Cannabis education an early casualty of legalization, say industry insiders

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Legalization may be making it harder for cannabis users to truly understand what they’re putting in their bodies, industry insiders say.

That’s because the legal recreational industry has been limited in terms of what it can tell consumers about the properties of pot, so it’s turning to catchy — but vague and often meaningless — branding instead.

Cannabis laws have been modelled on those that regulate alcohol, and that’s a problem, says B.C. cannabis consultant Ehren Richardson.

“Alcohol is … a brand competition more than anything else,” said Richardson, who is also the director of a cannabis store that is looking to become a provincially licensed recreational outlet.

Modelling cannabis regulations on alcohol laws has created an environment that overlooks the unique chemical and cultural properties of the plant, argue advocates and industry players.

Modelling cannabis regulations on alcohol laws has created an environment that overlooks the unique chemical and cultural properties of the plant, argue advocates and industry players.

Richardson says many of the grey market dispensaries the government is now trying to eliminate focused on the unique chemical and cultural properties of the different strains of cannabis, guiding customers toward the product that was, in theory, best suited for their needs.

But walk into a legal cannabis shop today and you may see brand names such as Bliss or Relax.

There is some information on the strains available. B.C.’s provincial cannabis stores provide information such as which terpenes — compounds responsible for cannabis’s flavour and aroma, as well as for influencing other compounds in the plant — are dominant in a given strain.

Also listed are the potential range of cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD, a non-psychoactive compound thought to aid in treatment for ailments such as inflammation, pain, and cancer symptoms) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the compound responsible for the cannabis “high”) which a user may encounter in their cannabis.

The listed range of THC in a given recreational product, however, can be broad, with some listings only accurate to within 14 per cent.

These broad ranges have come as a shock to many cannabis users accustomed to the precise descriptions provided by grey market dispensaries, said Jamie Shaw, communications director at Pasha Brands, a cannabis brand house aimed at bringing prohibition-era craft growers into the legal stream.

Shaw argues that legalization’s overwhelming emphasis on public safety has stifled decades worth of grassroots knowledge developed by generations of growers in Canada, but especially in British Columbia, the home of the world-famous “B.C. bud.”

Cannabis laws focused almost exclusively on keeping cannabis out of the hands of youth and criminals have created a collateral loss of valuable, anecdotal insight that, advocates say, could help guide, inform and educate customers while the scientific study of cannabis matures.

Cannabis retail workers in the legal market, meanwhile, are entirely prohibited from speaking about the product, Shaw explained.

“If I ask the retailer what strains are less likely to (have a particular, undesired effect), they’re not allowed to tell me, because it’s not a medical product and they’re not allowed to make medical claims about it,” Shaw told Star Vancouver.

But she said anyone who uses cannabis deserves access to specific, accurate information, if not expertise, given the complicated ways in which the plant’s compounds influence one another.

Cannabis contains more than 100 cannabinoids, although few have been studied to the extent THC and CBD have.

Aside from terpenes, cannabis also contains roughly 20 known flavonoids — compounds that influence the aroma, flavour and colour of plants, and may have their own pharmacological effects — some of which can only be found in cannabis.

All of these compounds interact to produce a unique effect — a phenomenon known as the “entourage effect” — which means two strains containing the same THC to CBD ratio can provide wholly different user experiences.

Noah Kauffman is head of sales for Strainprint, a company that provides a digital “journaling” service for cannabis users. The Strainprint database allows users to track their personal experience of different cannabis strains, including how much was taken and which way it was consumed.

In the absence of conclusive and widespread science around how unique cannabis strains affect unique users, Kauffman said Strainprint aims to provide a kind of crowdsourced database to help guide consumers toward choices that will more predictably provide them with a desired experience.

Strainprint currently boasts roughly 1.2 million patient-reported outcomes, according to Kauffman, each of which relies on 56 unique data points — meaning their database is built on more than 60 million individual pieces of data.

Kauffman recounted recently looking at seven different cannabis strains, all with the same THC and CBD levels, to see how users reported their effects on muscle pain.

“I had seven strains, and there was a downward-angled line for efficacy. So one was really good (at treating muscle pain), and one was really bad,” he said in an interview. It was a striking example of how THC and CBD levels provide only a nominal indication of what a particular cannabis strain will do.

This underscores, he added, the importance of what he called “terpene transparency” — a detailed account of which compounds are present in a strain, and in what amounts.

Such transparency is especially important in the nascent recreational market, through which many newer or less-informed cannabis users are likely to encounter the plant for the first time, said Daniel Laflamme, president and co-founder of Canna Farms, a federally licensed medical cannabis producer.

Canna Farms has developed a simple colour-coding system to inform its clients which terpenes are present in its products, and in which amounts. Laflamme said this “allows consumers to make educated decisions.”

“Having as much knowledge as possible allows cannabis consumers to make better purchasing decisions when purchasing products with known, consistent compositions,” he told Star Vancouver in an email.

Failing to provide more detailed information can lead to a lack of brand integrity, he added, noting a strict emphasis on lifestyle appeal is not only a disservice to consumers, but could eventually hurt a company’s bottom line. Better informed customers, he argued, are also more loyal.

“If you liked the effects of a product last time you used it, you may want to continue buying it, over time becoming loyal to that brand. Repeat positive experiences … builds confidence in the consumer,” he wrote.

“Product knowledge provides talking points, similar to fine wine or craft beer. … With cannabis, knowing (the granular details) typically provides the consumer with a much greater attachment to the product and (will) lead them, when the results are excellent, to become a loyal client.”

Richardson, the consultant, said many cannabis producers and brands have begun to invest heavily in clinical studies to ground anecdotal experience in hard science, which he called “a promising thing.”

But without more effort by players across the recreational market to move away from lifestyle branding exercises and toward a culture of education, Richardson said he feared hauling the industry completely out of the shadows would prove impossible.

“I would like to see more data available from cannabis products in the legal market, because it's going to be important for West Coast consumers to be able to transition to the regulated market,” he said.

“They need to understand what they're getting themselves into, otherwise they're going to be going back to their old sources.”

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