There is a high probability that the following scene has played out at least once in your life: after passing a joint around a smoke circle, one person can’t stop laughing at the painting they insist is moving, another is proclaiming the profundities of Kenrick Lamar’s lyricism, and yet another is “resting their eyes”. While humorous to observe the panoply of personalities, this setting provides an important observation. The cannabinoids and terpenes found in different cannabis products interact with everyone’s internal biochemistry differently.
Naturally, aspects of your lifestyle like how much exercise you’ve been getting, your sleep patterns, and diet all play a role in how you’ll respond to a cannabis product on any given day. However, the most critical factor is the makeup of your endocannabinoid system — the chemicals and neurons in your brain and body that respond to cannabinoids. Your DNA holds the specific instructions for how your endocannabinoid system gets “wired up” compared to other people, permitting for individual differences in reactions to cannabis.
A Quick Introduction to DNA
DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is a long molecule that contains the instructions for building every single part of an organism. DNA is made up of four compounds that pair up: (A) Adenine, (T) Thymine, (C) Cytosine, and (G) Guanine. 99.5% of the base pair combinations that make up humans are identical from person to person. The .5% difference is what makes you unique. Variants are the genetic differences that make up that .5%.
You may be familiar with the term “gene”, which is simply a section of DNA that carries the codes for making and organizing specific molecules that eventually serve as the building blocks for different parts and functions of an organism. Variants at specific genes have been identified as the determinants for thousands of different traits, from whether you’ll have blue or green eyes to whether or not you’ll have muscular dystrophy. As new research is conducted on cannabis and the body, more genetic links that can predict your response to cannabis are beginning to surface.
How Your DNA Affects Your Cannabis Consumption
With genes holding the instructions for the creation of enzymes and proteins that go on to make up all the constituents of your brain and body, it is a small leap of understanding to see how variants at specific genes can affect your endocannabinoid system and, subsequently, your experience with cannabis.
An extreme example of this is Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency (CECD) — a genetic condition where the carrier’s body produces significantly less endogenous cannabinoids and receptors as compared to a healthy person. CECD presents an obvious linkage between DNA and cannabis use: if you carry a gene for CECD, you will require substantially more cannabis in order to achieve the same effects as someone without that gene. Other genetic links that predict your response to cannabis can be a bit more insidious.
Take the genes CYP2C9 and CYP2C19 for example; they code for an enzyme that breaks down THC and CDD respectively. Variants on these genes can make the enzymes they create up to 30% less effective. This means that consumers with those variants would be less effective in breaking down THC and CBD.
This breakdown process is a critical variable to consider when ingesting chemicals. In fact, some pharmaceuticals specifically take this breakdown system into account by creating drugs that inhibit the breakdown of endogenous chemicals so that they can remain effective longer and produce “more” of their intended outcome. For example, SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors; the leading anti-depressant) delay the breakdown of serotonin (a positive mood-regulating neurotransmitter) in the synapse (the small space that allows transmission of neurotransmitters across neurons) so that an individual’s serotonin (which is usually not as present in depressed populations) can continue to operate, yielding a “happier” person. Similarly, the sluggish breakdown of THC will result in a user feeling “higher” for longer. Unfortunately, this also creates drowsiness in users with the variant for up to three days after initial consumption.
Naturally, insights into which variants on the CYPC9 and CYP2C19 an individual has can help guide dosage and titration models as well identify which product categories to choose. For example, a consumer that is pre-disposed to sub-optimal breakdown would be wise to choose vape products over edible since inhalation bypasses what is known as first-pass metabolism, which occurs in the liver after during digestion of edible. Such information into drug metabolism has fueled the burgeoning field of pharmacogenetics, where medical doctors take a personalized approach to pharmaceutical medication based on the patient’s DNA.
DNA Insights for Personalized Cannabis Use
The effectiveness of cannabis as a treatment option for a wide variety of disorders and diseases, coupled with the reliability of DNA in determining an individual’s likelihood of developing a particular condition, provides an access point for preventative precision cannabis medicine, customized as a function of the consumer’s genetic predispositions.
