The honeymoon is cashed.
For the first few years of legal cannabis in Oregon, the simple, surreal experience of being allowed to walk into a building, buy a gram or two of weed, and go home to smoke without fear of legal reprisal was enough.
Now comes the hard part.
With the dust kicked up by the initial Green Rush beginning to settle, a view of the nascent cannabis industry is coming into focus. And like any industry, it's got some problems.
Thankfully, there are also a lot of people within the industry committed to solving those problems before they become entrenched. Here are six innovative ideas that are helping build a better cannabis industry.
1. Portland's "Wizard of Weed" wants to make medical marijuana as reliable as ibuprofen.
With most cannabis, what you feel is what you get.
A nug of Blue Dream from one grower might make you feel energized, while another might help with your insomnia. If you're looking for a specific effect, especially a therapeutic one, you might be subject to a long process of trial and error, with no guarantee of consistency. And since cannabis was outlawed for so long, there's precious little high-level scientific research to help guide your decisions.
Portland's Jeremy Plumb is trying to change all that. He wants to help make cannabis every bit as reliable and predictable in its effects as ibuprofen or caffeine. Plumb, often cutely called the "Wizard of Weed" in stories by national outlets, is a ubiquitous presence in Portland marijuana. He's the co-founder of Farma dispensary, the WW-sponsored Cultivation Classic cannabis competition, and the Open Cannabis Project, dedicated to documenting the cannabis genome.
But last June, Plumb inaugurated yet another role: director of production science at high-tech Portland-area grower Pruf Cultivar. At Pruf, Plumb is trying to use tightly controlled growing experiments to attain results that hadn't previously been possible: He wants to map the genetic and environmental factors that give cannabis specific therapeutic effects.
The problem Plumb is trying to overcome at Pruf is also the thing that makes cannabis so promising as a therapeutic drug: the almost unrivalled complexity of the plant. Even when amounts of THC and CBD are the same, the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of a given cannabis plant are greatly affected by a vast number of chemicals called cannabinoids and terpenes, which can vary widely from plant to plant.
"The kind of diversity in this one species of plant is really extreme," he says. "It's like growing tomatoes and tobacco in the same facility."
Even if you give the same seed to four different growers, Plumb says you're likely to end up with four plants with radically different chemistries, which arise during growing because of differing light wavelength, temperature, humidity and carbon-dioxide density in the air.
"The different chemistry will have pronounced effects," he says. "There will be subtle differences. These states are subjective in many cases, and human physiology is diverse."
This variability also affects medical doctors' willingness to prescribe.
"If you talk to many doctors," says Plumb, "the key to being taken seriously is to have consistent attributes. So long as there is a huge range of effects, doctors don't want to make referrals. Leading hospice providers believe in the therapeutic benefits but are concerned about the ways it can provoke anxiety and have negative and harmful effects."
The key to cataloging therapeutic benefits more consistently, Plumb believes, is the ability to conduct controlled, reproducible experiments in growing.
This isn't a new goal for Plumb—he began this work at a now-defunct farm called Newcleus Nurseries two years ago, and his Farma dispensaries test for individual terpenes rather than just display CBD and THC percentages. But at Newcleus, he didn't have the resources he has at Pruf.
"At Pruf, one of the great things is that we have controlled environments," he says. The team at Pruf can modulate temperature, light, humidity and other factors and record the effects on the chemotype of the plant. "I was the luckiest guy ever to find this team that had all kinds of other talents: operational capacity, technical capacity."
Plumb and his team hope to help pinpoint the mix of cannabinoids and terpenes that help bring about the desired therapeutic result. There's still a lot of ground to cover, but Plumb is optimistic about harnessing cannabis's medical potential.
"If we can nail this down, in controlled environments with many different [growing] chambers, we're really creating a revolutionary supply chain. Long-term, quality-of-life improvement programs can begin," Plumb says. "In a time of commercial recreation, people have become jaded about medical cannabis. We're hoping to help the poor and the sick and the dying—not just the new, hip recreational customer." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
2. The Open Cannabis Project is tapping the public to protect cannabis from corporate monopolization.
Finding a strain or particular genetic attribute that works for your specific needs is a uniquely satisfying triumph.
If I catch a whiff of that familiar, funky scent of Girl Scout Cookies, I rest easy knowing it will give me a boost of cheery motivation for my gloomy variety of stress. I don't know how every strain will taste or feel just based on smell, but I do know that some mix of those GSC genes gives me exactly what I need to unwind worries without turning my brain off.
