The increased legalization of cannabis worldwide has driven a corresponding growth in research and development. The industry has progressed from foundational products like marijuana flower, typically high in THC, the compound known for producing the “high,” to derivative products such as vapes, edibles, and even hemp-based non-psychotropic CBD.
Remember when weed was almost certain to give you the “munchies?” That’s not the case anymore with the industry moving into deep research on other cannabis compounds. THCV, or tetrahydrocannabivarin, is a cannabis compound that delivers an energetic and euphoric high along with appetite-suppressing qualities and today can be found in marijuana dispensary products.
More and more, formulation technologies, which serve as the bridge between the active components and the finished product, play an increasingly important role in cannabinoid product development. Proper formulation strategies lead to products with increased efficacy, better dose control, decreased variability, and increased patient acceptance and legal compliance.
As the industry grows and becomes more competitive, optimization of these processes is vital to maximizing yields, while minimizing costs and waste. In addition, cannabis innovation is driving new approaches to extraction or post-extraction processes, which are often utilized to clean up the raw extracts or transform them into consumer products.
The competitive nature of the industry, coupled with consumer demand, is also fueling the development of new and innovative dosing methods that allow safer, more precise ingestion of cannabis. Most medications are prescribed with a particular dosage based on the patient’s age, sex, height, weight, and medical condition, as an informative blog post from Canabo Medical Clinic explains. Pointing out that medical cannabis “isn’t quite as linear” because different patients experience the effects they need with low doses, while others require higher ones to find similar symptom relief.
What if your bottle of aspirin had these instructions: “Just grab a handful and pop ’em!” Sadly, this is pretty much what the cannabis industry tells medicinal patients.
The science of all this will be a lively one in 2019. I expect to see more research studies, findings, formulation strategies and product development insights from scientific leaders online and in conference rooms in this “year of CBD.”
I spoke with Ken Snoke, co-founder, and president of the Emerald Conference (EC), about what marijuana advocates and scientists consider the most pressing policy and research issues of the year. Self-regulation and consumer safety in the absence of federal oversight topped his list. “The use of flavor additives in inhaled cannabis products requires much more examination,” Snoke told me.
Research suggests that many of the first-generation flavor constituents used in cannabis flavoring have a detrimental medical impact on users. “Understanding flavor and the desired outcome within the constraints of consumer and patient safety is imperative,” Snoke continued.
Non-universality in cannabis testing will continue to be a well-debated topic in 2019, a few topics have raised so much interest and controversy as variance in test results. It’s somewhat to be expected in the nascent stages of cannabis plant discovery. “Variability is a law of nature, so it’s not going away and it’s critically important for our industry to look at proposals on how to best manage this,” Snoke said.
Questions cannabis researchers and producers are asking
These are five trending political, scientific, and clinical cannabis questions that are attracting lots of attention by clinicians, researchers, policymakers, and producers alike.
Cannabis chemotyping, grammar, and symbols
Cannabis is an entirely new world for scientists, who were largely unable to access the plant for research in days past. The process of categorizing cannabis into sets by their natural product content is still a long way from complete in the industry’s nascent stages. The effectiveness of cannabis to deliver the desired outcome depends on the interaction of several or all of the active ingredients found in the plant as a whole. Classifications far beyond “Sativa” and “Indica” designations are needed that connect with actual user experiences.
Speaking with Jack Rudd of Analytical Cannabis, Peter Harrington, professor of chemistry at Ohio University, explained the goal of chemotyping as “the process of grouping cannabis into classes based on their observed chemical composition, correlate these groups with desired pharmacological properties, so that industry can have some quality control over products and provide an avenue to achieve personalized medicine.”
Medical cannabis growers also produce hybrid strains that contain properties of both indica and sativa. These strains generally have THC and CBD content that falls within the spectrum of either type, allowing patients more personalized treatment for their unique medical issues.
Personalized cannabis is key to acceptance and use of the plant by new and cannabis-averse consumers and the future of the cannabis industry. Chemotyping and cannabis personalization will be critical components of establishing cannabis as a mainstream medicinal alternative.
Concepts and controversies in emerging evidence
If you thought the argument over the efficacy of cannabis was intense before, just wait until the more reputable institutions begin conducting research in earnest. Especially if and when federal legalization of the plant gives more access to research. Questions abound regarding the true benefits and risks of marijuana, and the promise for its use in fighting disease.
