Quantifying Weed: Why We Need More Data on Our Dank
Quantifying dosage, potency and equivalencies between cannabis products is crucial to the future of legal marijuana in the US.
Image: Motherboard/Lili Emtiaz.
This November, voters in at least nine states will be heading to the polling stations to decide on whether they will be joining the four states where marijuana is already legal or the 25 states and Washington, D.C.,where it has been okayed for medicinal use. But even if all nine states pass their marijuana initiatives, legalizing pot for medicinal and recreational use is only half the battle for the champions of cannabis.
As states like Washington and Colorado discovered after voting to legalize, figuring out how to regulate a substance that was recently exclusive to the black market comes with its own unique set of challenges. Regulation is a multi-faceted process which involves setting standards for cultivators, dispensaries, and consumers. It encompasses everything from pesticide use and quality control tests to possession limits and serving sizes, all of which require significant amounts of data in order to create effective legislation.
The problem is that, for the most part, this data doesn't exist.
Although researchers have a pretty good handle on how the active compounds in marijuana (a class of chemicals known as cannabinoids) interact with the human body, they are missing a lot of practical information about things like the potency of the products being consumed by recreational users, the equivalencies between the effects of various cannabis products, or proper dosages for medicinal users.
This is mostly the result of entirely contradictory attitudes toward the plant on state and federal levels. Much of the regulatory oversight required by the cannabis industry is the purview of federal agencies like the DEA or FDA, both of which don't recognize marijuana as a substance with medicinal value. This is why states like California, which became the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, had almost no regulatory oversight on their cannabis products for two decades.
Nevertheless, this lack of dank data is slowly starting to change as more state-level cannabis industries prepare for the transition to a legal market.
"The cannabis plant is inherently safe, but commercialization of any product is dangerous," said Jahan Marcu, the senior scientist at Americans for Safe Access, a non-profit organization promoting cannabis research and its therapeutic uses. "Our biggest struggle right now is to get the industry ready for regulations before they happen so [cannabis operations] don't get shut down, sued, or fined out of existence."
Thanks to the efforts of people like Marcu, this past year has seen a host of new regulatory bills meant to standardize the production of marijuana (such as California's Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act), new methods of testing the potency of cannabis products, as well as attempts at determining dosage limits and quantifying consumption.
But despite these advances, cannabis has a long way to go before it's ready to transition to a federally regulated industry.
In 2014, the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times journalist Maureen Dowd took a trip to Colorado to indulge in some recently legalized marijuana-infused confections. Like many edible newbies, Dowd ended up eating an entire caramel chocolate bar when she didn't immediately feel the effects after a few bites. Predictably, she eventually became so stoned that she was "convinced that [she] had died." While Dowd's anecdote is full of hyperbole and tales of people jumping off of balconies after eating edibles (this actually happened, but doesn't make her story less stupid), it does point to a serious roadblock on the path to post-legalization regulation.
Dowd found out the hard way that legal marijuana can be incredibly potent (Colorado's legal buds average about 18.7 percent THC) and later learned that her chocolate bar should have had 16 clearly marked pieces to encourage consumption in smaller quantities. But even if it had been clearly labeled with instructions, this doesn't necessarily mean that Dowd would have been saved from her bad trip.
The fact of the matter is that while labs are able to test the potency of buds and marijuana extracts (such as oils or shatter) with a high degree of accuracy, the same is simply not true for edibles. In fact, research published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 83 percent of edibles tested in three states did not accurately report THC levels on their labels—60 percent had overstated THC content and 23 percent understated their potency.
According to Melissa Wilcox, an analytical chemist and consultant to the cannabis industry, there are several reasons for this epidemic of mislabeled edibles.
In the first place, many edibles do not have homogenous THC content—one corner of a brownie may contain significantly more THC than another, so the brownie's THC reading is going to depend on which area of the edible the lab tests. There are also many different types of cannabinoids in marijuana and if these aren't measured independently, then the percentage of delta-9 THC (the main psychoactive compound in marijuana) in the product will be significantly inflated. Furthermore, there is a stunning variety of edible products, ranging from classic cookies and brownies to lollipops, gummy bears, and beef jerky. For the handful of labs that have contracted with state governments to measure the potency of cannabis products, the sheer variety of edibles undermines their one-size fits all approach to testing.
Although there are many methods for testing bud for cannabinoids such as THC or CBD (the less psychoactive, but more medically beneficial chemical in marijuana), a lab will usually perform a liquid-liquid extraction followed by a high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) analysis. HPLC involves dropping the bud into a beaker of solvent such as methanol or chloroform, and running it through a pressurized column to isolate the mixture's components once the THC has been extracted into the solvent.