I also know that one day, the wrong company could patent the Girl Scout Cookies strain and I wouldn't be able to find anything other than a watered-down copy. The actual growers who invented the strain wouldn't be allowed to cultivate it without infringing on some corporation's rights. Thinking about the corporate monopolization of cannabis makes me need something heavier than GSC.
Fortunately for us Girl Scouts, local cannabis genome lab Phylos Bioscience has collected samples from more than 50 varieties of Cookies, which are to be posted publicly by the Open Cannabis Project. Now if someone wants to file a patent on any of these varieties, those genetic reports serve as "prior art," or evidence that the strain existed already.
This open-sourced approach to a comprehensive scientific cannabis database could not only save the soul and botanical integrity of the industry, but also show that we can take control of the scientific progress we believe in—proof that we have a chance at maintaining accurate and ethical databases in a post-algorithm world.
After founding her own open-source mapmaking website, Beth Schechter, executive director of the OCP, is optimistic about the potentially radical difference these efforts could make.
"I see design, technology and community engagement as tools to unfuck the world," says Schechter. "Our job [at OCP] is to help protect people from facing unwarranted cease-and-desist orders for growing the same strain they've been growing for decades."
It's not about filing your own patent faster than your competition. It's about getting as much info into the public so that we're collectively free, not just individually protected.
There are thousands of patent applications on cannabis-related products and processes currently pending. Since the prior-art approach has a two-year window, this public database also cuts any illegitimate patents already in process "off at their knees."
"If we do our job well, we can create one of the largest and most robust open-source, scientifically verified collections of cannabis data that the world has ever seen," says Schechter. "And that's rad for all kinds of reasons."
Schechter points out that without a baseline for cannabis data, "there's not a great way to parse through all of the new information being introduced to the public. We want to aggregate as much data as possible so that we can truly understand what's new or anomalous and what's not."
If you grow cannabis, have ever gotten a sample tested and still have a copy of that lab report, visit the OCP website at opencannabisproject.org to reach out about contributing your data to the database.
"The older the better," Schechter says. "Anything to prove that x or y genetic or chemovar reading has been around for a long time. Some patents have been on the books since 2013."
Expired or not, your crinkled, 4-year-old Sour Diesel test result from a lab that doesn't exist anymore is one piece closer to ruining some patent-hungry ghoul's day and protecting that strain for decades to come. LAUREN YOSHIKO.
3. Not sure if you're too high to drive? The Druid app will tell you.
It's a scenario all weed smokers face at some point or another:
You've enjoyed a touch of the green, hours have passed, and the effects seem to have come and gone. You feel OK to drive, but you're just not sure which side of sobriety you'd fall on if your level of intoxication were judged by a trained professional. Well, now there's an app for that.
Over the last year and a half, retired Massachusetts psychology professor Michael Milburn has built a sobriety test app called Druid designed specifically with the cautious cannabis user in mind. Milburn hatched the idea over a bag of vapor while celebrating a friend's purchase of a shiny, new Volcano. The recently retired professor, who'd spent 40 years "figuring out ways to measure things," wondered, in his words, "Gee, how would you measure how stoned
a person is?"
Considering Milburn's long career researching and developing "ways to measure things"—the intellectual artifacts include a book called Sexual Intelligence, which introduced Milburn's scale for sexual intelligence—the idle academic was the perfect person to examine the methods by which cannabis intoxication is measured.
Milburn discovered that current tests for determining whether a person is high—which vary from state to state—are flawed.
If you're pulled over in Oregon and an officer thinks you're stoned, you'll be asked to perform a series of field sobriety tests. These are the ones you've seen on Cops for decades: walk a line and pivot, follow the flashlight with your eyes, count backward from 70 to 50, etc.
If the officer deems a driver unfit to operate a vehicle based on the performance of these tests, the driver is then referred to a drug recognition expert who administers additional assessments, as well as a Breathalyzer to rule out alcohol and a urinalysis to detect and measure the presence of cannabis metabolites. Should cannabis metabolites be found in the driver's urine, DUII charges are filed.
The problems with this procedure are several and severe: First off, field sobriety tests are tailored to expose alcohol intoxication, and they're notorious for producing false positives when it comes to weed. These tests also rely on the subjective judgment of a police officer.
Perhaps more controversial is urinalysis, which detects the presence of THC-COOH—a substance that can linger in the human body for weeks after a person last ingested cannabis.
