Former Deputy Director of WSLCB : Home Grow is a Small Step

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by Dominic Corva, Executive Director

Yesterday, the WSLCB invited public comment hearing in Olympia to receive testimony on whether the state should allow regulated (not civil liberty) home grow in the State of Washington. There were two kinds of testimony presented that I have not previously identified in my recent writing on the subject: the mobilization of the financial industry against democracy, and the “big picture” stakes of home grow as a step towards making peace with the plant, which several speakers mobilized but none so movingly as the former Deputy Director of the WSLCB, Randy Simmons.

Banking against democracy

The first, chronologically, was testimony by representatives of the I-502 banking industry. Salal Credit Union and Numerica Credit Union — representing the west and east sides of the State, respectively — both testified against home grow of any kind, suggesting that both institutions would withdraw their services from I-502 if the State went for home grow, because they considered Federal intervention on the basis of the Cole Memo to endanger their ability to do business. Given that 7 other States and the nation’s capital aren’t being threatened for having home grow, this argument seems either ill-informed or nakedly political.

In any case, it represents the first time I have seen a threat of extortion by the private sector against even the consideration of what might be in the public interest. It gives opponents of home grow in this State another political reason not to fairly consider whether prohibiting home grow is optimal as a social policy. Other States would do well to heed this development going forward: if banking opens up, which is necessary and desirable for legal cannabis markets, banking is going to favor the continuity of prohibition, which is unnecessary and undesirable for ending the drug war.

Home Grow as Free from Regulation as Possible is a Small Step towards Normalization of the Plant

Former Deputy Director Simmons’s testimony can be found at 1:01 of the archived video. It was remarkable to hear from someone who played such a positive role early in the I 502 implementation process, as the Board’s Deputy Director. More remarkable, to me, was the way he described the issue at hand as being about far more than home grow. I present his testimony transcribed below.

“Good morning Madam Chair, Members of the Board, my name is Randy Simmons. I am the former director of the Liquor and Cannabis Board, and I was the implementation manager of I-502. I know you’ll hear a lot of different opinions today and I want to let you know I respect all those opinions and am aware of the difficulty you have to make.

I’d like to present to you that I am in support of home grows as free of regulation as possible.

It’s been a long road I’ve been on since I left here. I watched as some of the best doctors in the world filled my wife with poison intended to kill cancer. I watched as she went through multiple surgeries, and then was burned to kill whatever was left. And that was done by what is probably doctors at the cancer center in the world. At the same time I watched this cancer research in London and Madrid and Paris find ways to slow this breast cancer disease in women, and we do nothing here. We need our universities and our scientists and frankly our pharmaceutical companies involved in this research, and we can’t do that unless this is removed from the Schedule I substance.

And I have no illusion that allowing home grows in Washington is going to remove this as a Schedule I substance.

But I do see it as one small step in the normalization of this plant that has beneficial medical treatment for people, so that one day the research finds not just the cannabinoid profile that slows the growth of cancer but can actually cure it. I never want to watch my grandchildren — my granddaughters — to have to deal with being told they have to deal with an aggressive Stage 3 cancer, and in order to give you the best chance to live, we have to poison you, mutilate your body, and burn [inaudible] …

All journeys begin with a small step, and I think allowing this normalization of home grows is a small step. Thank you.”

Analysis: Home Grow as a Small Step

Mr. Simmons’ testimony addressed home grow as a step towards “normalizing” the plant, a process of cultural change necessary for vital “big steps” to happen. He specifically refers to cancer research, which in his analysis (with which I agree) is being blocked by far more than legislative or Federal (in)action. He identifies the source of those blocks as cultural — we can’t get to the Big Steps of cancer research in this country until people understand cannabis as a plant, rather than an immanent threat to society which must be controlled.

It’s not enough to change laws. The work to be done is cultural, and what legal change can do is either open up avenues for cultural change or block them.

The refusal of a nominally rebellious State against Federal policy that dehumanizes its citizens (on immigration, on LGBTQ rights, on climate change, and so forth) to take “small steps” against the dehumanization of its citizens that want to grow a plant blocks broader cultural change towards peace instead of war, research instead of no research, banking instead of no banking, participation instead of bans or moratoria, parenting instead of policed parenting, and yes, in my opinion, consumer participation in a regulated market instead of what we have today, declining levels of participation int he regulated market.

The “small step” of home grow would signal a cultural change towards accommodation of the regulated system, and would actually increase banking profits, producer profits, retail profits, and sustainable taxation revenues. I argue here that the political forces using empirically unsupportable arguments like the fear of federal intervention are shooting themselves in the foot, because they do not understand the long term benefits of broad cultural acceptance of the plant upon which their industry is based.

The normalization of cannabis as a plant rather than a threat to society is the endgame, and I sure wish that politicians, industry, and banking understood how much it would be in their best interest to facilitate that, instead of contributing counterproductively and short-sightedly to the politics of fear.

 

Barriers to Understanding, Barriers to Change (Spanish translation)

Many thanks to our Colombian reader, Ramiro Borja, for providing this translation to us! The original article in English can be found here.

Translated by Ramiro E. Borja / Colectivo Nueva de Abril

Dominic Corva, Director de Investigación en Ciencia Social Center for Study of Cannabis and Social Policy

En la presentación de ayer conté cómo empecé a explorar los mercados de cannabis y la política pública, y cómo se configuran entre sí. Mis amigos académicos reconocerán esto como un “marco teórico” -una técnica consistente en construir un modelo de mundo para que podamos entenderlo e intervenir.

Es un modelo de “economía política”, lo que significa que el usuario de esta técnica -el analista- necesita considerar cómo es que nuestra manera de ganarnos la vida y gestionar recursos conforma y está conformada por el poder que circula dentro de la sociedad. Eso es muy distinto de los modelos de la ciencia económica que suponen que todo ocurre por eleccion racional y utilidad marginal, modelos que aprendí cuando recibí mi grado como profesional en Economía.

También son distintos de los modelos de mundo que tiene la ciencia política, los que suponen que el Estado tiene en mente los intereses de cada quién cuando hace leyes y políticas públicas, y que distingue con claridad la seguridad de sus ciudadanos de la de los enemigos de éstos.

Mi audiencia ya no es pesadamente académica. Pero es importante que usted entienda cómo es que mi modelo de mundo es la base de mi modelo de la cannabis en el mundo. Como la mayoría de las aproximaciones académicas, debo equilibrar qué tan significativas quiero que sean mis explicaciones con el rigor analítico, para que tengan un efecto en la manera en que la gente piensa y actúa en el mundo. Quiero escoger batallas que pueda ganar, en vez de simplemente tener la razón y sentirme bien por eso.