While this works great for flower, it isn't the best method for edibles—especially sticky ones like gummy bears or rice crispy treats which are often too dense for the solvents and as such won't give an accurate THC reading.
Extraction methods specifically geared toward edible analysis do exist, but due to the number of new edible products that come on the market every week, it's impractical for most labs to try to develop a different method of cannabinoid extraction for each new edible that shows up on their doorstep. To rectify this testing problem, Wilcox, Marcu, and a few colleagues developed a new method of edible cannabinoid extraction that can handle the wide variety of products on the market.
First, the cannabis product is combined with liquid nitrogen so that it is cold and brittle. It is then ground into a very fine powder, which is mixed with silica powder so that when the dust returns to room temperature it doesn't stick together. Next it undergoes a process called flash chromatography which separates the cannabinoids from the other substances in the product like sugar, dye or fat. Once the cannabinoids have been separated out they finally undergo HPLC, which is able to determine how much of each type of cannabinoid is in the product.
Wilcox and her colleagues presented their method to the American Chemical Society last March and are now doing method validation, which will allow them to determine exactly how much their new process improves the accuracy of THC readings for edibles by comparing it with other methods on the same process. But even if it turns out their readings on cannabis products are always 100 percent accurate, there will still be the question of how much of these products a consumer should take.
All states where marijuana is legal for recreational or medicinal use have put a cap on the amount of marijuana a consumer can buy or be in possession of at one time, which is usually one or two ounces. Ostensibly this law is to prevent consumers or patients from turning into black market dealers while also keeping them safe—even though you'd have to smoke about 1,400 pounds of marijuana in 15 minutes to induce a lethal effect.
Nevertheless, when Colorado voted to legalize in 2012, the law stated that consumers could purchase up to one ounce of marijuana "or the equivalent" in edibles or extracts. But this nebulous phrasing created a problem for budtenders in the dispensaries—after all, what exactly was the concentrate or edible equivalent of an ounce of bud?
To remedy this oversight, the Colorado legislature commissioned a study to determine equivalencies between cannabis products. Released last August, the Marijuana Equivalency in Potency and Dosage report was the first of its kind, and established metrics for comparing cannabis products according to three different equivalency matrices: physical, THC, and pharmacokinetic (the way drugs interact with the body).
To determine physical equivalencies, the co-founder of Colorado's Marijuana Policy Group Adam Orens and his colleagues wanted to create a "flower-based denominator" by tracing edibles and extracts back to their source—in other words, how much bud or trim was used to create the edible or extract.
To arrive at this equivalency, Orens interviewed a number of edible manufacturers and made extensive use of Colorado's Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance (METRC) database. METRC follows cannabis production in the state from seed to sale by outfitting the plants with RFID chips so that compliance officers know the exact location of any plant at any given time. In other words, when a grow op moves a plant from the veg room to the flower room, you can be sure someone in the Colorado government was aware of the transition.
There are a number of benefits to the METRC system (such as allowing state officials to prove that no marijuana is leaking out of the state into black markets, which helps keep the feds off their backs), but for Orens it allowed him to isolate plant input and extract/edible outputs to determine physical and THC equivalencies.
After combing through METRC data the researchers found that one ounce of bud is equivalent to about 347 to 413 edibles with 10mg of THC each, or between 3.1 and 5.5 grams of concentrated extracts. When they used the same process to determine THC equivalencies between products, Oren and co found that 434 edibles of 10mg each is equivalent to the THC content of one ounce of bud with average potency (calculated at 17.1 percent THC), or 6.9 to 8.5 grams of extract, depending on the solvent used.
The pharmacokinetic equivalency calculated by Orens and his colleagues was used to determine how different ways of consuming marijuana affected users by looking at the uptake routes and speeds of THC in different forms. Using a base ratio of 1mg of THC in edible form being equivalent to 5.71mg of THC in a smokeable form, the researchers found that one ounce of flower with 17.1 percent THC potency is equivalent to 83 servings of 10mg edibles or 7.72 grams of concentrated extract in terms of how high the users will get off the product.
While understanding the equivalencies between products is a good start, it still doesn't determine how much cannabis product a person should be using. For recreational users, this inability to accurately dose might mean the difference between a good and bad high; but for medicinal users, quantifying an individual's dosage requirements is often necessary to alleviate excruciating pain. Due to the federal government's strict rules on medicinal cannabis research, however, the information necessary to make informed dosage recommendations is all but non-existent. Fortunately the DEA just announced last week that it would be loosening its stranglehold on medicinal cannabis research and allowing more institutions to partake in the research process.
