Between 2020 and 2021, cannabis vape cartridges saw 25% year-over-year growth and all-in-one vapes grew a whopping 64% as a category during the same time period. Two years later, the vape space shows no signs of slowing down. There are more strain and extraction style options than ever, not to mention advances in consumption device technology.
That huge growth and diversification means consumers have a lot of choices and decisions to make. Cutting through that noise takes a little know-how, however. For a shopper who’s hesitant or overwhelmed when comparing multiple vape options, brands and budtenders can start with some informative, friendly education on how terpenes deserve their consideration.
Why are terpene profiles so important? Imagine going into a wine store and only getting a recommendation for red or white at different price points. You might end up with something delicious that fits your budget, but you’re missing out on deeper nuances that could enrich the experience. Consumers don’t know what they don’t know. But brands can do better.
Terpenes and the Entourage Effect for Vape Products
Instead of the indica-sativa-hybrid trichotomy, focus on the kind of experience you want to have. Understanding terpenes can go a long way to helping consumers find the strains that produce their favorite flavors, scents and sensations. Also key is understanding how terpenes work together in different strains—a phenomenon known as the entourage effect.
The entourage effect is often simplified to a collaboration between major and minor cannabinoids like CBD, CBG, CBN and THCV. But a true entourage effect isn’t just the combination of different cannabinoids. It’s the combination of terpenes, cannabinoids, flavonoids and other chemicals such as esters.
Why does this matter? The best cannabis represents the best of each of these elements, not simply terpenes and cannabinoids. As a result, the best cannabis vapes are the ones that can preserve all of these elements and produce an entourage effect.
This is where it’s worth pointing out the pros and cons of low-end cannabis vape products. Cheaper strain profiles typically feature fewer ingredients, including the terpenes, flavonoids and esters that contribute to a distinctive entourage effect. It’s not a matter of upselling: Sure, the price point might be attractive, but one-size-fits-all weed isn’t the experience most consumers are ultimately looking for.
How Extraction Methods Impact Cannabinoids, Terpenes and Other Chemical Compounds
The loss of crucial members of a cannabis cultivar’s entourage is one reason extraction methods make such a big difference. It can be hard for many consumers to cut through the jargon of resin vs. rosin, CO2 vs. butane, ice vs. heat and so forth. But one simple way to break it down is this: botanical, aka distillate, terpene profiles typically have 30-60 ingredients. Meanwhile, cannabis-derived terpene profiles will have over 100.
On the high end of that spectrum is rosin. Rosin products typically will have the largest number and range of flavor components. That’s one reason this category is so popular with cannabis connoisseurs who are particularly dialed into the flavors and effects of the products they consume, vape carts included.
Why Hardware Matters
There are two primary types of vape consumption hardware—510 thread batteries combined with various brands of vape carts, or all-in-one vape devices that come pre-loaded with proprietary concentrates. 510 thread systems were carried over from the nicotine vape space, and quickly became the industry standard because they allow consumers to try vape carts from many different brands with the same rechargeable battery. There is a caveat: Temperature variance can affect the consumer’s experience for the worse, particularly with sensitive terpene boiling points.
All-in-one devices have been gaining popularity because they’re so easy to use. They come pre-loaded with concentrates and don’t require any charging cables or changing device settings. All-in-ones are typically pre-set to a tight temperature range well-suited to their unique concentrate formula—all a consumer has to do is put the device to their lips and pull.
A quality piece of vape hardware won’t produce a burnt flavor or irritate the nose. The flavor will come through cleanly and the draw should be smooth and consistent. Indeed, the latter is another sign of quality vape hardware consumers should know to look for—the resistance of that pull can vary widely between brands. The concentrate should draw easily from the chamber. If it feels like sucking a hefty milkshake through a straw, both the hardware and the concentrates inside are probably not the highest quality.
Whichever terpene profile, strain, extraction technique or device category is on a customer’s mind, it’s critical for brands and budtenders to help guide consumers to their individual best-fit cannabis vape experience.
By Erik Paulson, Josh Swider, Zachary Eisenberg 5 Comments
The THC content you see on a label when you walk into a dispensary? There is a very good chance the number is false.