Esto es especialmente difícil cuando se trata de responder a las preocupaciones que tienen las personas que hacen las leyes y las políticas públicas. Sus modelos de mundo simplemente no reflejan las realidades de los mercados y las políticas del cannabis, que sí entiendo mediante mi modelo. Ontologías inconmensurables, de verdad. Ellos no entienden qué tanto ha durado esto, no entienden de dónde sale la compulsión de prohibir, o quién está siendo prohibido; lo más importante es que no aceptan un modelo que dice que nuestra sociedad ha estado en guerra contra sí misma, una guerra real en la que se han perdido millones de vidas ante el complejo industrial de la seguridad, que es claramente peligroso y anti-paz, lo que mi modelo del mundo muestra.

El problema no es lo que ellos saben, sino cómo lo saben. Su modelo de mundo mira a la guerra contra las drogas como una metáfora, no como una realidad. Su modelo de mundo piensa que la peligrosidad de las drogas prohibidas está dada históricamente, y proviene de decisiones racionales hechas de buena fe por los representantes de la voluntad pública. Su modelo de mundo piensa que solo necesitamos reducir el daño de las drogas, más que considerar la guerra de la sociedad contra sí misma, la que causa no solo los daños de las drogas (que sí existen, parte de un problema social más amplio llamado sobreconsumo), también causa de Cosas Malas que no tienen nada que ver con los daños de las drogas, como hacer de la guerra perpetua una condición de bienestar económico.

¿Será que el problema aquí es una falta total de consenso entre nuestros modelos del mundo? Piénselo: para que la guerra contra las drogas termine de verdad, por razones que reflejen la realidad más que la política, nuestros políticos y formadores de política pública tendrían que admitir que nuestras leyes prohibicionistas y nuestro sistema de justicia penal no corresponden a un modelo de mundo en que suponemos que vamos mejorando en todo -que la Modernidad está venciendo la Barbarie, siempre mejorando nuestra seguridad en vez de presentar a cada paso nuevos modos de destruirnos. Que somos herederos de la tradición de la Ilustración. Que nuestro instinto es apoyar a los que son vulnerables entre nosotros y que las personas que actúan de buena fe pueden apropiarse de éste. Que se conoce el Bien y el Mal y que nuestras instituciones son diseñadas y operadas para hacer que las cosas sean mejores y no peores.

La situación contemporánea de la legalización de la cannabis ilustra este concepto a su modo, y puesto que afecta un segmento tan pequeño de la población que sufre de muchas otras maneras el hecho de que la modernidad resulta una fábula, y no una historia, de progreso e Ilustración, parece que tenemos que dar un paso atrás para seguir avanzando. Los políticos y los intereses económicos, quienes no tienen compromiso alguno con evaluar seriamente qué es lo que ha salido mal y cómo arreglarlo, son los que se están apropiando de las propuestas de legalización de la cannabis que han tenido éxito y de su radicalidad.

En cada Estado esto se da distinto, pero hasta ahora la promesa de legalizar la marihuana como estrategia para acabar la guerra contra las drogas está siendo reemplazada por intereses políticos que todavía están obsesionados -sin fundamento científico- con supuestos daños de la cannabis. Intereses que piden reformar nuestras leyes y políticas públicas pretendiendo que la guerra contra las plantas -y contra las personas cuyas vidas han sido un largo acto de desobediencia civil y de autonomía frente a los destrozos de la guerra racial y clasista- sea más suave y amable.

Las propuestas de legalización estatal son absolutamente revolucionarias frente al orden político de este país, donde la Ley de Sustancias Controladas centraliza en la autoridad Federal la decisión de dónde y cuándo ejercer violentamente sus prerrogativas contra la población, pasando por encima de la autoridad del Estado y la libertad Local.

En cada caso, sin embargo, las legislaturas Estatales están reconfigurando la legitimidad de la prohibición más que haciendo la paz con una planta que ha sido, a lo largo de toda la historia humana, una de las sustancias terapéuticas más seguras para el hombre. Ya es claro que luego de una era de marihuana médica caracterizada por la desmovilización política, la era de la marihuana legal estará caracterizada por un creciente pánico moral frente a la producción y el consumo de cannabis que se colorean por fuera de las barreras tan restrictivas puestas por los marcos legales. Pregúntele qué sentido tiene esto a las comunidades Hmong del norte de California.

¿Qué hacer? ¿Qué batallas escoger? Depende de su modelo de mundo, no solamente de su modelo de lo grandiosa que es la cannabis para el recaudo público y las arcas empresariales. Esto último puede ser una estrategia productiva al momento de apelar a los políticos y las poblaciones dedicadas a mantener el orden económico y político vigente -la gente que piensa: ‘sí, hay cosas malas que están pasando pero no hay que cuestionar hasta el fondo nuestras suposiciones, sino mejorarlas y reformarlas’.

En mi modelo de mundo, esta aproximación alimenta un complejo industrial de la seguridad que está destruyendo a la mayoría de nosotros, para beneficio de unos pocos y de las carreras políticas de muchos. Y lo hace no porque haya gente Mala haciendo cosas Malas (aunque la hay), sino porque hay gente completamente normal que trata de ayudar. Pero como su modelo de mundo no puede acomodar la realidad histórica o presente -o solo una parte- entre más quieren ayudar, más van siendo reemplazados los guerreros culturales como motor de la prohibición por el capital.

Lo que estamos viendo acá, compañeras, es la continuidad de la prohibición más que su fin. El apremio por castigar y estigmatizar ciertas poblaciones se renueva y reempaca para reproducir el orden de cosas vigente. Un modelo de economía política honesto cuestiona este Problema Social.”

Barriers to Understanding, Barriers to Change

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Yesterday I introduced a trailhead to exploring how cannabis markets and policy help shape each other. My academic friends should recognize this as a “theoretical framework” — a technique for building a model of the world so we can understand and intervene in it.

It’s a “political economy” model, which is to say that it requires the technique user — the analyst — to consider how power in society shapes and is shaped by how we mobilize resources and make livelihoods. It’s distinct especially from economic science models of the world that assume everything is happening because of rational choice and marginal utility, models I learned to get my undergraduate degree in Economics.

It’s also distinct from political science models of the world that assume that the State has everyone’s best interests in mind when they make law and policy, and that there is a clear distinction between the security of its citizens and the security of its citizen’s enemies.

My audience is not terribly academic, anymore. But it is important for you to understand how my model of the world informs my model of cannabis and the world. Like most academic approaches, I have to balance analytical rigor with just how much I want my explanations to mean something, to have an effect on how people think and act in the world. I want to pick battles I can win, rather than just be right and feel good about it.