Igor Grant is a professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego and the director of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, where he and his colleagues have done extensive amounts of research on how vaporized and smoked cannabis affect patients suffering from a variety of maladies, especially neuropathic pain (a burning, hypersensitivity often experienced by people with HIV/AIDS). This has led to a number of interesting and medically significant results, such as the observation that low potency cannabis (between 2-4 percent) produces a benefit in patients suffering from neuropathic pain, which might help create dosing standards for these patients in the future.
"That's the way it is for other medicines: we don't just give somebody a bucket of penicillin and say, 'here—take it.'"
"If you're a patient with pain, you certainly want to know the scientific evidence that you should be taking cannabis with a certain potency and why that is the optimal dose," Grant told Motherboard. "That's the way it is for other medicines: we don't just give somebody a bucket of penicillin and say, 'here—take it.' The patient is prescribed an exact number of milligrams and the doctor will know based on past research that this is the dosage level needed to treat a staph infection, for instance. That's the place we're not at yet [with cannabis]."
As Grant pointed out, the main reason that dosage standards for cannabis patients haven't been more fleshed out has largely been the result of the federal moratorium on medicinal cannabis research. Today, all marijuana that is used for research purposes in the United States comes from a single dealer: the University of Mississippi. When people like Grant want to do research, they are legally required to obtain their cannabis from UMiss, which will supply marijuana to the researchers with varying degrees of potency—up to 12.4 percent THC.
The problem, of course, is that for medical marijuana patients in the United States, the marijuana they are receiving at dispensaries is highly variable in its THC content and is often far more potent than even the dankest UMiss bud. In other words, the medicinal cannabis research sanctioned by the feds doesn't reflect the reality of the 1.2 million medical marijuana patients in the United States.
Until this changes, medicinal marijuana research will be lacking in its ability to help patients, who (along with the roughly 700,000 US citizens arrested on petty marijuana charges each year) must ultimately bear the brunt of this prohibition.
POT'S QUANTIFIED FUTURE
Thankfully, the times are a changin'—albeit incredibly slowly.
Just last month the DEA announced that marijuana would remain a Schedule I controlled substance, which puts it alongside substances like heroin and MDMA as drugs that the federal government believes to have a high potential for abuse and no medical benefit (notwithstanding evidence to the contrary).
This announcement was a big finger to decades worth of research suggesting otherwise, but it wasn't all bad: the DEA also announced that it would be opening the doors for applications to grow federally regulated marijuana for research purposes. This would put an end to the University of Mississippi's monopoly on growing the government's pot and help doctors like Grant diversify their research capacities and develop dosing standards for medicinal cannabis patients.
In the meantime, Marcu, Wilcox, and Orens want to see greater collaboration between industry and government folk to develop potency testing and dosage standards at the state level. Industry groups like the cannabis wing of the American Herbal Products Association is already beginning to work on this, and has written a set of industry guidelines for cultivation, distribution, and analysis that has already been adopted by 16 states where medicinal and/or recreational marijuana is legal. The ideal would be the development of a regulatory body overseeing the national cannabis industry, but so long as marijuana remains illegal on a federal level this is unlikely to happen.
Marcu sees insular marijuana laws which prohibit the flow of the plant across state borders as becoming increasingly outdated and destined to be abolished once a critical number of states have legalized the plant. He envisions a future in which marijuana is an agricultural crop (growing weed outside is much more sustainable than grow houses) and regulated as such.
On the other hand, not all dank data will be used for good.
Colorado's METRC database is a prime example of the thirst for total sativa surveillance, which means that the likelihood of legalized states allowing individuals to grow their own plants at home is severely diminished. The war on home grow ops means that medicinal patients may not be able to afford to take marijuana as a medicine, which may ironically end up undercutting the state's data machines as people begin to buy more cannabis on the black market, where it is wildly less expensive.
Nevertheless, Orens views the surge in regulation as simply a temporary measure on the path to legalization—something of a data-driven assurance for those who are skeptical about marijuana's place in America.
"This is an industry in its infancy so I view all this stuff as growing pains," Orens said. "I feel that some of the most regulated times that we will see in the history of cannabis are right now and that will subside as this becomes a little more common and fewer states prohibit marijuana. The industry still has some steps to take, but I think we're on the right path."