How to choose a product – An Industry Interview

 

In this series, we do a deep dive with cannabis industry folks to get an insider’s perspective of all things cannabis. This week, we pose our questions to a patient – EO CEO Scott Foster – and a doctor – Medical Cannabis Physician Dr. Jennifer Minkovich.

Dr. Minkovich, what factors should a person consider when choosing a strain (indica v sativa, THC content v plant profile, etc.)?

That is a great question. There’s really only one reliable way to evaluate and pick a cannabis product, and that is, to look at the cannabinoid and terpene profiles on the label. The cannabinoids and terpenes in the cannabis plant are the naturally-occurring plant molecules that bind to the receptors in our body and produce an effect. Different cannabinoids create different effects, and different terpenes create different effects. For example, from the available scientific literature, we know that the minor cannabinoid called CBN, or cannabinol, has a sedating effect when used in conjunction with even a small amount of THC. Thus, many products out there that are marketed for insomnia are actually just isolates of THC and CBN. It’s also important to look at the amount of THC contained in the product. THC has what’s called a “bimodal effect,” meaning that, at low doses, it often causes an uplifting, energetic feeling, while at higher doses it induces sedation. By the way, this is not unique at all to THC; many chemical compounds affect the human body in this bimodal way.

When it comes to terpenes, the research is less robust. There are some well-accepted concepts however. For example, myrcene, which is the most abundant terpene found in the cannabis plant naturally, causes sedation at high levels. What is a “high level” you ask? The answer is that we don’t know exactly. There’s not enough research to give a clear answer. The widely accepted answer amongst dispensary pharmacists is that any terpene present in an amount that is 2% or more of the total weight of the product is considered to be significant. To this day, it is still unclear to me where this rule of thumb comes from, and I suspect that, just like every other chemical, medicine, or molecule, each terpene probably has a specific range of dosing that is optimal. For now though, we are just making due with the information that we have and making the best decisions that we can based on imperfect data, which happens a lot in the world of medicine. The take-home message is really that if you know what cannabinoids and what terpenes are in your cannabis flower or in your cannabis product, and you have a basic understanding of what effect each cannabinoid and terpene has in the human body, you can then predict the overall effect that that cannabis product is going to have in your body.

What about picking products based on the sativa versus indica labels?

Great question. One totally unreliable way to pick a cannabis flower or product is to go by the misleading terms “sativa” and “indica,” which continue to plague us to this day. We are so entrenched with these terms that patients, budtenders, and grower/processors alike still use them and label products as such, which is very detrimental to the consumer. We’ve been brainwashed to believe that something labeled as “indica” is going to cause sedation, relaxation, and couch-lock, while something labeled as “sativa” is going to cause an uplifted, euphoric feeling. Unfortunately this doesn’t line up, and many cannabis consumers and MMJ patients are relying on those terms to make purchasing decisions, which can lead to poor outcomes.

To be clear, “sativa” and “indica” are horticultural terms that refer to the morphology of the cannabis plant, meaning what the plant looks like. If the plant is short and bushy we call it “indica”; If the plant is tall and thin with long leaves, we call it “sativa.” But the way a cannabis plant looks does correlate with the exact genetics of the plant and does not tell us the cannabinoid and terpene makeup of the plant, and therefore does not accurately predict how that plant is going to affect us. I try and try and try to discourage people, including GP reps, dispensary staff, and patients, from using those terms, but I’m basically screaming into the void. The terminology is still too widespread. I’m confident though that moving forward, with so much interest being focused on the science of cannabis, and with so many people actively trying to learn about it, that we will one day shake those terms off.

Scott how do you, as an MMJ patient, navigate cannabis products?

With indica vs sativa not being a reliable term as Dr. Minkovich mentioned, I tend to look more at the genetics and cannabinoid profile, when it’s available. Using sites like Leafly or Wikileaf, if I see a strain that was created from other strains that I like, then there’s a good chance I’m going to like that new one as well. In PA, a few dispensaries have started putting some of the product labels online on their websites to view, but it’s rare, and their accuracy should be taken with a grain of salt. My strategy has been that when I find a new strain that I like, I try to take note of the cannabinoid profile on the label and compare it to other strains that may have had similar effects. After a few months of logging this data, I started to identify the specific terpenes and THC/CBD ratios that suited me best. I treat my anxiety with cannabis, but I found that some strains could actually worsen my anxiety due to a high THC/CBD ratio, so I pay close attention to THC and CBD content. In addition, I have found that certain terpene profiles make my head race, so I avoid them. I also try to follow genetic lineage, but even that is getting harder to trust with continued hybridization over the years. 

Scott, as you are aware, a lot of folks out there focus solely on THC content when making a purchase. What do you think about this purchasing strategy?