In every state with regulated cannabis, there is a requirement to label the potency of products so consumers can make informed purchasing and medicating decisions. The regulations usually state that the THC/cannabinoid content on the label must be within a particular relative percent difference of the actual tested results for the product to be salable. In California, that threshold is +/- 10%.
The problem is, with all the focus on THC percentage in flower and concentrate products, enormous pressure has been placed on cultivators and manufacturers to push their numbers up. Higher numbers = higher prices. But unfortunately, improving their growing, extraction and formulation processes only gets companies so far. So, they proceed to ‘lab shop’: giving their business to whichever lab provides them the highest potency.
There are roughly 50 Department of Cannabis Control (DCC) licensed labs in the state, and competition is fierce to maintain market share in a maturing and plateauing industry. Whereas competition used to be healthy and revolved around quality, turnaround time and customer service, now it’s essentially become a numbers game. As a result, many labs have sacrificed their scientific integrity to chase what the clients want: higher THC potency results without contaminant failures. The practice has become so prevalent that labs openly advertise their higher potency values to gain customers without fear of recourse. Here are two examples:
Over a year ago, a few labs fed up with what was happening got together to determine the extent of the potency inflation issue. We proactively purchased and tested over 150 randomly chosen flower samples off dispensary shelves. The results were staggering. Eighty-seven percent of the samples failed their label claims (i.e., were >10% deviant of their labeled values), with over half of the samples >20% deviant of their labeled THC values (i.e., over 2x the legal permitted variance). Additionally, our labs found multiple cases of unreported category 1 pesticides in some of the analyzed samples at multiple times the legal limit – a significant public health concern. The deceit was not limited to small cultivators trying to get by but also some of the industry’s biggest brands.
The same issues and economic conditions are in play for concentrates. Manufacturers of these products also hunt for the highest D9 THC values because wholesale prices for distillate are determined by THC content: <86% for the lowest value, 86-88%, 88-90% and >90%, with a new price point for over 94%. As a result, consumers can walk into a dispensary and find concentrates like the one shown below that report>99% total cannabinoids (>990mg/g) and contains almost 10% additional terpenes. You don’t have to be an analytical chemist to realize those numbers add up to well over 100%, which is physically impossible.
Everyone can agree that the system is broken, but who is at fault? Should the blame be placed on dispensaries, many of whom use THC % as their only purchasing or marketing metric? Or on cultivators, manufacturers and distributors, who seek the highest results possible rather than the most accurate ones? Or on the labs themselves, who are knowingly reporting inflated results?
Ultimately, the individual businesses are acting in their own self-interest, and many are participating in this practice simply to stay afloat. Dispensaries can’t reasonably be expected to know which results are inflated and which are not. Cultivators and manufacturers feel obligated to use labs that provide them with the highest results; otherwise, they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage relative to their competitors. Likewise, labs that aren’t willing to inflate their numbers have to be ready to watch customers walk out the door to maintain their principles – an existential dilemma for many.
The primary reason why potency inflation has become so prevalent is that there have been no negative repercussions for those that are cheating.
The axiom is true – don’t hate the player, hate the game. Unlike most businesses, testing labs operating with integrity want meaningful regulations and oversight to assure a level playing field. Without them, the economics force a race to the bottom where labs either have to inflate more and more or go out of business. Since 2016, the DCC (formerly BCC) has taken zero meaningful actions to discourage or crackdown on potency inflation— not a single recall of an inflated product or license suspension of an inflating lab— so predictably, the problem has gotten progressively worse over time.
So, to answer the question above – who is at fault for our broken system? The answer is simple: the DCC.
In the Fall of 2021, we began engaging with the DCC to address the industry’s potency inflation concerns. The DCC requested we provide them with direct evidence of our accusations, so we collected and shared the flower data mentioned above. The Department tested the same batches off the shelf and confirmed our results. Somehow not a single recall was issued – even for the batches containing category 1 pesticides.
We pushed for more accountability, and DCC Director Nicole Elliott assured us steps were being taken: “The Department is in the process of establishing a number of mechanisms to strengthen compliance with and accountability around the testing methods required of labs and will be sharing more about that in the near future.”
