The surface of a Cannabis sativa plant, showing glandular cells called trichomes that secrete a resin containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active component of cannabis when used as a drug.
AUTHOR: NICK STOCKTON
NOBODY KNOWS HOW HIGH YOU ARE RIGHT NOW—IT’S REALLY HARD TO MEASURE
PARTY PEOPLE, LISTEN up: You need to know your limits. In fact, non-party people, too. But how can you, when there’s almost no way of knowing if that cannabis-infused lollipop is going to get you bong-rip high, or just puff-on-a-jay lifted? For that matter, what is in this joint, because right now you are feeling way more lit than usual.
To wit, no reliable method exists to tell you exactly how high that joint, edible, dab, or bong rip will get you. (Actually, I’m pretty confident that a bong rip is going to get you incredibly high.) This is important, because marijuana is going mainstream. Many of its new customers aren’t lifelong stoners, and want an experience similar to, say, a Budweiser: a predictably intoxicating experience. Problem is, cannabis is one hell of a puzzling drug. Its many compounds can play with your body’s chemistry in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. But the industry is getting closer to a reliable weed label, and in the meantime learning some great science.
“Cannabis is the most phytochemically complex plant on the planet,” says Jeremy Plumb, chemist and owner of Portland-based Newcleus Nursery and the dispensary Farma. Certainly more complex than alcohol. Weed’s most famous ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It gets you high. It can also make you anxious. Cannabidiol is the yin to THC’s yang. It’s non-psychoactive, and Plumb says it levels out THC’s high and attenuates anxiety.
But those are just the big two.Cannabis has at least 60 cannabinoids, many of which can alter your body in different ways, along with other chemicals like terpenoids and flavonoids that can complicate the plant’s effects even more. So this is step one to creating a reliable weed label: Standardize the plant. If you’re sure you’re selling the same bud over and over again, consumers can keep better track of what—and how much—they like.
Standardization is incredibly difficult, though. “If I gave you, and three other producers, the exact same cannabis genotype, let’s say a blackberry Kush, and you all grow it out, you might think that the plants have consistent attributes,” says Plumb. “But that is not the case.” Cannabis plants are incredibly sensitive to environmental factors. Maybe your grow room was two degrees warmer than another grower’s. Your humidity was lower. You harvested a day later. You used your own homebrewed fertilizer. Your lights were a watt brighter. “I’ve seen incredible variance in the THC levels of flowers grown closer to the lights,” says Plumb. “I had one indoor plant where the topmost branches closest to the light were 29 percent THC, the middle were 19 percent, and in shaded undergrowth, 9 percent.”
And then you have to ensure that all those plants do indeed have all the same chemical profile. Which means you need to hire some decent chemists and give them access to good mass spectrometry equipment. “Labs can’t function on 100 bucks for three hours of analytical work,” says Plumb. Those labs exist—Plumb says his is one of them—but no regulation exists that makes sure the chemistry in his lab is the same that is being used in the lab down the street, or in Colorado, or wherever. Oregon, which legalized recreational weed last year, is working on rules that could help keep tests more consistent…