This is especially difficult when it comes to addressing the concerns of people who make laws, who make policy. Their models of the world simply do not reflect the realities of cannabis markets and policy that I understand from mine. Incommensurable ontologies, really. They do not understand how long this has been going on, they do not understand where the compulsion to prohibit comes from, or who is being prohibited; most importantly they do not accept a model of society that says ours has been at war with itself, a real war with millions of lives lost to what is clearly a dangerous and anti-peace security-industrial complex, in my model of the world.

The problem is not with what they know, it’s how they know it. Their model of the world looks at the drug war as a metaphor, not a reality. Their model of the world thinks that the dangerousness of prohibited drugs is historically given, and comes from rational choices made by in good faith by representatives of the public will. Their model of the world thinks we only need to reduce the harm of drugs, rather than considering the harm of intrasocietal warfare as the cause not only of drug harms (which do exist, part of a larger social problem called overconsumption) but of Bad Things that have nothing to do with drug harms, like making perpetual war a condition for economic health.

Is it too much to say the problem here is a total lack of common ground in our models of the world? Think about it: to truly end the war on drugs, for the reasons that reflect reality rather than politics, our politicians and policymakers would have to admit that our prohibition laws and criminal justice policy don’t belong in a model of the world that assumes we are getting better all the time at everything — that Modernity is stamping out Barbarism, always making us safer rather than introducing new ways to destroy ourselves at every turn. That we are heirs to an Enlightenment tradition. That our instinct to help the vulnerable among us can be appropriated by good people acting in good faith. That Good and Evil have been worked out and that our institutions are designed an operated to make things better instead of worse.

The contemporary situation of cannabis legalization illustrates this concept in its own very specific way, and because it affects such a tiny segment of a population that is suffering from so many other ways in which the Modernity is a fable, rather than a story, of progress and Enlightenment, that it appears we must go backwards to go forward. The radical nature of successful cannabis legalization initiatives is being appropriated by politicians and economic interests who have no compulsion to seriously assess what has gone wrong and how to fix it.

It varies from state to state, but so far the promise of cannabis legalization as a strategy for ending the drug war is quickly replaced by political interests still obsessed with the scientifically baseless assumed harm of cannabis itself, that requires reforming our laws and policy to reflect a kinder, gentler war on plants and the people whose livelihoods have been one long act of civil disobedience, on the one hand; and autonomous from the ravages of the racial and class warfare on the other.

State legalization initiatives are absolutely revolutionary with respect this country’s political order, where the Controlled Substances Act centralizes Federal authority over State and Local freedom to decide when and where to exercise its prerogative on violence against its population.

In every case, though, State legislatures are reconfiguring the the legitimacy of prohibition rather than making peace with a plant that has been, in human history, one of the safest therapeutic substances known to man. It’s clear at this point that after a medical marijuana era defined by policy demobilization, the legal marijuana era will be defined by increased moral panic about cannabis production and consumption that colors outside the incredibly restrictive barriers to access put up by legal frameworks. Ask the Hmong communities of Northern California how this makes sense.

What to do, and what battles to pick? It depends on your model of the world, not just your model of how great cannabis is for public revenue and corporate coffers. The latter can be productive strategies for appealing to a politicians and populations invested in maintaining the current political and economic order — people who think yeah, some bad things are happening, but the assumptions we have don’t need to be fundamentally challenged, merely improved and reformed.

In my model of the world, this approach nurtures a security-industrial complex that is destroying most of us, for the profit of a few and the political careers of many. And it does so not because of Evil people doing Evil things (though there is that), but because of totally normal people trying to help. But because their model of the world can’t accommodate historical or present reality — or only partially accommodates reality — the more they help, the more money capital takes over from the culture warriors as what props up prohibition.

What we are looking at here, folks, is the continuity of prohibition instead of its end. The urge to punish and stigmatize certain populations gets rewired, retrofitted into the reproduction of the present order of things. An honest political economy model presents some challenge to this Social Problem.

 

 

Field Guide to Cannabis Markets and Policy: A Starting Point

by Dr. Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

How are cannabis markets and policy experiments changing society? The first thing to understand is that cannabis markets, like all markets, exist in relation to State policy. We understand State policy through the lens of prohibition: the total ban on some drugs and drug plants. Clearly, there’s a radical transformation going on that means we really need to understand how prohibition is being transformed — radically — by State “experiments in democracy” associated with the paradox of States choosing to opt out of Federal law without leaving the Union itself.

This assertion, or axiom, or assumption, depending on one’s point of view, contradicts a lot of what you read in the headlines. Isn’t legalization changing cannabis markets by creating regulations and licensing schemes at a rapid rate? The answer is yes, but not as fast as media advertisers would have you believe. There are three up-and-running State-supervised legal cannabis markets right now — Washington and Colorado, who were first; and Oregon, which chose to fast-track its market development by taxing first and regulating later.

In the grand scheme of things none of these states are particularly significant relative to California consumption and production, for example –or, I would argue, New York City, where cannabis delivery services have been effectively decriminalized for decades.

The first question to ask for this introduction is, what are cannabis markets and how have they changed over time? Let’s narrow down our field of inquiry by time and place, focusing narrowly on the United States and the last 40 years or so. But let’s also start with the present.

At the present, there exists three discretely identifiable categories of cannabis market: black markets, medical markets, and taxed adult-use markets. Let’s simplify by using a color spectrum: black, gray, and white. Please note this is a spectrum, with both with and black bleeding into gray and vice versa. Later on perhaps we will try to think three dimensionally by looking at how white and black markets are more integrated than you might think.

It’s important to note that these colors, as I deploy them here, reflect a stigma-free taxonomy. None of these are assumed to be morally superior to the other, in my analysis here or at any time. This is a sharp difference from the way most people talk about them. I’m not trying to convince anyone to desire or not desire one over each other — in fact I insist that given their interdependency, it is not useful to do so.

I also reject arguments that using a color spectrum for taxonomy is inherently racist, since to accept that argument would mean applying it to all sorts absurdity, like the meaning of “black boxes” or “black operations.” We can argue about that later if readers insist.

The next thing to understand is that state policy is also a (possibly circular) continuum, from extremely punitive to bureaucratically regulated. This way to think about it is indebted to sociologists Harry Levine and Craig Reinarman, who insist that we think about prohibition as a continuum that reflects State interests that generally have to do with controlling undesirable populations; or geopolitical arrangements; or many other things that have nothing to do with drugs.

Levine’s framework accomplishes two things especially useful for figuring out current dynamics in landscapes of cannabis policy reform and market transformation.

The first has to do with understanding State Policy as an outcome of complex politics, rather than rational review or reformist attempts to improve the governance of free societies. This insight, drawn from the history of prohibition, helps us understand how cannabis legalization remains subject to highly political dynamics, to the exclusion of rational policy consideration.