I’m definitely pro-THC; It is of course a really important cannabinoid, but it’s definitely not the only thing to consider. I’ve had high-THC products that were nearly completely devoid of any other cannabinoids, and the experience was severely lacking in medicinal benefit. Focusing mainly on the THC content when purchasing also perpetuates some of the mislabeling in the industry as well. That’s why it’s so important that patients understand the entourage effect and how these compounds work together to provide their effects. That’s the only true way to get the most out of this awesome plant– Understand it and understand yourself, then apply the two.

Dr Minkovich, What about picking products using their so-called strain name?

This approach is better than nothing but it’s not as reliable as going by the cannabinoid and terpene profile. A recent study done looked at same-name cannabis varieties (“strains”) from several dispensaries in three states. The study specifically looked at the genetics of the strains and found that strain names often didn’t match up with the expected genetics. Meaning that cannabis flower that’s called Purple Kush that you purchase at one dispensary may be vastly different in it’s chemical composition from a Purple Kush product purchased at another dispensary. The study even found that there were inconsistencies within the same dispensary. This might seem crazy when we consider that the plants are often clones of each other, which should be genetically identical. However, we know that growing conditions affect the chemical composition, the cannabinoid and terpene contents, of a plant. The study also suggests that there may be some mislabeling going on out there, with a grower processor labeling a specific chemovar (aka “strain”) as whatever the popular strain is at the time. This is a deceptive practice and is done obviously to increase sales.

Scott what do you say on this topic of strain name?

I agree with Dr. Minkovich that even this isn’t the most reliable way to go. It is known that batches can even vary at the same dispensary. One approach I’ve taken is to follow influencers and other community members on social media like Instagram and Reddit for recent product reviews of what’s on the shelf currently. The cannabis community loves to take pics and share their product reviews.

 

The Origins of Emerald Origins

The Origins of Emerald Origins

The road to launching Emerald Origins is one paved on a flexible road, as the hurdles that swayed its course helped shape E.O. into the platform it is today. 

It was nearing the end of 2019, and I was in the midst of a career change after running a successful web development and marketing company, Satori Design, for the last twelve years. The market for small business websites had become overly commoditized. I no longer found the work as fulfilling as I once did. I wrestled with my future direction for over a year, first attempting to learn Javascript, thinking that if I could learn higher-level programming I could build out all of my own ideas myself. However, I quickly found that sitting behind the dark, lifeless terminal screen all day was not the right fit. 

Through some soul-searching and taking the 16 Personalities Test based on the Myers-Briggs codes, I knew my purpose was to create things that made a difference in the world. After taking the test twice to confirm its findings, I was bowled over with the 200 page report. I quite literally learned the “whys” behind my purpose that I struggled answering previously. The only area I disagreed with were the career opportunities. While my experience with substance abuse and addiction made me suitable for a counselor role, I saw myself in a different direction. 

Instead, I combined my desire to help people with my passion for tech and design. Together, I saw a solution to helping people. 

My purpose wasn’t to help a business gain more profits. It was to make a lasting difference on a social and community level. So, I enrolled in Career Foundry’s User Experience and Interface Design program to leverage my previous experience and skills to solve real-world problems. I thought the course could help improve the experience for medical consumers. 

After two years as a patient in the Pennsylvania medical cannabis program, I noticed numerous issues from online ordering processes to inventory management at my local dispensaries. I sought out to use my experiences to provide a better path. That endeavor would prove challenging to say the least, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Several Attempts At Creating A Medical Cannabis Solution In Pennsylvania

My first thought was to try to solve the state program’s problems with an innovative e-commerce solution. The first barrier I came up against was accessing dispensary management-level folks willing to answer my questions. Nobody seemed to have the time to talk to a patient visiting their dispensary about software issues. Expecting that outcome, I pushed on in another direction. 

Help was needed navigating the cannabis industry from a medical and business perspective. I needed assistance, a partner in the field, cutting through the red tape on both ends. Soon, I met Dr. Jen Minkovich. 

If you don’t know Jen Minkovich, you should. She’s a leading mind in the Pennsylvania cannabis space. Dr. Jen has worked in the medical cannabis field since the program’s inception while also serving as a long-time cannabis advocate. She also runs a nonprofit that provides no-cost certifications to patients with HIV/AIDS. 

We hit it off while discussing various industry problems. She quickly agreed to help me however she could.

Right from the start, her help proved immense. She began setting up a phone call with the general manager of a local seed-to-sale brand. The GM that I spoke with had a plethora industry insights that proved immensely valuable. I learned that many of the issues related to poor online dispensary service and system-wide blackouts were not going to be able to be solved using my initial solutions. This was due to Pennsylvania being locked into a lengthy contract with suboptimal software. They felt that this less than adequate software made it impossible to solve the issues at its root.