Taking into account the tens of thousands of cannabis products and strains available on the legal market, there exist a plethora of options with varying cannabinoid and terpene ratios — the most critical variables that determine the different effects and medical benefits of cannabis.
Such a range of products, coupled with an understanding of one’s DNA, allows for a personalized product selection by connecting the dots across different research findings. These biomarkers can create even more precise recommendations that go much further than just warning an individual that they should shy away from edibles.
For example, a host of genes can predispose someone to developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. On the other side of the equation, studies have shown that pinene (a terpene found in cannabis and other plants like pine trees) has a neuroprotective effect that specifically enhances memory. Cannabis users with such predispositions wanting to take preventative health measures could do so by routinely choosing cannabis products high in pinene.
Similar associations exist for users with a tendency to develop schizophrenia or have psychotic episodes, where low-THC, high-CBD products can provide anti-psychotic effects. Similar reasoning applies to individuals at a high-risk for cancer being able to take advantage of high-THC, anti-cancer products.
Cannabis DNA tests like Strain Genie look at over 150 such biomarkers to generate personalized cannabis consumption suggestions.
As regulation allows for scientists to gain access to cannabis for research studies, more insights that can help predetermine the effectiveness of cannabis use at the level of an individual is certainly on the horizon. Other avenues could also provide insights as to other aspects of cannabis use as well. For example, new research from 2018 has even unveiled 35 genes that make you 11% more likely to be a cannabis consumer and revealed an interesting overlap in cannabis use with a gene (CADM2) that has been traditionally associated with risk-taking. Information such as this, combined with genes that predispose individuals for abuse could be used to guide scheduled tolerance breaks.
Regardless of the application, additional research into DNA, cannabinoids, and terpenes promises to refine the personalized approach to cannabis that all consumers should consider taking.
THC: This Cannabinoid Is the Reason You Get High From Weed
THC may be best known as a euphoriant that delivers a psychoactive effect, it also offers a multitude of medicinal benefits.
Of the 113 cannabinoids that have been discovered in the cannabis herb, none is more infamous than tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Responsible for most of the psychoactivity and euphoria of cannabis, this cannabinoid does more than merely give suburban soccer moms a modicum of stress relief and college students ravenous munchies.
With all due respect to the molecules caffeine and ethanol, probably no other molecule in the history of humanity has been as misunderstood, stigmatized, or politicized as THC. From the reefer madness era of the late 1930s to the stereotype-laden films of Cheech and Chong in the 1970s to more recent movies like Pineapple Express (based on the name of a popular strain of cannabis), the truth about THC and its efficacy for humans often evades laypeople who consume content from only national media outlets.
The medicinal benefits of the molecule are numerous, ranging from relaxation and pain relief to appetite stimulation and sedation (great for insomniacs). Negative effects of this molecule include intense appetite stimulation (with predictable gastrointestinal consequences the following day), dry mouth, potential short-term memory impairment, paranoia and panic attacks (especially with sativa strains), and lethargy (typically in indica varieties).
The Details of THC
While THC may be best known as a euphoriant that delivers a psychoactive effect, it offers a multitude of medicinal benefits that far exceed the fabled “stoner” mannerisms of lethargy and forgetfulness. Despite its delivery of what is sometimes a potent euphoric effect (especially for new consumers), it is impossible to overdose on THC.
Assuming moderate and reasonable consumption levels, cannabis can serve as a positive lifestyle enhancement that delivers stress relief, mental wellness, improved energy levels, and even performance enhancement. Strains featuring relatively potent levels of THC include Blueberry, Ghost Train Haze, Master Kush, Trainwreck, and White Rhino.
Predicting the exact potency and efficacy of a particular strain of cannabis is difficult for a variety of reasons. For example, a theory called the Entourage Effect identifies how other cannabinoids and their aromatic cousins called terpenes can modify the effects of other cannabinoids and terpenes, including buffering or amplifying the effect or potency of THC.