The second has to do with understanding punitive prohibition, usually in the form of authoritarian policing, carceral fundamentalism, and sentencing policies, as a form of regulation. That is, prohibition doesn’t succeed in prohibiting. Instead it creates landscapes of risk of exposure to enforcement that are capitalized on by illicit (and now licit) market actors. Plenty of people do get caught! But those that get caught simply territorialize, or make real in the landscape, the value of avoiding getting caught. At times of high intensity, where lots of people or product get caught, the resulting market scarcity raises prices which make not getting caught far more profitable. Punitive policing creates more high risk, high reward markets, reflected in the trajectory of commodity prices at different parts of the value chain.

This insight helps us understand how current efforts to govern cannabis legalization are being pulled in many different directions, because they drastically shift the landscape of policing by introducing a much more robust and extended “other side” of punitive prohibition, that is marked by State efforts to regulate a market that was already being regulated (through policing); and remains in a sort of schizophrenic, bipolar relationship with different scales of government trying to do different things, from local municipalities that ban or zone out legal policy to an overarching Federal framework for which legal cannabis remains eligible for punitive prohibition, even if it isn’t being acted on right now.

This gets us to the highly volatile and dynamic contemporary phenomenon of cannabis legalization and market evolution. Or phenomena, since the policy geography of policy change is highly decentralized, while the new market processes are also highly decentralizing, as a tendency, because they create new spaces for cannabis production, processing, and distribution that are highly circumscribed by state borders.

We have two “axes” of analysis, State Policy and markets, that shape each other dialectically rather than being independent variables. And we have several dimensions of each to grapple with, since State Policy combines regulation and punishment even in the context of legalization; and since black-gray-white markets co-exist in the same territories of policy formation. Now we can begin to unpack the material realities to answer the question “how are cannabis markets and policy changing society.”

Saying Goodbye to Dr. Michelle Sexton

 

Dr. Sexton and Dr. Corva at 2013 Seattle Hempfest , Seattle Washington

by Dominic Corva, Executive Director

I first met Dr. Michelle Sexton when my friend from graduate school, Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, pulled us into an application for a team job. The three of us and California attorney SaraLynn Mandel, who was the catalyzing force for the effort, teamed up to apply for the State of Washington’s cannabis consulting team for creating an architecture for I 502, the legalization initiative that passed in November 2012. We finished fifth out of 200 applicants, grouped with about seven other application teams that were all scored within formal interviewing distance from each other, but BOTEC’s massive application (which exceeded the application material guideline considerably) was scored significantly higher than our competitive group. So, the then-Liquor Control Board brought in BOTEC for a sniff test and hired them on the spot.

That didn’t end our interest in helping shape legal cannabis policy in Washington State. I am a political geographer, and rarely has such a discrete, unique, and utterly undeveloped research field opened up so invitingly. So I finished the spring semester and registered the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy at the end of May 2013. Sunil was on board, but it took only a couple of months getting to further develop our intellectual rapport in person before we asked Michelle to join us.

That first year was exploratory, and it was the most fun I’ve had in my life. A huge part of that was teaming with Michelle to meet and talk to so many people in the middle of being so creative and so optimistic about the way things could go. Once a month, we met for our Board meeting, a three-way video conference at which we could put our minds to play together with the possibilities. We brainstormed and explored a landscape of opportunity that ranged from low hanging, realistic fruit to fantastical ideas about community gardens, cooperative research, and even a cannabis-friendly adult playground.

Things began to settle into place a year later, when Sunil left to do his one year fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. We collected a Board, completed the process of registering as a 501(c)(3), and Dr. Sexton started an analytics lab here in Seattle. The I 502 industry itself, labs included, began to find itself on a roller coaster ride of regulatory volatility, real estate quagmires, unworkable business partnerships, and with the passage of SB 5052 two years in, a sudden and unexpected amputation of medical cannabis, the revenues of which bootstrapped smaller, established businesses and people into the sinkhole of I 502 startup. When her lab closed down, Michelle moved back to San Diego to be with her partner Dr. Daryl Bornhop, who continues to successfully battle cancer.

One of the great things that came out of Dr. Sexton’s time with Phytalab was our popular education event, the Annual Terpestival. The first year we did it, it was a huge success as a fundraiser for our organization. The medical cannabis community embraced it as the first event of its kind, expanding popular education about whole plant cannabis by focusing on the importance of terpenes. The name “Terpestival” itself came from Michelle’s daughter, Naomi Woodruff.

The following year, in the shadow of SB 5052 and coinciding with Michelle’s move back to San Diego, we chose to host the event in Hopland California, with the help of our friend Martin Lee. That event was a lot more difficult to organize, and lost money, but was again an immense success in terms of content provided, attendance, speakers, and the incredible ambiance of the Real Goods Solar Living Center. Our third event was held in July, and although once again a success as an event, we barely broke even.

In the meantime, Dr. Sexton developed a great relationship with the University of San Diego, and began to collaborate with them in her private practice as a naturopath. Understandably, she began to feel like her desire to focus on patients, her partner, and her quality of life was really rooted in where she was now. At the same time, CASP benefitted mightily from the professional regard in which she is held as a medical cannabis naturopath and expert. Her contract reviewing applications for the State of Maryland injected a year’s worth of salary for both of us. And her contract earlier this year with the Puyallup tribe to help develop an opioid substitution study contributed further. She has represented CASP at numerous national and international conferences, and published her research with the CASP byline. In short, she has produced tremendous value to our nonprofit research organization in every capacity she has held: Board Member, Executive Medical Research Director, Clinician, Researcher, and all-around cannabis person at large.

So it is with oceans of gratitude, respect and love that we accept her decision to move on from CASP. More than a professional collaboration, Dr. Michelle Sexton has been my best intellectual playmate, influence, and caregiver for more than four years. I started this as a social scientist without much knowledge of whole plant science, culture and values — now, I’m not who I am without them. And neither is CASP. But she’s created us that way, and we will continue to be that way in her wake. It is a fundamental part of our organizational identity. I look forward to being close friends and intellectual playmates the rest of our lives.

This goodbye is a celebration of my dear friend and confident hope for her path forward to be clear and beautiful. Thank you, Michelle.

 

 

The Chemovar and the Cultivar

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director and Terpestival Producer

Our popular education panels and keynote talk by Dr. Ethan Russo at the Third Annual Original Terpestival represented an advanced seminar in whole plant education. I am incredibly grateful to and proud of our audience, who came to listen, learn and participate as well as any university seminar I have taught. I want to reflect on the complex whole after the fashion of a reaction paper, which in the formal educational setting is a method for making a short conversation about a substantive and often intense volume of readings or material on a particular topic that is rich with avenues for further exploration and engagement. It’s a way to dip one’s toe in one part of the pool, not to summarize the whole but to represent a recurring theme that has sparked the curiosity of the student.