Sure, you might catch a stoned driver with these methods, but false positives are just as plausible.
Druid, Dr. Milburn's sobriety test app for the stoner set, offers a better way.
"Druid is an app that provides a general measure of impairment using neuropsychological testing," says Milburn. At the intersection of video game and roadside sobriety test, Milburn claims the methods are backed by "data that shows [the app's] reliability and validity in predicting impairment."
Druid works like this: Users sign in and are given the option to take a two- or five-minute test, after which they are prompted to choose from Practice, Baseline and Test modes. Next, they're tasked with five modules that test for cannabis intoxication by measuring skills such as reaction and decision-making times, hand-eye coordination and time estimation.
The module to gauge users' reaction and decision-making times has them click on or not click on different shapes that rapidly appear and disappear on their screen. The module that assesses intoxication by testing time-estimation abilities asks the user to judge when a minute has passed while tapping on circles at random spatial and time intervals. A third module has users stand on one leg for 30 seconds while trying to keep perfectly still, and a hand-eye coordination section asks users to track a moving dot with their finger while counting the number of shapes that flash on the screen.
New users are advised to practice the tests a few times before setting their baseline scores.
Milburn recently lent his technology to a police academy in Randolph, Mass., where Druid was employed during training sessions. Druid, Milburn claims, was more reliable and accurate in detecting intoxication than traditional officer assessments.
In this way, Druid removes the subjective element that is human judgment, opting instead for quantifiable, data-driven analysis to determine whether a person is indeed too stoned to drive.
Milburn can see applications in the insurance industry—a possible future in which drivers use Druid before they get behind the wheel, submitting the results to their insurance provider to secure cheaper premiums. Personally, I'd be surprised if companies like Uber and Lyft don't eventually adopt technologies similar to Druid—both as a safe-ride guarantee and as a way to lower their insurance premiums. MATT STANGEL.
4. Portland just got its first store selling exclusively CBD products.
In January, Oregon's first CBD-only cannabis boutique softly opened on Southeast Morrison Street.
The CBD Hemp Store's goal is to offer CBD cannabis products to people who don't want to have to go to a dispensary. CBD is the non-intoxicating substance in cannabis often used for anxiety and pain relief.
"A lot of people who use CBD products, some of them don't want to come into the dispensary," says manager Nyno Thol. "They feel weird about coming in. This is not a dispensary—it's more like a boutique retail store."
The idea for the CBD Hemp Store came after its founders attended a national conference and saw that CBD stores were going to be the next wave in the cannabis industry. They wanted to get in on the ground floor before people in other states took over, and expect the majority of the sales to be online.
The selection is still building, says Thol, but includes CBD tinctures, pet treats, edibles, extracts and lotions. He is hoping to offer out-of-state products like Colorado's Charlotte's Web, which famously helped a little girl named
Charlotte Figi control her seizures.
CBD Hemp Store joins a wealth of online stores and dispensaries like Southwest Portland's Little Amsterdam, which also houses a room devoted to CBD-only products.
"There are CBD stores popping up all around the U.S.," Thol says. "There are CBD stores in Texas, Ohio and all over. Eventually it'll be here, and we thought we'd stay ahead of the industry. We want to focus on the medical patient, and veterans." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
5. Eco Firma Farms is on an obsessive-compulsive quest to go carbon neutral.
Jesse Peters worries about the phone book.
He worries about junk mail, and snack wrappers, and the brown bags his cannabis growers at Canby's Eco Firma Farms use to carry their sandwiches to work. And he's also lost a lot of sleep worrying about where to put the veg room where his nursery plants grow.
"We're trying to decide," he says. "Do we put our veg room next to the flower rooms, or separate them because of the possibility of an outbreak of a pathogen or pest? Do we want our veg room separate so we don't cross-contaminate?"
The decision matters: Every extra footstep he takes brings him further away from total sustainability. At Eco Firma's new indoor grow site, home to his line of hand-rolled Pacheco cigarettes and 55 marijuana strains from Voodoo Child to Alaskan Thunder Fuck, Peters has set himself what may be an impossible goal. Like Bhutan and Vatican City, he wants to be completely carbon neutral, growing energy-intensive cannabis while releasing no net carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It's something almost no other cannabis farm is even attempting.
