Weed has been legal for 18 months. We still don't know how products will make you feel

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Cannabis reviewer Brad Martin is a self-described “numbers guy.”  

With a background in real estate, he began tracking metrics like prices and cannabinoid composition for each cultivar (cultivated variety, often called a “strain”) he tried in 2016, when he became a medical cannabis consumer. The realtor in him wanted to find the best value on the market.  

Over time, his metrics expanded. He began tracking appearance, scent, taste and things like the average number of days packaged before purchase and more, all with an eye for quality and value. In that pursuit, he has succeeded. He has reviewed hundreds of cultivars and developed a following from his work. 

But there’s one metric he doesn’t track: How cannabis varieties make him feel.

Because different types of cannabis affect people differently, Martin — who has reviewed some varieties for The GrowthOp — hesitates to recommend cultivars to treat specific conditions. 

“I don’t want to be too suggestive,” he says.

There is no one-size-fits-all cannabis cultivar for depression, or chronic pain, or any other condition that consumers may be looking to treat with cannabis, he explains. Take Violator Kush by Barney’s Farm. Many describe their experience with it as relaxing, sedative, and creating a sense of “couch-lock” — weed jargon for not wanting to leave the couch. But for Martin, that’s not at all the case. He says it’s one of his preferred flowers for walking around and being social. 

More than 18 months after legalization, neither medical or recreational cannabis companies can guarantee the effects of the products they’re selling. In addition to making suggestions based on cannabinoid potency — the higher the THC, the more potent, for example — budtenders still rely on the stoner ethos that there are three types of cannabis: indica, sativa and hybrids. 

Sativa plants (left) are taller and leaner than indica plants.

Indica-dominant flowers possess heavy, sedative effects, while sativa-dominant varieties lean toward the more heady and cerebral. But a lot has changed since those terms first emerged, from cross-breeding to deepening our understanding of the plant’s composition. Indica and sativa categories are useful to highlight the physical differences between the plants — indica plants are squat and stocky, sativa plants are taller and leaner. But that’s about it. 

The terpene question

The new fixation is terpenes, the organic compounds that give plants and fruits their scents. Like cannabinoids, terpenes — with names like limonene, linalool and caryophyllene — are believed to influence the cannabis experience by binding to receptors in the brain, and like cannabinoids, different terpenes offer different therapeutic benefits. 

But how those chemical combinations take effect will depend on the person. Beyond the composition of the flower itself, each person has a unique endocannabinoid system. Two people can ingest the same cultivar, at the same time, in the same way, and have two very different experiences. 

“What’s going to be interesting as the industry moves forward is how do you get around that fact?” asks Nick Jikomes, the principal research scientist at Leafly. “How do you actually solve this problem for consumers?”

Leafly’s director of science and Innovation, Nick Jikomes. Photo: provided

Leafly, now in its tenth year, has evolved its approach to answering that question. 

Last year, the company introduced a new visual system to highlight the differences between cultivars. Various shapes represent the cannabinoid profile and colours represent the terpene composition. 

Jikomes says Leafly has more consumer reviews than any other site that exists, which is a huge and valuable resource for consumers, but it’s also subjective information. Their new system cross-references reviews with the objective data they’ve gathered through lab testing.

“We’re combining those two things now for the first time, and there’s really nobody doing that in a systematic way other than Leafly,” he says. He says the company hasn’t scrubbed terms like indica and sativa from the site because they are more accessible for most consumers, and can help bring them into the platform to understand the new visual language they have designed. The goal, Jikomes says, is to get consumers to correlate the expected effects of a cultivar with a particular visual profile. 

“We believe it’s essential to provide that sort of validated scientific information to consumers, it’s an important part of education. And it is going to be a crucial aspect of starting to understand how something will affect you.” 