As the organizer of the popular education content (the seminar leader, if you will), I was especially interested in listening to what people “got,” given the complex information presented, that they can apply to their industry and cultural practices around the whole plant. I have the advantage of having been present and paying attention not only to all of the speaker content for the day, but also our event’s “prologue” — Kevin Jodrey’s Thursday evening talk at the Vashon Grange organized by Shango Los and VIMEA. Seen this way, Kevin and Ethan provided “bookend” lectures for shorter and more collective conversations in the panels. It’s pretty clear that there are two ways of thinking about the plant around which industry evolution will happen: the cultivar and the chemovar.

Before explaining, I want to amplify the response of panelist Rick Pfrommer to a terrific question from the audience, on how to map new terms and better information into a consumer landscape that is already confused by older, less accurate information. In particular, I’m going to allow myself to use the term “strain” in this reaction piece, even though so much of our information throws the viability of the term into question. In his years as the lead wholesale buyer for Harborside Wellness Center in San Francisco, Rick is especially tuned in to the need to be understood, and he emphasized the importance of retaining familiar words in conversation with patients and other kinds of consumers.

The cultivar is the plant, the reality behind the branding that up till now has been problematically assumed to equal “strain.” It’s more than the phenotype, or physical expression of a plant’s genes from seed or clone to processed product. Kevin’s themes were about propagating and growing for terpenes, but perhaps the most eye-opening element for even the most advanced folks who heard him was the assertion that the the cannabinoid and terpene content of a plant is shaped especially by the environment in which it’s grown. This has tremendous implications not only for research on genetics and “strains,” but on the production, branding and marketing of terpene configurations. Your nutrient line matters. Your lighting matters. Your physical geography, if your plants are grown in the sun, matters considerably. A Banana OG “strain” grown in one environment can differ considerably if grown in another. It can even differ considerably if it’s fed a different nutrient line.

The cultivar is the domain of the grower. What we know about it today is what growers communicate about it. In the informal market historical context, that knowledge was highly classified and shared in secret, for obvious reasons. It was limited by the imperative to NOT record, because doing so could catch you a much bigger case, as Kevin found out in the early 2000s. As a result, it’s mostly a matter of oral history, found and lost in the memories of the growers over decades, with few exceptions. Kevin’s decades of expertise are unique in his drive to network together knowledge about cultivation of the plant especially through “strain” hunting, propagation, and crucially, functioning as a nursery from which the identification of cultivars could be matched to market opportunities across the globe.

The chemovar is the molecular composition of given cultivar. It’s the terpene profile plus the cannabinoid profile plus every element of the whole plant that is not inert, like lipids and waxes that give form but do not interact with human physiology when ingested. It’s what Dr. Russo talks about when he talks about the whole plant and how research on it evolves. The research scientist looks into the plant, literally, to engage with the consistency and variability of how people are affected by it. He needs a laboratory and lab equipment — in fact, the chemotype is the snapshot of the chemovar that analytics laboratories produce, with raw material created by the producer and processor. The chemovar is an ensemble of numbers about which considerable possibilities for branding emerge, especially in the Washington legal context where the consumer is not permitted to experience the product’s smell or effect before buying it.

The chemovar is the domain of the scientist. What we know about it today comes from an extremely small number of licensed researchers on the one hand and the databases of cannabis analytics labs, which are absolutely exploding under conditions of legalization but remain really small in comparison of what’s to come. Pioneering researchers like Dr. Russo were able to produce this knowledge under very specific and limited historical conditions.

In Ethan’s case, it was his position as Senior Medical Advisor for GW Pharmaceuticals. GW itself was created out of a perfectly legal arrangement between UK entrepreneurs, outlaw botanists with a legal cannabis genetics bank in the Netherlands, and philanthropic seed money from the late Peter Lewis, arranged by his nephew Don E. Wirtschafter, the moderator of our panels last Saturday.

The basic concepts here are not new, and this way to think about the Terpestival’s popular education elements was not planned, but the cultivar and the chemovar frame a conversation about the cannabis plant that will shape the branding evolution of the craft cannabis economy represented at the Third Annual Terpestival.

The question itself is important not just for scientific knowledge and better education, but to reconcile the marketing of cannabis with its botanical reality. The marketing of cannabis to this point has predominantly mobilized the discourse of “strains,” usually typologized as indica, sativa, and hybrid. You can see this most prominently in the ubiquitous Leafly posters hung up in most dispensaries and retail outlets in existence.

These two plant identities reflect advancement in the understanding of cannabis as a plant and as a delivery mechanism for entourage effects loosely grouped under the notion of “high” — more properly understood as a highly variable consumer experience than includes therapeutic effects rather than simply recreational drug consumption.

The frames here — from the scientist and from the grower — aren’t contradictory, but they can be confusing for an industry that is already reeling from the reconstruction of knowledge about the plant under conditions of lab testing, a vast and growing array of nutrient lines, and methods for producing cannabis. Under conditions of legalization, knowledge about the cultivar can at last be recorded and advanced considerably with knowledge about the chemovar, outside the barrier to entry posed by global cannabis prohibition. That information is going to be incredibly useful for consumers of all stripes — patients who need to know which chemotype is likely to come from which cultivar so they can get consistent and effective medicine; and adult-use consumers who need to know which chemotype is likely to come from which cultivar so they can choose what kind of experience works for them; and so on.

But it will take an industry that is paying attention to these advancements to deliver the plant itself to the people. The Third Annual Terpestival made a space for that to happen, one which I hope will grow leaps and bounds in the coming years. I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who made it possible — the popular educators, the budtenders, the sponsors, the Terpene Tournament entrants, the volunteers, the paid staff, my incredible friends and Board members, and the City that worked with us to make it possible.

 

Terpestival Winners with Confident Cannabis and Medicine Creek Analytics

by Tony Lewis, President and Co-founder, Confident Cannabis

Confident Cannabis are excited to partner with the Cannabis and Social Policy Center, Cannabis Alliance and Medicine Creek testing lab to present the winners of Terpestival 2017! With our Terpestival website you can see the winners and understand terpene data by comparing the competitors to different strains and classifications in the Confident Cannabis Universe. The Terpestival Site linked is HERE.

The Terpestival website opens with a gallery of all the competitors. From this page you can click to see more detail for each entrant including a full cannabinoid and terpene profile from testing laboratory Medicine Creek.

How to Use the Terpestival Website

On the Flower Winners page you can select any competition category using the first dropdown menu. This shows green dots for all the competition entrants. The winner in that category is highlighted in gold, for the Myrcene category the winner was North Coast Grower’s Fruity Pebbles with 1.49% Myrcene of dry weight, congratulations! You can also select a comparison universe to learn more about how common myrcene is in different classifications and strains. In the Comparison Universe dropdown you can select different universes, different classifications or different strains. You can look at the terpene profile for strains like Blue Dream, OG Kush, Sour Diesel and others. The universe shows on the chart as a green boxplot which represents the full range of terpene levels for whatever you have selected.