After that call, it was time for another pivot.

Searching For Solutions In A Sea Of Medical Cannabis Pain Points

In search of another problem to solve, I reflected on my experience becoming a medical marijuana patient. Those were pre-telehealth days. I remember struggling with program transparency and what I had to do after being approved.

Pricing and procedures were glaring issues. When I went online to find a doctor, the prices were all over the board. There was no standardization or clear explanation of what was actually required. Some places charged $250 for certification while requiring one or more additional follow-up visits. Other options charged less with no additional visit requirements.   

I tested a few out to gauge the patient experience first-hand.

My first attempt at getting certified was through an online service that did not indicate who I would be seen by. I paid for the appointment and was sent an address that showed a vacant building in Philly on Google Maps. That was enough for me to cancel my visit. 

My next attempt was at a doctor’s office in Center City, Philly. It seemed reputable online, but in person, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. I was met with and was certified by a doctor who had hair that more so resembled the famous multi colored hair rappers of the day. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am pro-self-expression, of course, but the experience was indeed unorthodox for a medical visit. Still, he did certify me for the medical program.

My struggles grew after I was finally able to get a card. A few months after being certified, I received a notice from the state medical cannabis program. While my certification would remain valid, they notified me that I needed to find a new doctor after my previous physician and his vibrant aesthetic were barred from the program. While annoying, global circumstances would actually improve the certification process to some degree. 

A Cannabis Industry Information Gap In Need Of Closure

It was now 2020, and the horrors of COVID had begun. This pandemic, which changed nearly every aspect of our daily lives, did lead to one positive part: Pennsylvania temporarily approved certification via telehealth. I now had an idea to solve my first problem set. At the same time, I was reminded of another pressing concern about the emerging market. 

After staying in touch and tossing around ideas with Dr. Jen, it became apparent that the MMJ knowledge gap around cannabis in general had to be closed. I instantly agreed with her assessment, recalling my own past experiences. 

I was a long-time cannabis user from my teens through my early twenties. I paused my cannabis use while recovering from other substance issues. After being prescribed pharmaceuticals that did more harm than good for five years, I decided to bring cannabis back into my life in 2020. Everything changed after giving this healing plant the respect it deserved. 

Cannabis, alongside psilocybin, began transforming my life. As it did, I wanted to learn as much about both as possible. I’ll get more into more nootropics exploration and endeavors sometime soon. But for now, let’s focus on cannabis:

Sure, I had significant experience with smoking pot, but it was always with a bong, joint, bowl, or even a soda can. There were now so many choices — flower, vapes, and concentrates labeled from butter to badder. 

I began questioning everything about this emerging world of cannabis: 

  • Did any methods make you concentrate more? 
  • What were budders and badders? 
  • Are extracts used for making edibles? 
  • What else did I need to know?

Searching online led to more questions and few resources containing the organized information I had hoped to find. The issue extended to the doctors as well.

Dr. Jen informed me that most professionals only receive minimal mandatory education regarding cannabis, which barely touches on this miraculous plant’s essential aspects. It was clear that doctors, like patients, lacked resources. With that in mind, I sought out to create a trusted educational resource using telehealth as a starting point to create additional tools and resources. 

Combining Telemed And Public Information

At this point, we now had a solid solution to make a difference in the industry. Emerald Origins was ready to do its part for the community. Today, our cannatech platform facilitates patient-centric services and doctor-patient interface using telehealth, while offering educational and entertaining resources to the cannabis community. 

Our success lay in our foundational team members. After proving to be an outstanding and invaluable partner from the start, Dr. Jen naturally became the company’s Chief Cannabis Advisor. Paul Clough, my former business consultant, came on in an advisory capacity. His breadth of experience would be a valuable guiding hand in guiding the company’s corporate development. He is a business leader, with over 25 years of experience handling operations from marketing to financial planning. He has spent the past decade as the founder and partner of mid-size business advisory firm Fresnel Partners. 

Paul is also a testament to the opportunities in cannabis. Paul was a novice in the cannabis industry. Still, the more he learned of the plant’s efficacy and potential through discussions with Jen and I, the more he became excited. 

Nearly bootstrapped, we set out to build our platform and bring Emerald Origins to life while advancing our business ethics and goals. That includes E.O. C.A.R.E.S., which stands for Community, Activism, Respect, Education, and Service. They are the core principles that drive our decisions and power our mission to make a difference in our local communities with the kinds of programs we plan to put in place as we grow. 

As Emerald Origins embarks, I hope this story gives you a glimpse into not only who we are, but what we aim to achieve. In time, this article will ideally be a snapshot of where Dr. Jen, Paul, myself and the medical industry stood at this point. With hope, we can soon look back on this period and say it was only the beginning for cannabis treatments and information about the plant.