"Going out and saying we want to be Oregon's first carbon-neutral farm is different from saying sustainable gardening," says Peters. "Carbon neutral is very specific. You've got to alienate people. We deal with contractors, we get mail. How do I control for this? These things are coming to our farm: Are they on recycled paper? I didn't make the phone book, but it's here—this is a massive rabbit hole, but it's one we have to go down."
Some of the largest steps, Peters says, were the most straightforward. It meant checking that box on his PGE bill to receive all of his energy from wind power, which he says only a couple other growers do. And it also meant drawing all of his water out of a well instead of getting it from the local utility.
"We're 90 percent of the way there," says Peters, whose grow site is currently Green Mountain Energy Gold-certified. He expects to reach platinum status within the year. "But 90 percent is easy. That extra 10 percent is so many little pieces. You can't just recycle. You have to look at everything: What kind of containers does it come in? Can you recycle the lid? Can you recycle the container the lids came in?"
Peters says that his current goal is to completely rid himself of garbage service—which partly means handing out reusable containers to his four employees so they don't have to throw away garbage they bring.
Peters says he doesn't know whether he'll ever get to complete sustainability, or whether it's even possible without buying carbon offsets. But he also says he feels the need to try so he "can know when I see a deer in the yard or a child being born or a bird in the sky, I'm trying not to contribute to their demise." MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
6. Sativa Science Club is Portland's first independent source of cannabis education.
Not everyone who enters the cannabis industry has time to work harvests, process flower and study the plant on a scientific level.
Most new business owners are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and don't have the resources to put a cost-efficiency consultant on retainer.
Enter Mary J Poppins and the Sativa Science Club.Poppins saw the industry moving at a faster pace than individuals in the cannabis community could keep up with, so she formed a cannabis science and business school aimed at anyone and everyone. Along with Emma Chasen, former education director at Farma, she created the first organized cannabis education program that's independent of a single dispensary, law office or investment firm.
Sativa Science Club's classes weave between hyperspecific advice about social media use for small businesses and the vascular passageways transferring nutrients throughout the plant, to beginner-level stuff like distinguishing male and female plants and crafting a tax-sensitive, science-based approach to employee training.
When I attended a terpene-focused course within their "Budtending 101" program, the packed room of 30 to 40 people was a mix of budtenders and dispensary managers from throughout Oregon and California, patients with chronic medical conditions, and entrepreneurs entering the industry at various angles and ages, some in cannabis media, others interested in trademark law and licensing. There was even one curious Australian tourist.
"There is a lack of education for budtenders, who are the face of the industry," begins Chasen at the start of the class. "If a new customer has a negative or confusing experience, they may not try cannabis again, never discovering a certain product that could really help them or a loved one."
After graduating from Brown University with a degree in medicinal plant research, Chasen worked in oncological research before moving to Oregon and landing a job at Farma in 2015. Now she's regularly introduced as the "Ms. Frizzle of the cannabis industry." (In late March, Chasen announced she is leaving Sativa Science Club to focus on her cannabis consultation business.)
She starts with the basics, which is the new front against the overly simplistic "sativa or indica" distinction, which most high-end dispensaries are working to get away from.
"'Indica' got its name essentially because it looked different than the sativa sample, and was found in India," Chasen says. "These words aren't enough, they just don't work."
She explains how taxonomy of that era was based on observations, not inhalation, so the three defined species of cannabis (sativa, indica, ruderalis) really have nothing to do with the effects.
Chasen also dives into the entourage effect, which is why extracting individual cannabinoids isn't as effective, using the history of aspirin to explain how compounds exist synergistically, in a matrix.
"When white imperialists noticed that Native Americans ate willow bark to remedy a variety of discomforts, they analyzed the willow bark," she says. "They isolated the compound that seemed like it was doing the most, and manufactured that to create aspirin. You know how aspirin can give us a stomach ache? That's because we aren't getting the other fibers and compounds that were present in the whole plant effect of consuming willow bark, which are vital in order to process the medicine efficiently."
Members can pay for a variety of packages, and the club offers business-friendly packages that enroll staff in specialized classes for a group price.
I've worked as a harvest manager, flower vendor, budtender and medical dispensary manager, and I learned plenty of new things during the Sativa Science Club class I attended. Increasing the ranks of educated cannabis employees, business owners and investors—the same people who will spread evidence-based knowledge and shine a light on misconceptions—can only strengthen the legal cannabis industry as it continues to spread across the United States.
Fortunately, information can pass freely across state lines even if cannabis can't yet. LAUREN YOSHIKO.