By changing the chart scale you can also see the data on the chart as a % of dry weight or as a % of total terpenes so that you can see how much myrcene there is in the flower compared to other terpenes in the same flower product. To see even more about the mix of terpenes you can go to “Explore Flower Samples”. On this page you will see a radar chart showing all the terpenes for a competitor and compare them to the same universe. Below you can see North Coast Growers Gorilla Glue which won four awards, congratulations! This competitor has very high caryophyllene and humulene which tend to occur together in cannabis flower. In the chart below we can compare this to Trainwreck which is a very different strain. Trainwreck usually has more Terpinolene and more Myrcene but lower Caryophyllene and Humulene. You can explore yourself to see more!

About Confident Cannabis

Confident Cannabis is the leading software platform for cannabis testing labs and their clients to track and share their products’ quality. When your lab uses Confident Cannabis, so can you! You can then get access to many of these tools and more including embeddable product gallery, labels, shareable test results and fraud-prevention tools. Check confidentcannabis.com to find labs in your region.

 

Introducing the Terpestival Popular Education Panels

by Dominic Corva,  Event Producer and Social Science Research Director

This year’s posts about The Original Terpestival (TM) follow the rhythm of the event’s production. First, we told you about the event. Second, we made our call for entries, explaining the political economy of the entry process — how the entry economy has a politics to it, specifically a politics of wellness. Along the way we described the value we are creating for entrants, who are provided with a vehicle for branding and marketing I 502 cannabis beyond THC and low price. We have also referred to the value created by our keynote and popular education panels, which serve to educate budtenders, consumers, retailers, policymakers and the public (in roughly that order of priority) on the science and economy of the whole plant. We also target producers and processors of course, but that demographic is significantly already educated and acting on whole plant knowledge.

Today begins a short series on the theory and practice of our keynote and education panels. I thought to write just one, but really there’s quite a bit to talk about and I want to keep these missives digestible.

I first wrote about the education work that can be done in cannabis events in August, 2014, for The Ganjier. This was barely a year after founding CASP, and inspired by the network of highly conscious cannabis events I had been pulled into over the previous few years doing research on policing and cannabis agriculture. I had been speaking at Seattle Hempfest since teaching a course on Cannabis and Society for the University of Washington’s Law, Societies and Justice Center in 2009, but once my cannabis research began in earnest I found myself participating in some key Southern Humboldt/Emerald Triangle events that combined popular education with industry evolution. These included the the last Emerald Cup before it moved to Santa Rosa and got huge, produced by Tim Blake; The Golden Tarp Awards produced by Kevin Jodrey; and also Kevin’s Spring Planting event.

What struck me was how these events successfully created spaces of intense interest from industry, to listen and learn, even with all the fun and games going on. The intent of the producers to create knowledge that was Useful coincided with the industry’s organic compulsion to seek out Necessary Knowledge, because things were changing fast. Humboldt’s watersheds were drying up, prices were crashing, and new industry players were colonizing a real estate landscape that was developed earlier by much more ecologically conscious “back to the land” and eco-anarchist groups. The Redwood Curtain was being ripped away in a process of creative destruction that could not be ignored. And it was all being catalyzed by a tectonic shift in public policy, away from punishment and eradication and towards especially environmental regulation and later, tax revenue collection.

What I learned from my journey was that if cannabis culture was to survive the policy shift to “tax and regulate,” it would require a lot of work by cannabis culture to make itself Useful and Necessary for the legal industry future. It had to create ways for new players, market participants, and consumers to do cannabis capitalism differently than commodity capitalism, which would otherwise simply destroy and replace the anti-authoritarian, ecologically conscious social movement that made it possible.

But the Washington context was, and remains, quite different from the California context, which focused on best growing and extraction processes, environmental issues, and regulatory genesis. Before I 502, our sun grown cannabis agriculture was dwarfed by its urban counterpart along the I 5 corridor. Our regulatory genesis was driven first by the politics of rights, and then later by the alcohol regulators tasked with literally replacing our decentralized, largely indoor economy, on the one hand; and imports from British Colombia (which largely ended in 2006), Oregon, and California on the other. Most significantly, our state made the choice to regulate cannabis like alcohol, rather than like cannabis.

The “like alcohol” crowd created new barriers to entry and participation that meant the new industry couldn’t take up the Whole Plant and conscious consumer politics associated with traditional cannabis culture in Washington. They took the cannabis out of the jars and sealed them into little packages with THC content on the labels, the only information besides how pretty the package was for consumers to go on; and disenfranchised medical products by alienating medical consumers through a mandatory registry and by closing down the broadly accessible system that had developed under medical cannabis. I don’t mean to reproduce moral outrage for something that has happened and isn’t going to be restored. The facts presented here explain how our industry got evolutionarily “stuck” and how our keynote and popular education efforts create Useful and Necessary Knowledge for stymied industry growth through evolution.

This meant that producers and processors didn’t have much to differentiate their product on the marketplace, on the one hand, especially through smells, samples, and sharing; and that efforts to produce medical products, including but not limited to CBD-rich products, could not be profitable enough to pursue. The game was THC monoculture, low prices, pretty packaging, and high volume.

The problem with THC monoculture isn’t simply a moral one. It severely limits the ability of producers and processors to compete in the marketplace, since they are all chasing the same market variables. And it severely limits the ability of retailers to reach a significant existing market, medical consumers; as well as to create a strong new consumer base more interested in the “wellness” aspects of cannabis consumption than how high they can get (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that). These include but are not limited to: retirees, veterans, athletes, children with epilepsy, and people who want to explore ways of dealing with pain beyond pharmaceutical medicine with often horrific side effects including addiction. The future of the legal cannabis market is much broader and highly differentiated than the I 502 present.

But it won’t be if our most knowledgable and innovative producers and processors go out of business because they can’t win the race to the bottom. Thanks in large part to the pioneering lifework our keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo, they don’t have to. Producers and processors can compete in a diverse marketplace especially by highlighting the incredibly diverse ways that terpenes and terpene profiles deliver cannabinoids to many, many different endocannabinoid systems — many of which are not made well by THC. While the Terpene Tournament (TM) showcases industry evolution, our keynote and panel speakers provide the scientific, technical, and expert information necessary to stimulate market growth and consumer preference for diversity.

