As a grade school graduate of the zero-tolerance D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program of the 1990s, reading financial reports from the state of Michigan about “flower, shake, and kief” is still surreal.
It’s not that my fifth-grade geography teacher successfully convinced me that cannabis was the gateway to a life of violence and crime — try as he might. Instead, I think the prohibition program stunted my ability to process information and gain knowledge about cannabis and the powerful politics of weed at a vulnerable age. To me and my preteen peers, a lingering fog of deception developed around the plant and myth became the truth, unfortunately.
In today’s climate, where there are more than 200,000 cannabis plants growing legally in Michigan and the middle-schoolers of the 80s and 90s are full-grown adult users, experts overwhelmingly agree that a more knowledgeable consumer base will drive a safe and robust marijuana market — which is well deserved! Consumers in Michigan paid more than $41 million to smoke, vape, and eat legal cannabis products in the month of January alone.
While the revenue that the state collects from those sales along with the fees from licenses and applications is higher than the total cost of administration, the governing bodies of legal marijuana regulation spend nearly a million dollars each month to track cannabis products “from seed to sale.”
‘SEED TO SALE’
Ironically, most commercial cannabis plants don’t really start as seeds. Instead, growers cut bits of the branches of a mature plant — known as a mother — and then establish the cuttings in a water or soil mix where they will eventually develop their own roots to grow into a new individual plant. Cannabis is one of many plants that can be multiplied by rooting cuttings. Annual flowers like geraniums, fruits like tomatoes and apples, herbs like basil and rosemary, and common houseplants are all multiplied and shared amongst gardens and gardeners using the same method of rooting cuttings.
The benefit of propagating plants through cuttings instead of planting seeds is that the baby plant — known as a progeny — grown from a cutting should develop into an exact clone of the mother plant. Seeds, on the other hand, are the products of fertilization and carry a mixture of genetics from two plants.
Growers have been known to prune, nurture and cut from their favorite mother plants for a decade or more, potentially producing thousands of clones. However, genetic deterioration is “prevalent and occurs pretty rapidly,” according to Chris Goia, cultivation director at JSJ Growing, a new commercial cannabis grower based in Grand Haven.
JSJ will start operations this month with about 70 carefully-selected progenies. Goia, who has been involved in the breeding of 20 award-winning cannabis cultivars, added that the selection of mother plants is based on the structure of the plant and how many flowers it can potentially produce as well as the remedial profile of the plant.
“When I breed or I’m selecting for genetics that I consider a progeny or keeper, I’m always going to select for what is the most medicinal value,” Goia said. Contrary to widespread misinformation, the medicinal value of the plant is not parallel to THC potency. In fact, cannabis plants are constructed of hundreds of relevant compounds in addition to THC and CBD, including the undervalued terpenes.
Terpenes are the chemicals that define the distinct smells of plants like citrus, pine, lavender, and cannabis. In fact, the primary terpene found in cannabis plants — known as myrcene — can also be found in mangoes. Myrcene often also determines whether a specific strain can be considered an Indica or Sativa, which each have their own range of effects on the body and mind. Other terpenes may smell spicy, woody, lemony, or peppery and each correlates to distinct medicinal or pleasurable results. Simply put, terpenes are what separates the skunk from the kush or the sleeping-aids from the mood-enhancers.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of consumers and even some retailers aren’t yet educated enough about compounds like terpenes, and instead base their millions of dollars worth of purchases on myths surrounding potency, specifically a false correlation between THC content and the overall high people feel after consuming cannabis.
“One of the problems we have right now is there’s a myopic focus on potency of one of the cannabinoids, just THC,” said Benjamin Rosman, CEO & co-founder of the cannabis testing lab PSI Labs in Ann Arbor. “That is the selling point not only for the consumers, because they hear so much about THC, but also the provisioning centers that buy from growers based on the THC content.”
This centering on THC — specifically with a goal to produce products that average 20 percent THC potency or higher — is generating concerning safety issues, at best, and outright corruption in the industry, at worst, according to Rosman.
THE COST OF DISINFORMATION
“It’s created issues with lab shopping, because growers expect to see higher THC numbers,” Rosman told me. “If growers don’t get high enough THC numbers (from lab testing), they have trouble selling it to a dispensary. So there’s pressure put on labs to deliver a higher potency result and it’s created this cycle of unrealistic expectations that touches everyone in the community.”
Rosman said his lab has been on the receiving end of pressure and even bribes to change the results of testing to suit the demands of growers, who generally have large investments of money and time that could be upended by unfavorable lab results.
“We’ve had to end relationships with clients because, from our point of view, this is the data,” he said. “With this data, we can help you, we can send some of our lab scientists — we have three PhDs, five folks with Masters of Science — we can send folks your way and try to do some consulting work to help get you the numbers you want that way, but we certainly can’t manipulate data.”
Disturbingly, some of the clients that PSI Labs has lost have managed to find state-sanctioned testing labs that will give them the results they need without much additional effort. This cycle of high stakes, unrealistic expectations, and false data can span beyond misdosing to even more dangerous issues. Presumably, a lab that is prepared to inflate THC potency data might also be willing to look the other way in the presence of dangerous heavy metals or mold on cannabis products. In fact, a number of insiders that I spoke with on background for this story said they do not trust the marketed data or safety information on many of the products sold in dispensaries around Michigan today.
Although the state is ultimately responsible for regulating growers and testing labs, consumers can help by asking their favorite suppliers or dispensaries to share testing information, which they should have on-hand, in addition to placing less undeserved emphasis solely on a high percentage of THC content.
Lifting the veil of a new age of misinformation in the developing cannabis marketplace is the first step to shifting the focus off of THC and potentially more useful compounds like terpenes. Once consumers have a more sophisticated knowledge of cannabis products, they can fall back on some very natural buying instincts, according to Rosman.
“When you think of buying alcohol, generally, you’re not going out and buying the most potent alcohol you can, like grain alcohol or Everclear,” he said. “Instead, you’re going for full-bodied wines, or craft cocktails, or things that appeal to your particular palette. It might take a while to find out what that is, but it’s not going to be just what’s the strongest, because that doesn’t always make sense.”