Limonene, found in citrus fruits, is believed to have mood-boosting capabilities and is often touted for its ability to combat depression, anxiety and stress. Linalool, common among flowers, think lavender, is believed to be calming and sedative. Caryophyllene is an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that’s believed to help alleviate muscle pain. More than 100 varieties of terpenes have been identified in cannabis. But, as with most everything else related to the plant, more research is needed to understand the scope, variety, and impacts of terpenes.

Consumer reviews

Toronto-based Lift & Co., founded in 2016, is similarly dedicated to helping consumers shop for medical and recreational cannabis products through a database of reviews. 

“Our position is, the strain, the genetics, all of that might be interesting information, but the consumer may never be able to credibly get their hands on that information,” says Jon Kamin, chief revenue officer. “What they get is access to a brand, a store, a package size. So we’re trying to bring that information from that perspective — this is what you can buy, here’s what people are saying about it. It’s a much more direct experience for the consumer to wrap their heads around.”

A sample review from Lift & Co.

Kamin says Lift has built checks and balances into their review system to make sure the information is accurate. The system flags potential issues, like an individual user repeatedly reviewing a strain, or speeding through the system, or skipping information sections. Kamin says that products must have a minimum of five reviews before they start to aggregate that information and make it public. 

But if a reviewer touts a particular strain for treating a specific affliction — “Helped cure my sleep deprivation,” reads one review of Weed Me’s CBD White Widow, for example, it may lead to a disappointment for another consumer that doesn’t experience the same benefit. 

Kamin says, on occasion, licensed cannabis cultivation companies have complained that their products were not getting fair reviews, or enough reviews, and that it was impacting consumer behaviour. 

“Our response to that is, this is not an opinion piece,” he says. “This is consumer sentiment, and it’s been sourced in an accurate way. We’re happy to share some of that information with you and give you a sense as to why they’re putting that review in place.”

Strainprint’s self-reported data

Other platforms, like medical cannabis app Strainprint, rely on self-reported data rather than laboratory testing or written reviews. 

Founded in 2016, co-founder Stephanie Karasick began using cannabis to treat a diagnosis of PTSD and depression. When her psychiatrist recommended she try cannabis, she didn’t know where to start. She began keeping a journal of her experiences with different varieties, taking note of things like time of day when medicating, how she felt before and after, and began noticing the different effects coming from different flowers. Eventually, her notebook became too cumbersome and with the help of her husband, a software developer, the Strainprint app was born. 

“Every person is different, which is our whole thing,” says Michelle Arbus, Strainprint’s VP of research. “It’s personalized medicine, where your own experience is quantified.” 

Strainprint users input data points like their symptoms, the products they are using, the method of ingestion, the dose they’ve taken and assign a score to the success of the product in treating their condition. It becomes a reference point as they try different strains and products.

“They need to know what works best for them,” Arbus says. “The thing with cannabis is, it’s different for everybody. Everyone has a different endocannabinoid system. So the point of the app is to try to make it easier to figure it out for yourself.”

The company makes money by anonymizing the data and selling subscriptions to an analytics platform and datasets to cultivators, clinics, and researchers. Arbus says more than 1.6 million sessions have been tracked in the app. 

The setting matters, too

For Martin, the process of understanding cannabis composition and how it interacts with the body and mind is on-going. Over the years, his own preferences have evolved. He no longer seeks out flowers based on THC percentage, but instead is interested in a more balanced profile and cannabis composition, he says. 

His experience with each cultivar is shaped by almost innumerable factors, but chief among them, he says, are location and his level of alertness at the time of consumption. 

“I tend to feel a greater level of intoxication when I use cannabis outside of my home, especially in situations (where) I might be more anxious,” he says. “The same cannabis can produce very different experiences depending on where I use it. And for physiological reasons, sleep is the biggest one. The same strain can be muted when I’m tired.”

In the meantime, he’s keeping up with the evolving science and understanding of the plant and its compounds. He also still hasn’t left behind his tried and true format of keeping a journal. It’s a reminder of the associations of every cultivar, the experience, and where he might be able to turn the next time he’s feeling a need to medicate. 

“It works for me,” he says. “It might not work for everybody else.”

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