There are three panels, two of which are annual in the sense that they address ongoing topics associated with a popular education focus: branding cannabis with the politics of wellness, by populating and popularizing the value of terpenes in the production of the “entourage effect” coined by our keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo. This stands in contrast to a monocultural focus on the cash value of lab-reported THC, which we see as the cultural foundation of the current regulated market.

Let’s take a look at the panels and then follow up in the coming days with a post that more thoroughly introduces our speakers and their specific topics.

Our Industry Evolution panel addresses constituent parts of industry so that they may prosper by valuing wellness. The purpose of this panel is to catalyze the evolution of Washington’s legal cannabis industry by featuring the Subject Matter Experts with deep historical and ongoing perspectives not readily available in Washington State. Our speakers are Kevin Jodrey of Wonderland Nursery and the Ganjier; Rick Pfrommer of Pfrommer Consulting, former lead buyer for Harborside Health Center; Aaron Stancyk of our lab sponsor Medicine Creek Analytics; and our Terpene Tournament (TM) Judges’ Coordinator, Alison Draisin of Ettalew’s Medibles.

Our Current Topics” panel will change each year. This year’s addresses an emergent industry phenomenon, the market for Cannabis-derived and other TerpenesThe purpose of this panel is to educate industry and the public on different perspectives and techniques emerging as industry “takes on” terpenes to create and market products. Our speakers are Ben Cassiday of True Terpenes, Kate Quackenbush of I 502 processor Fractal, , Pam Haley of Aromatherapy Consulting and I 502 producer/processor Pam’s Plants; and Jeremy Plumb of Farma, The Cultivation Classic, and the Open Cannabis Project.

And of course, our Terpenes and Wellness panel addresses the science and practice of cannabis-facilitated wellness. The purpose of this panel is to hear from medical experts how terpenes are used in the clinical setting.  Retention of the terpene fraction may influence the overall effect of the product used. Examples from patient will be presented. The speakers on this panel are: Dr. Michelle Sexton, co-founder and Medical Science Research Director for the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy; Seattle pediatric physician Dr. Hatha Gbedawo, and keynote speaker Dr. Ethan Russo.

The information provided by our subject matter experts create strong roots for another foundation to be possible: wellness. We understand wellness in terms of an ecology in balance, a condition of physical well-being that is reproduced by the health of the social system in which our bodies are embedded. Stay tuned for a more in-depth introduction to our speakers in the coming days!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Alliance of Cannabis for Wellness

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The cannabis peace movement faces many challenges, but perhaps the most significant one is the limited appeal of cannabis politics to the vast majority of a population that could literally take the plant, or leave it. The Cannabis Alliance, and the organizational work from which it was born, has always been a broad-based, bottom-up effort to broaden the appeal of cannabis issues and markets to society. It’s not just another trade group, it’s a coalition of different individual issues and interests that understands we are stronger together, working for collective empowerment from the bottom-up. We’ve had two major political frames to work with: cannabis provides medical benefits, and cannabis provides economic benefits. Up to this point, medical benefits have been mostly understood in terms of helping the sick; and adult use in terms of helping the economy (including freedom to consume).

These powerful political frames have moved us considerably towards a goal of helping society make peace with the plant, which is the central mission of my nonprofit research organization, the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy (CASP).

Today I want to introduce a political frame that encompasses physical sickness, financial security, and so much more, to help society understand that our struggles connect with broader public interests in a positive way. I want to talk about the cannabis and the politics of wellness, a frame of reference that includes everyone, not just cannabis patients and entrepreneurs. If there is a common ground for an society in which the struggle to exist has led to generalized competition over whose suffering must be addressed, I believe that it must be the concept and practice of wellness.

Medical and adult-use cannabis have been deliberately pitted against each other in a way that overwhelmingly stifles the growth potential of our newly regulated cannabis industry. It does this by unnecessarily posing a tension between protecting public health from a controlled substance, and creating a new industry that can provide jobs and opportunities in a landscape increasingly bereft of both.

Wellness is about diet, exercise, mindfulness, and the regulation of stress. The promotion of cannabis for wellness transcends that tension by posing cannabis use and markets in a positive, inclusive way. Everyone wants to be well, and most people understand that the cultivation of wellness requires developing healthy habits that keep us from being sick and unemployed. An industry that learns about and draws attention to the ways that cannabis can help us be well is one that appeals to a broader public, and a more diverse and conscious consumer base.

My organization’s annual fundraising event, The Original Terpestival, is designed to promote efforts to brand cannabis with the politics of wellness. The consumption and marketing of cannabis as a delivery vehicle for THC is one of the obstacles to broader considerations of the whole plant and its many ways of helping people be well. The event encourages other ways of relating to the plant by focusing on the “delivery” mechanism for cannabinoids, terpenes. Terpenes are essential oils found in all plants, not just cannabis, that can contribute significantly to feelings of wellness beyond the relief of pain associated with cannabinoids.

We know this because our annual keynote speaker, Dr. Ethan Russo, president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, has pioneered the application of aromatherapy research to cannabinoid research. This opens up a world of possibilities for associating cannabis with wellness, but that message needs a delivery vehicle itself — or a fleet of delivery vehicles. That’s where industry comes in. The newly legal cannabis industry faces many challenges associated with what I call THC monoculture, in which a single molecule category dominates both market promotion and public health-related regulations.

The promotion of Terpene education transcends these limitations by promoting the diversity of the plant and its applications — the opposite of monoculture. And an industry that understands that diversity is an industry with a broad, growing consumer base oriented towards broad-based wellness, a political frame that expands knowledge about the therapeutic potential of cannabis while growing a robust and conscientious consumer base. Our popular education panels and keynote promote wellness in the cannabis industry by giving the cannabis industry information that promotes its economic health.

Our delivery vehicle for this information is out Terpene Tournament, a boutique cannabis competition that literally gives the industry new ways to differentiate, create, and market products for a more conscious public.

We are proud to partner with the Cannabis Alliance in this effort because this has always been common ground for our organizations. It is an organic extension of social relationships I have been developing since founding the organization in 2013. Lara Kaminsky, the Alliance’s executive director, is not only a CASP Board member but our event planner. We’ve worked together to promote the emergence of healthy cannabis policy and markets practically since the moment I returned to Seattle, along with many Alliance members that constitute the CASP information and organizational network. Together we form an entourage effect greater than any particular interest or issue facing the cannabis peace movement today.

Together, even when we are sick, tired, poor, and stressed out, we are WELL. This realization helps me get up every day, grateful for my social ecology, and determined to carry our message forward.

Taming THC Inflation: Is There a Silver Bullet?

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Washington State’s approach to cannabis legalization provides many lessons for other states coming on line in the future. One of the really state-specific lessons we have learned over the last four years is that we have created a situation in which measured THC levels on packaged flowers are much higher than those observed during the period of unregulated medical cannabis markets. There are actually two significant problems with this. Please note that this analysis refers specifically to flowers — processed cannabis products can and usually are homogenized in the process, so test results are less of a concern.

