In 2014, when legal pot was still fairly novel, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd decided to try some edibles during a trip to Colorado. Dowd took two bites of a chocolate bar and waited. For a while, nothing happened. Then, according to Dowd, “I felt a scary shudder go through my body and brain. … I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours.”
Seasoned cannabis users might find this story funny. But for the cannabis industry, anecdotes like this are no laughing matter. Right now, with cannabis legal in two-thirds of the states and a smattering of other countries, marijuana is a $12.2 billion business worldwide. It is expected to grow to $31.3 billion by 2022, according to BDS Analytics, but that growth is going to sputter at some point if cannabis businesses can’t attract lots of new users.
And for newbies to become enthusiastic, repeat customers, it’s going to be crucial that during their initial experiences, they don’t end up freaking out for eight hours.
The problem that Dowd experienced is one of dosing. It’s highly likely that if she had taken a much smaller nibble of the chocolate bar and sat with that small amount of THC for a few hours, she would have had a different and probably much better experience. But too often edibles don’t come with clear instructions about how much a user should consume. And unless someone tells you otherwise, it’s counterintuitive to, for example, eat only a quarter of a gummy bear.
Even when a bud tender (as the people who work at dispensaries are called) does a good job of guiding a new user on how much to take, they can’t always be sure how much THC will be in any given bite.
Then there’s the problem of strains. Marijuana is composed of two major strains, sativa and indica. Indica is supposedly the relaxing strain, while sativa is supposed to make you feel energized. There are plenty of hybrids of the plants (with colorful names such as Death Star and Grape Ape), but experts say lants have been bred so many times that there’s almost no such thing anymore as true indica or true sativa.
Research bears this out. Scientists in Canada did DNA testing on a number of cannabis strains. They found a serious disconnect between what the strains were being labeled as and what they actually were. Strains that were supposed to be different were often the same, and strains that were supposed to be the same were often different.
That makes marketing cannabis incredibly difficult. If a product promises to put a user to sleep but actually keeps them awake, that person isn’t going to keep using cannabis.
In order for the market to truly grow, cannabis has to become much more like alcohol. Most drinkers can predict how they’re going to feel after one glass of wine or a shot of bourbon. Some of that comes from experience, but largely it’s because there is consistency in alcohol levels across brands.
The cannabis companies that can figure out the dosing conundrum stand to make huge gains in the industry. California-based Cream of the Crop Gardens is hoping to lead the pack on dosing.
“We have a bone to pick with how strains are classified,” says Dustin Milner, co-founder of Cream of the Crop. “If you tell someone, ‘This is what you should expect from this product,’ you should have data to back up those claims.”
Milner and his co-founders, Jeff Richmond and Scott Raquiza, are working with scientists and hundreds of cannabis users to better classify their products. Cream of the Crop currently sells mostly flowers along with a product called Rest, which is a mix of cannabis oil, melatonin, valerian and other herbal extracts. But they are also conducting studies on how different strains actually affect people. Their test subjects are their thousands of followers on Instagram who happily do blind testing on different strains and report their experiences.
“We are looking for scientific data to support our claims,” says Milner. “We test every strain we produce, get a full terpene breakdown, get user feedback and then repeat that process to ensure it’s right.”
Terpenes, organic compounds within the plants, are the key not only to taste and texture but to the effects of different strains of cannabis. As they’ve conducted their field testing, Milner, Richmond and Raquiza have been able to gain a deeper understanding of which terpenes are present and which produce what effects at specific doses. Keeping quality consistent across different growing facilities can be challenging, which is why, for now, Cream of the Crop is focusing all of its growing in Desert Hot Springs, a town just outside Palm Springs. Eventually they hope to expand to other states.
As companies gain a deeper knowledge of terpenes, they’ll be able to offer users more control over their cannabis experiences. In that way, they’ll see fewer Maureen Dowds and more happy return customers