Recently, the wildly popular Joe Rogan podcast featured a lively standoff between two opposite-end cannabis personalities. Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter and author of “Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence” faced off with Dr. Michael Hart, the founder and medical director of ReadyToGo, a medical cannabis clinic in Ontario, Canada. In the end, both disagreed on the overall efficacy of cannabis. More evidence will emerge this year about possible uses for cannabis, but don’t expect that to quell the debate.
When it comes to treating opioids, public health surveys have provided evidence for decreased opioid use with medical cannabis. The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found that states with medical cannabis are associated with a 25% reduction in average opioid overdose mortality rates. The concepts, controversies and emerging evidence from this type of pre-clinical and clinical cannabis research are being investigated and argued now, more than ever.
Regulating terpenes and flavor additives for inhalable cannabis products
Just as tobacco evolved from its raw form and taste to accommodate a variety of others, cannabis concentrates, vape pens, and metered-dose inhalers have done the same. Regulations, however, have not been established for these. While similar policy exists for inhalable tobacco and nicotine products, applying that model for cannabis formulations has distinct challenges.
“Terpenes are incredible, natural compounds that provide unique aroma, taste and medicinal properties in plants. However, they can be dangerous and even toxic if vaporized at high temperatures or consumed in high concentrations,” Peter Calfee, CEO of Gofire, a digital healthcare company focused on alternative medicine company told me. He reiterates that right now, the onus is on consumers to monitor their personal consumption. “Thankfully, technology is starting to catch up with products that allow for precise dosage and temperature control, ensuring safety in utilizing compounds like terpenes,” he said.
Genetic testing to map cannabis effects with different users
Using the most advanced DNA sequencing tools, billions of DNA molecules can be sequenced in parallel for comprehensive genetic classification of cannabis strains. When 23 and Me became the first consumer-based genetic testing company, Technica Botanica Chief Scientific Officer, Steve Ottersberg, MS. found a niche in integrating 23 and Me data with clinical lab data to generate precisions medicine treatment plans based upon the patient’s biochemical individuality.
Just a year ago, there was no comprehensive way to test one’s unique DNA and align it with the latest research to predict how humans may respond to cannabis. Endocanna Health “Cannabinoid DNA Variant Test™” introduced a home test in the summer of 2018 At the time, Len May, Endocanna Health co-founder and CEO, explained the technology was designed to provide individuals with the tools and confidence to incorporate cannabis into their lives using the most up-to-date research available today. “Information that is accurate, but most importantly personal and unique to an individual’s DNA,” May said.
As Ottersberg explained, you can think of Endocanna Health as the 23 and Me of cannabis. Like 23 and Me, Endocanna Health uses a DNA sample to screen for mutations known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Humans are diploid, meaning we carry a set of DNA from each parent, where we, as humans, inherit SNPs from our parents. SNPs can have a profound influence on how we respond to drugs, nutritional supplements and determines our individuality of response to cannabis.
As the market evolves and new consumers who’ve never been exposed to cannabis before begin to consider its use, the closer the industry can map predicted experience with unique genetic profile, the lower the hurdle becomes to selling product.
Optimization of the decarboxylation reaction in cannabis extract
The production of cannabis extracts and oils for both medicinal and recreational products has increased significantly due to greater market demand brought on by legalization and patient demand for a greater diversity of cannabis products. Most cannabis extraction processes undergo a decarboxylation step, whereby the carboxylic acid functional group is removed from the cannabinoids converting the naturally occurring acid forms to their more potent neutral forms. In other words, this is the chemical process that gives weed its high THC content.
The cannabis industry has a lack of universal agreement as to the optimal reaction conditions for the decarboxylating cannabis extract. “Not only does the industry lack universal agreement as to the conditions for optimal decarboxylation but there is a disagreement about which stage in the extraction process provides the optimal results for decarboxylation,” Kellan Finney, consultant KBF Scientific told me in a written interview.
This discrepancy in the industry is a result of strain variance and cultivation techniques and environment, which results in diversified chemical profiles which in turn affects the matrix of the extract preventing standardization of the decarboxylation reaction. “Until the OG Kush grown in Southern California is the same as the OG Kush grown in Colorado and Maine the industry will continue to lack universal agreement on these chemical processes,” Finney pointed out.
I spoke with Colorado-based Mile High Xtractions who has optimized the decarboxylation process for their distillate by using a special heat step which results in a fully activated, consistent, pure, and potent product. “Whether the consumer is vaping our product at a low temperature or infusing it into their favorite food,” Tom Gray, owner of Mile High Xtractions said, “consumers are getting all the available THC from their distillate.” But this is just one of many approaches being used and tested.