One distinct characteristic of the molecule is tolerance building. While a subjective area of cannabis efficacy, tolerance building for daily consumers can be significant. To combat this problem, some indulge in a decades-long practice dubbed a tolerance break, during which they significantly decrease or cease consumption for between a few days and a week.
The Research on THC
A 2011 study conducted by cannabis research pioneer Dr. Ethan Russo entitled “Taming THC: Potential Cannabis Synergy and Phytocannabinoid-terpenoid Entourage Effects” and published in the British Journal of Pharmacology provides a critical overview of THC’s medical benefits.
Concluded Russo and his team, “THC is the most common phytocannabinoid in cannabis and…is a partial agonist at CB1 and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2),” pointing out the herb’s myriad medical applications, including “activities as a psychoactive agent, analgesic, muscle relaxant, and antispasmodic.”
Russo’s team concluded that THC also functions as a bronchodilator and neuroprotective antioxidant while featuring 20 times the anti-inflammatory power of aspirin and twice that of hydrocortisone.
Everything You Need to Know About Microdosing Weed
There are great reasons for microdosing weed including medical conditions that benefit from it, and a few different ways to achieving the perfect dose.
Microdosing is the latest craze in cannabis. It has been utilized for some time, both with cannabis and LSD, but only now is the mainstream getting hip to the low dose strategy. There are great reasons for microdosing weed including medical conditions that benefit from and improve because of it, and a few different ways to achieving that perfectly sensible dose.
Wait, First… What Is It?
Microdosing weed is when a person consumes very small amounts of cannabis in order to receive the benefits of whole plant medicine (THC, CBD, terpenes, etc) while experiencing very little to none of the “high.” It isn’t for those times when you want to get ripped and watch an entire season of Westworld and chow down, it is not going to produce that kind of experience. It is more or less a medical use technique that can be utilized day to day without affecting one’s overall state of mind. It is basically the opposite of a dab or trying to find the biggest pre-roll with the highest THC strain you can.
So Why Microdose?
As cannabis becomes more popular, and more people want to harness its power, the demand for less psychoactive pot rises. Not everyone likes to get the giggles, or the munchies, or the long trains of thought that tend to present themselves when a person gets stoned. Others do enjoy the laughing, eating and philosophizing but need something more manageable during their work day and family time.
Microdosing to the rescue. Now you can get just a little high, without any of the headiness or outward signs that you have been consuming anything at all.
Family reunion? Microdose.
Big meeting at work? Microdose.
Irritatingly long wait at the DMV? You guessed it – microdose.
More seriously, if you work a 9-5 and suffer from back pain from sitting at your desk all day long – you could be microdosing to alleviate those aches and pains without making it obvious that you are medicating with cannabis throughout the day.
Potential Medical Benefits
Unfortunately, because cannabis is a Schedule I drug, the federal government claims that it has no medical value and therefore has not been studied as much as it should be. Most scientific studies on that have been completed on cannabis consumption are animal based. While many of those animal studies can absolutely translate to apply to human beings, it is certainly not the same as results garnered from actual human studies.
There have been studies on the benefits of administering low doses of synthetic cannabis pharmaceuticals in humans. Those results are typically positive in regards to microdosing. However, like the animal studies, results from synthetic cannabis studies do not fully represent the results that could be gathered from studying real, naturally sourced marijuana.
With that said, there are incredible amounts data supplied by cannabis users, and a bevy of recorded favorable results, that go toward proving that marijuana is an effective way to treat a variety of medical conditions. Microdosing can help almost anything that using cannabis will – just in a much smaller and more controlled way. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), insomnia, glaucoma, nausea, wasting syndrome, and moderate pain are just a few of the conditions that can benefit from microdosing weed. However, medical issues like cancer and epilepsy, that are treated with large amounts or very concentrated forms of cannabis, are not necessarily best suited for treatment with microdosing.
Think of it like this… if you have achy muscles you can take an over the counter pain reliever twice a day for relief but if you have severe pain in your joints and muscles that requires a prescription painkiller, the over the counter medicine isn’t really going to make a dent. The same can apply for microdosing. If your condition can be treated throughout the day in small doses, microdosing could be a beneficial, natural way to treat the problem. If you only experience relief from consuming an entire joint or 100 mg edible, microdosing is likely not going to be the best way to alleviate the issue.