  1. High THC levels, which approach and sometimes exceed what is botanically possible, are inaccurate and misleading.
  2. Labs that consistently deliver higher THC results than other labs “corner the market” since higher results make products more likely to sell, under Washington’s particular approach to legal cannabis packaging.

Both of these problems create suboptimal public policy results, with respect to scientific accuracy, on the one hand, and unfair market advantage for untrustworthy labs on the other. Let’s take them one at a time, before examining a simple, completely technical approach that could virtually eliminate these problems.

Suspiciously high THC results can be the consequence of intentional and unintentional behavior or decisions by producers, processors, labs, and rule makers. There’s no reason to point fingers when there are so many factors contributing to this outcome. Instead, let me list a few.

  1. Consumers that are not allowed to sample or smell the product they purchase, due to packaging and retail display rules, are deciding what to buy on very little information. Adult-use consumers clearly show a preference for high THC numbers, which are required numbers found on each package. And like consumers of other products, they are swayed by clever and attractive packaging, which has no inherent correlation to the quality of the product inside. Most packaging provides a fairly limited window to observe the “bag appeal” of the product inside. In fact, “bag appeal” in these conditions refers significantly to the appeal of the bag, not what’s in it, because that all they can see. This is an unintentional outcome of strict packaging and display rules, and there is no reason to suspect foul play. It’s structural, not the outcome of bad intent.
  2. Labs, by rule, have one broad direction with respect to how they go about testing product. They are instructed by rule to follow the guidelines laid out about cannabis in the American Herbal Pharmacopeia. These guidelines were not designed to standardize lab methods in any particular direction. So, Washington’s labs have each independently arrived at how they follow those guidelines. This is also a structural problem, and to their credit many of Washington’s labs have begun collaborating to develop “best practices” to help standardize methodologies.
  3. Lab reference standards — the individual cannabinoid samples they use to compare industry products in order to arrive at numbers — can vary for a number of reasons. Most labs source these from Restek, but there are other suppliers out there. This can introduce variability for obvious reasons. Some non-obvious reasons for reference standard variability include how those are stored, and how long they are used before they are replaced. The temperature and pressure at which reference standards are stored contribute greatly to the their stability. And of course labs may vary in how long they go before replacing “used up” or unreliable standards, for intentional and unintentional reasons. This introduces a lot of potential variability in test results across labs. It is a structural problem faced in any laboratory industry that tests products using chemical reference standards. It could be improved, but not likely eliminated. Here is where the lesson that scientific methods are not perfect, but they can be more transparent.
  4. Cannabis plants are highly variable from top cola to bottom buds. This is a problem of sampling a product that is not uniform. It can be a little helpful to require independent, third party samplers. But even when that happens, the plant is highly variable. It’s a plant, not an industrial product. This is a structural problem, but more of a structural problem for science in general rather than our particular approach to cannabis regulation.

There are other factors that influence the variability of THC lab results, but the lesson is: THC results can be precise, but how accurate they are always an open question. Precise THC numbers are always a guide, not a guarantee. It is absolutely crucial that consumers and policymakers understand this limit. Now, the problem of market capture via THC inflation.

  1. How do producers and processors choose which lab to use? There are many business decisions to make when choosing labs. These include convenience, professionalism, and consistency — but as Dr. Jim MacRae’s work has shown with a high degree of methodological confidence, it’s pretty clear that producers and processors are choosing labs based how high their THC results can be. One caveat: producers and processors are clearly behaving badly when they agree to pay labs more for higher numbers.
  2. Producers and processors are making market decisions when they do this. As mentioned above, THC levels correspond with product velocity and therefore more sales. They may be perfectly aware that this is unfortunate, but they also know that the precision of lab results does not necessarily reflect accuracy in any case. So, given the choice of more sales rather than less, they choose more. I call this a structural problem, although there is certainly an ethically questionable element. Some producer/processors want to evolve consumers away from the importance of precise THC numbers, and choose the more challenging road because they have a long-term vision of the industry in which they operate.
  3. Labs are making market decisions when they choose to follow methods that result in higher THC numbers, AND labs are making unethical decisions when they receive payment for higher numbers, for example, or intentionally introduce methodological variations that favor higher results. We have also encountered the “drylabbing” phenomenon in Washington State, whereby labs literally just make up numbers to report. That’s way beyond the pale, and one lab has already been shut down for this. Other labs that may have done this in the past have cleaned up their act.

 

So, how do we tame THC inflation? Obviously, improved governance has some effect — and that governance includes the public reporting work that Dr. MacRae has done, which has clearly had a strong effect on lab motivation to not look bad. Every lab test result in this state is public information, and any public servant with database skills can request WSLCB data and run the numbers themselves.

However, there is a “silver bullet” technical fix that could absolutely clean up most of the mess. Here it is.

Normalize lab results by lab, and require only the percentile of each result to be listed on the package rather than a precise percentage.

Each lab has its own data population and range of results. For all of the reasons listed above, the numbers they produced are not comparable across labs; nor are they comparable across time (hello, life cycle of reference standards).

For a lab that consistently ranges up to 32% but no higher, for example, a sample that tests at 32% would be reported at the 100th percentile. The number on the package would be 100.

For a lab that consistently ranges up to 25%, a sample that tests at 25% would also be reported at the 100th percentile. The number on the package would also be 100.

Doing this changes the comparisons away from apples to oranges (how we are doing it now), and towards apples to apples.

Simply doing this would eliminate shopping for the highest THC prices immediately. Producers and processors could then make decisions on what lab they used based on best business practices and convenience, rather than unscrupulous behavior.

It would take a simple line of code in the tracking software, and a small shift in packaging information. It would also of course need to by dynamically updated, perhaps by using only the last 100 results. New laboratories would use the industry average for 100 results, and then once they had significant data from their own results switch over.

Listing a normalized percentile instead of a precise quantity would also help shift consumer and policymaker understanding of what lab results mean and how they are used. They should be use primarily to indicate that something is strong, qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, because again, cannabis flowers are variable and precise numbers do not mean accurate numbers.

That’s it. It’s an immodest proposal — an actual silver bullet based on understanding how statistical variability influences market outcomes, and therefore provides “loopholes” that reward unethical behavior.

I want to thank Dr. Jim MacRae especially for making this issue one that the industry and policymakers can’t ignore any more. He’s got his own style for doing so, but you can’t argue with his methods which are absolutely testable by any citizen-scientist that cares to. Fortunately, his work has been amplified by two cannabis journalists whose approach makes it a bit harder for people to ignore, Bob Young of the Seattle Times and Tobias Coughlin-Bogue of Leafly.