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Taking the Temperature of Northern California’s Heritage Cannabis

Long story short, it’s rocky out there for many of the Emerald Triangle’s heritage cannabis businesses — but they want to be doing it legally.

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Heritage Cannabis
PHOTO | Aran
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It’s been over two years since Proposition 64 was passed in California. Profit projections, law enforcement, the black market, and climate change have kept the cannabis business in the Golden State everything but predictable. People continue to be imprisoned for crimes connected to cannabis while legal businesses are turning a profit. Legal weed has even backfired on the people who made it legal, as big corporate investors coming in change their business landscape.

Yet it remains a general consensus that legalization is all for the better. No one wants to go to jail anymore for growing or selling weed, there’s absolutely no denying the many medical benefits of the plant and hemp is poised to present itself as the green alternative to the overconsumption of fossil fuel products. Cannabis is a disruptor to big pharma, big alcohol and big tobacco, which in turn has the “bigs” attempting to either sabotage and/or establish themselves in the marketplace.

Long story short, it’s rocky out there for many running legitimate legal cannabis businesses but they want to be doing it.

Northern California took a big hit — and it wasn’t just profit loss. While policymakers tried to model California’s legal market after Colorado, they fell short because the cultivators in California don’t operate the same way. The green rush flooded prime growing communities with people who were so green to cannabis, it doesn’t seem right to even call them that. But many heritage cannabis farmers in these communities wanted to break the cycle of fear instilled over the years and moved forward with legalization regardless, for all the right reasons.

Chiah Rodriques and her husband James Beatty run River Txai Farms and Arcanna Flowers, the brand and sustainable cannabis farm and nursery in Mendocino County. Rodriques and Beatty grew up on a large back-to-land intentional community and are second-generation Mendo cannabis farmers.

Chiah Rodriques and James Beatty. PHOTO | Trina Calderón

Committed to legal growing since the 9.31 ordinance enacted in 2008, they founded Mendocino Generations, a collective of sustainable cannabis farms in Mendocino County who strive to work together as a brand, farm landrace genetics, and promote “better living through cannabis.”

But keeping Mendo’s exceptional cannabis tradition alive throughout legalization has presented challenges. Visiting the area during this season’s harvest, I took the temperature with Rodriques.

“Basically over-regulation is like the ankle-biter,” shared Rodriques. “It’s the Achilles heel of the small farmer because in order to compete in this market you have to cultivate enough cannabis to compete with farms in other counties with larger cultivation allowances. Ultimately, they’re our competition but on a shelf with jars of cannabis, they’re not, because you wouldn’t want to put that cannabis in a pretty jar on a shelf — most of that product is going to oil and biomass. You have different levels of competition. You have competition for pricing because their cannabis is still going into the market, which makes prices fluctuate. Then you have the shelf space for all the brands, and lots of these brands thought that they could do a small brand and survive with that, but I don’t think that that’s really going to play out as we thought. Running a small brand takes a lot of overhead.

PHOTO | Trina Calderón

“Basically it’s hard to know if your brand from one small farm can have enough cannabis if your brand goes big,” she continued. “You may need to start reaching out and getting cannabis for your brand from other cultivators. In Mendocino County, we have a disadvantage because we can only cultivate 10,000 sq. ft., but there is a push for there to be a ballot to change it to one acre. That has mixed reviews from the farmers too, basically half the farmers hate that idea and half the farmers are into it. I think that’s mostly because they don’t have the space or the water or the infrastructure to handle that much.”

Rodriques believes that a contributor to the disconnect in policy is that no one consulted with Mendo’s heritage cannabis farmers when creating regulations.

“Farmers were not invited to the table until much of the ordinance was in place and there was a big rush to push things through as is and make changes later — so the county was ready for Prop 64 to go into effect. It was a race to the finish line. They didn’t think we had valid concerns, or maybe felt like the hippies needed to get organized. Admittedly so, we were all over the place with requests and needs that I’m sure it was overwhelming to lawmakers,” Rodriques said.

There was no real insight into what is actually practical or what is actually happening on farms in the area. Most of the regulations were written around indoor cultivation and don’t play out for sun-grown farms in Mendo.

A more community-oriented step towards action is the Mendocino Appellations Project, a group designed to set up a process for defining cannabis appellations, which are geographic areas in which small farmers can classify their crop with that name. A valiant effort, it plays into marketing and promotion, though the true cannabis aficionado will appreciate the information the same way a wine connoisseur likes to know where exactly a pinot noir grape is grown.

PHOTO | Trina Calderón

Small farming is no easy task in itself and going legal has created hardships for many.

“I think last year sucked so bad most people were struggling pretty hard, and in terms of pricing, it was bad last year,” said Rodriques. “Crops this year were a mixed bag. We definitely had a lot of people who had frost, and we had mold. There’s a lot of powdery mildew this year because the rain didn’t come. It’s like this weird humid that makes no sense because it’s really been dry. There’s been a lot of theft. There have been a lot of fires, so there’s smoke damage material.

“[As for] the market, who knows what it’s actually going to look like in the next couple months. Right now, its sort of a mixture, a lot of people are saying they’re going to back out. A lot of people are scared, but then there’s a lot of people that are moving forward with all these other ideas and plans. They’re doing okay, so it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with the ultimate heritage cultivators, like my parents’ generation. Most of them aren’t doing it anymore because they were on the brink of retirement anyway so who wants to go through all this bullshit, right?”

Heritage Cannabis

Chiah Rodriques. PHOTO | Trina Calderón

Recently, the county has realized they’re not getting as much tax money as they hoped and the Board of Supervisors are planning to give the small farmers what’s called a Cannabis Cultivation Amnesty Transition Pathway. The plan would give more years for legacy growers to transition into county compliance, which may help attract more applications. The vote was unanimous to create the Amnesty, which Rodriques sees as the county throwing them a bone. Considering 1588 total people applied to participate in legal cannabis in the county, and only 232 were approved and issued permits, and it appears not many more would apply since the regulations are so problematic. Building and planning issues like commercial zoning and ADA rules for bathrooms and parking lots are costing farms money they don’t have. Especially when the reality is it’s usually not probable to have anyone in a wheelchair working on a farm. Workarounds are likely because people are trying to be compliant, but the same rules are putting people in uncomfortable positions.

“Comparatively to Humboldt, I would say that Mendo is struggling a little bit harder and that’s more because the bureaucracy hasn’t allowed people to get into the system,” Rodriques concluded.

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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.

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THC
Mortgage Lifter PHOTO | Courtesy Humboldt Seed Company

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.

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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.

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Microdosing Weed
PHOTO | Gracie Malley

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!

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Why Independent Third-Party Cannabis Testing Is Important

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Cannabis Testing
PHOTO | HQUALITY

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.

Inside Sigma Analytical Services’ state-of-the-art lab.

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.

Cannabis Testing
Moldy cannabis. PHOTO | LabRoots

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.

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