Start low and find your sweet spot.
Consumption Options for Microdosing Weed
Microdosing weed can be achieved a few ways.
An oil cartridge and vape pen is one of the easiest ways to consume small, controlled doses of cannabis. A vape pen is discreet, clean, and odorless. Many vape pens have an auto-shutoff after a few seconds, so doses can be regulated with ease.
Edibles are another great way to microdose. Infused food or candy manufacturers have caught on and started producing products in smaller doses in order to service the microdosing market. Edibles of yesteryear could only be found in 50 mg, 100 mg or higher dosages. Now, you can purchase a bag of candies infused with 2.5 mg, 5 mg or 10 mg.
You can also microdose with smoked cannabis, but it is more difficult to do so covertly. If keeping your use under wraps is important, smoking cannabis should be your last choice due to the lingering smell alone. However, a loaded one-hitter or chillum is an adequate way to limit the dose you consume while still benefiting from the plant’s medical properties.
Whether you vape, eat, or smoke cannabis to microdose is up to you. In many circumstances and for many medical conditions, microdosing can be a better option than an all-out cannabis consumption free for all — less fun, sure, but not everyone is after the same experience with weed. As cannabis becomes more widely accepted, so does the trend of microdosing. Give it a shot, see if the shoe fits!
Why Independent Third-Party Cannabis Testing Is Important
During cultivation, the cannabis plant acts like a sponge. It absorbs everything it is exposed to, from pesticides, nutrients, and heavy metals present in the soil. For these reasons, it is essential that reputable and reliable third-party labs carry out cannabis testing to assure safety and efficacy of the product.
Lab testing of cannabis products is an essential part of the regulated market’s supply chain. It detects offensive chemicals or contaminants that can lead to adverse health effects when consumed, while additionally providing cultivators and retailers with efficacious cannabinoid and terpene profiles of legal cannabis products.
In Canada’s regulated market, batch release quality control testing is required for potency and product safety, so it is necessary to measure substances like pesticides, mycotoxins, bacteria, and molds. Unfortunately, reports on potency and contaminants can vary from lab to lab, while recalls of contaminated products threaten consumer trust of legal products.
Sigma Analytical Services is a full-service pesticide, elemental, molecular, genetic, and pathogen analysis laboratory for cannabis, hemp, and cannabis-derived products. It delivers reliable science for cannabis products to the cannabis industry and cannabis consumers.
Cannabis Aficionado spoke with Ashton Abrahams, co-founder and COO of Sigma Analytical Services, to learn more about the importance of cannabis testing and Sigma’s strict processes.
Cannabis Aficionado: Tell me about your entrepreneurial journey to cannabis.
I’m a serial entrepreneur with over 20 years of experience in starting and growing several successful ventures. In 2017, when Canada was in the process of legalizing cannabis, my partner and I saw an opportunity to focus on a different side of the new cannabis industry — ancillary testing and quality reassurance requirements. We knew there would be new products in the market, and they would all require testing. So, we started a testing lab that focused on cannabis and cannabis products, and this is how Sigma started.
What sets Sigma apart from other testing labs?
We want to ensure products available in this new market are efficacious and safe, and ensure the levels of both remain consistent. Sigma is the only GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) certified, cannabis-focused lab in Canada and the only cannabis-focused lab with cross-continental operations. We developed and validated our methods back in 2018 and 2019, so we are the frontrunner in Cannabis 2.0 product testing and are set up to test a comprehensive list of cannabis products — including flower, edibles, beverages, and topicals.
Sigma also has validated methods for quantifying and testing 16 cannabinoids and 43 terpenes — one of the highest in the market — and our analytical and microbiology tests are compliant with Health Canada, EU, and US Pharmacopeia.
Additionally, Sigma was awarded the Best Cannabis Lab/Testing Facility in Canada at the Grow Up 2019 awards.
What need does Sigma fill in the global cannabis industry?
Sigma brings reliable science that is already available in food and pharma to the cannabis industry, its products, and consumers.
