slowly, Maryland began accepting license applications and New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have initiated medical programs. Now, there are eight potential states in the Northeast that may vote on cannabis in 2016.
I predict that we will see the Northeast become very research focused. There are five ranked medical institutions in the North East Region alone.
Philadelphia in particular has an incredible opportunity to become a research hub in the industry. In Philadelphia, there are three medical schools ranked top 100 in the country, and one that is ranked in the top five. When colleges and universities with clout like this step out and back medical cannabis research, more are soon to follow suit.
Last year I spoke with Dr. Marcel Bonn-Miller, researcher and faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine. Dr. Bonn-Miller previously received two grants from Colorado to study the effects cannabis has on patients who suffer from PTSD.
While speaking with Dr. Bonn-Miller, we discussed how the University of Pennsylvania is involved with these studies. “Penn has always supported my work,“ he says. “They helped me all throughout the application process, making sure that I had everything I needed to receive the grants from Colorado.” Dr. Bonn-Miller also shared that he feels there are many opportunities for the other universities in Philadelphia to do the same.
When the industry loses the stigma people associate with cannabis, it will invite more professionals into the market, as well as top research programs. Currently not many top ranked organizations attempt to conduct research because of the difficulty to receive approval from the government.
“We’re only at the very beginning, essentially like being at the very beginning of Sir Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin as mold in a petri dish,” said Leslie Bocksor in an interview with CNBC. “That’s how it started, and now how broad are antibiotics as a category of medicine? In the same sense we’re just looking at the very beginning of cannabis.”
This industry is still relatively young. There is a tremendous amount that we have yet to learn until more research is done. When the barriers to research are removed, I believe we will see money put into research programs, helping to improve standards for quality and safety.
I had the pleasure of visiting the famous Dr. Raphael Mechoulam last month at his Hebrew University office just outside of Jerusalem, Israel. For those who may not have heard of him, Dr. Mechoulam is essentially the godfather of the endocannabinoid system. He is best known for his work in isolating and totally synthesizing delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Dr. Mechoulam is one of the leading recognized scientists in our field. Much of his work is focused on the nervous system, specifically how various acids, and particularly cannabinoids, bind to the nervous system and thus their effect on humans.
Dr. Mechoulam is a humble man whose energetic demeanor belies his age. He speaks six languages and continues working regularly even at the age of 86. His mind is as sharp as any 25 year old and, while our meeting was short, it lacked nothing in content.
His discoveries in cannabis have not been his only accolades and only represent about a third of his work in his accomplished life time. He has a vast number of papers and studies related to fatty and amino acids and their effect on the brain. The underlying principles of all of Dr. Mechoulam’s areas of study are similar and he has equally distinguished himself in these fields as he has in the realm of cannabis. Because of it’s taboo nature and the limited amount of sophisticated scientific research that cannabis has been subject to, Dr. Mechoulam is more widely recognized for this specific focus.
During our brief hour-long meeting, we discussed the impact of cannabinoids on cancer patients and bone marrow transplants, his cannabis research on schizophrenia as well as the role cannabis plays in diabetes patients – all topics on which he has volumes of published research but stressed the point that more research needs to be done; we have only scratched the surface.
Dr. Mechoulam is an inquisitive man who is always investigating, digging, and striving to understand more about the effects of cannabis, fatty, and amino acids on the brain. When asked what charge the cannabis and medical industries need to pursue, he stressed the need for more scientific studies to investigate the impact of cannabis not just on the brain but the entire human body, as well as the need for grants to help promote those studies. Dr. Mechoulam specifically stressed the importance that these studies employ scientific vigor in a responsible and legal manner.
He is man of high moral ground, inquisitive nature, and a thorough investigator. I am privileged and humbled to have met him and heed his call to bring sophisticated and responsible scientific studies to the forefront of the Cannabis Green Rush.