Cannabis, food, and pharma share certain quality requirements. However, there is a big difference: in terms of quality assurance, food and pharma have decades of testing experience, while cannabis is a new industry, and the science is still being developed.
What kind of samples do you test?
We have developed and validated testing methods for many different types of cannabis products, from traditional dried flower and oils to Cannabis 2.0 products , such as concentrates, beverages, edibles, and topicals. From a testing standpoint, each and every one of these products is different and can have a different matrix. In turn, we develop a testing method for each one.
What should customers be looking for to see reassurance that a product’s been tested?
Make sure their products are purchased through legal channels. It’s the regulatory bodies’ responsibility to make sure the products launched in the market are not just tested, but tested specifically by qualified labs.
Moldy cannabis is a problem in legal markets and there are numerous reports of Health Canada product recalls after customers discovered moldy flower. Can you talk to us about how you test for these pathogens?
From day one, instead of using the traditional culture-based method, Sigma has tested for mould and all microbial contamination using a newer technology called qPCR (quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction). When we first started it in late 2018, nobody was familiar with it in the cannabis industry, so we had to take time to explain to our clients that it was a better, more reliable, and faster process. In the last six months, however, we have seen a huge shift in attitude. Not only have the cannabis producers accepted qPCR, but more cannabis labs are starting to use the technology to test for microbial contaminations.
What are some of the most exciting developments in cannabis testing?
Using qPCR for microbial contamination is very new for the cannabis industry. We’re happy and excited about it because we see the benefits and we hope the whole cannabis industry embraces it.
Secondly, the challenges of formulating, developing, and testing new products. The developments in the past six months have been really promising.
Thirdly, discovering more about the cannabis plant and what ends up in cannabis products is really an exciting development. As we progress, we are sure to learn more about the effects of cannabinoids and terpenes.
What’s your pinnacle vision of cannabis testing?
There are two sides to it. There is a regulatory side, and there is the testing side. On the regulatory side, it’s about what needs to be tested, and how it needs to be tested.
A very important part of the quality assurance initiative for cannabis is ensuring the testing sample is representative of that batch. There are different factors in place. Is that batch homogeneous or not? Are the characteristics consistent or not? Cannabis is a plant. It’s an agricultural product. It’s not something that’s coming out of a machine, so we cannot expect all of the plants to have exactly the same characteristics. I believe one key is to limit the size of the batch. Other jurisdictions have clearly defined regulations. For example, in California, it clearly states that each batch cannot be larger than fifty pounds. In the Canadian regulations, there is no definition at all.
Secondly, labs need to get more serious. Some labs are testing cannabis products with outdated instruments or unvalidated methods, meaning their results cannot be truly accurate or reliable. Cannabis labs cannot use a 15-year-old second-hand instrument and expect to get the same results as pharmaceutical labs that use the best, most advanced instruments. Some people might think that testing cannabis products is not as important as pharmaceutical products, but it is just as important.
Cannabis has a very complex matrix which requires complex testing methods. Not all labs have good enough or validated methods. However, I’m optimistic that it’s a matter of years, maybe between five to ten, for cannabis testing to get there.
How is Sigma helping to foster the growth of a responsible and safe legal cannabis industry?
I think everyone active in the cannabis industry has a responsibility to make sure they are doing a good job and providing safe and efficacious products to the consumer. That’s because, if the consumer is not happy with what they’re getting from us, it will translate into unhappiness with the whole legalized framework.
Finally, what’s next for Sigma?
We are going through some expansion at our headquarters in Toronto and we’re about to acquire a lab in British Columbia, which will be our second lab in Canada. Additionally, we have a joint venture in Colombia and are setting up the first GMP certified cannabis lab in South America.
We are also becoming more involved with helping develop formulations for new products, and testing them, especially for the producers that follow GMP requirements either in pursuit of higher quality or for international cannabis markets.
We also recently received our GMP clearance from the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (“TGA”). The approval designates Sigma as an approved testing laboratory for Canadian companies to introduce their products into the Australian cannabis market.