Instead, we got a standardized cannabinoid potency method (mandated by SB 544) that all labs will be required to use. On the surface, a standardized methodology sounds like a good thing to level the playing field by forcing suspect labs into accepting generally accepted best practices. In reality, however, most labs already use the same basic methodology for flower and concentrate cannabinoid profiling and inflate their results using a variety of other mechanisms: selective sampling, using advantageous reference materials, manipulating data, etc. Furthermore, the method mandated is outdated and will flatly not work for various complex matrices such as gummies, topicals, beverages, fruit chews and more. If adopted without changes, it would be a disaster for manufacturers of these products and the labs that test them. Nevertheless, the press release issued by the DCC reads as though they’ve earned a pat on the back and delivered the silver bullet to the potency inflation issue.
Here are a few more meaningful actions the DCC could take that would help combat potency inflation:
Perform routine surveillance sampling and testing of products off of store shelves either at the DCC’s internal lab or by leveraging DCC licensed private labs.
Recall products found to be guilty of extreme levels of potency inflation.
Conduct in-person, unannounced audits of all labs, perhaps focusing on those reporting statistically higher THC results.
Conduct routine round-robin studies where every lab tests the same sample and outliers are identified.
Shutdown labs that are unable or unwilling to remediate their potency inflation issues.
For some less disciplinary suggestions:
Remove incentives for potency inflation, like putting a tax on THC percentage
Set up routine training sessions for labs to address areas of concern and improve communication with the DCC
Someone might retort – who cares if the number is slightly higher than it should be? No one will notice a little less THC in their product. A few counterpoints:
Consumers are being lied to and paying more for less THC.
Medical cannabis users depend on specific dosages for intended therapeutic effects.
Ethical people who put their entire lives into cultivating quality cannabis, manufacturing quality products and accurately testing cannot compete with those willing to cheat. If things get worse, only the unethical actors will be left.
Labs that inflate potency are more likely to ignore the presence of contaminants, like the category 1 pesticides we found in our surveillance testing.
This single compound, delta-9 THC, is the entire reason why this industry is so highly regulated. If we are not measuring it accurately, why regulate it at all?
We will continue to fight for a future where quality and ethics in the cannabis industry are rewarded rather than penalized. And consumers can have confidence in the quality and safety of the products they purchase. Our labs are willing to generate additional surveillance data, provide further suggestions for improvement in regulations/enforcement, and bring further attention to this problem. But there is a limit to what we can do. In the end, the health and future of our industry are entirely in the hands of the DCC. We hope you will join us in calling on them to enact meaningful and necessary changes that address this problem.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water. By formulating these ingredients using various technologies, companies like Caliper and Ripple have learned how to change the solubility properties of the cannabinoids. In addition, formulations can improve bioavailability and onset time of the cannabinoids.
Stillwater Brands is a cannabis formulation company based out of Denver, Colorado, leveraging proprietary technologies for solubilizing cannabinoids in water. Stillwater has a partnership with the Canadian company Green Organic Dutchman and will soon expand their THC line of products, Ripple, into Michigan. Their CBD product line, Caliper, is already sold nationally.
We spoke with Drew Hathaway, senior food scientist at Stillwater, about the Stillwater technology and aspirations for growth. Hathaway joined Stillwater in 2018 after engaging with them as a technical sales representative in his previous role at a food ingredients supplier.
Aaron Green: What trends are you following in the industry?
Drew Hathaway: I can mainly speak to the science side of the business since that’s where I operate, but I do have some insight into the marketing approach and some of the things we look at. We’re looking at traditional food and beverage trends, whether it’s beverage formats, with its unique ingredients that are going to be general flavor trends, which can definitely be very region-specific. One of the things we definitely look at, especially on the THC side, is dosage differences. What are people putting their dosages at? Are they doing a combination of cannabinoids or terpenes? Are they really using individual ingredients? I think that’s something that’s been fairly well established in the THC market, especially since you have the regulatory mandate of 10 milligrams THC being your max single dose.
When Stillwater first launched in 2016, our company started with lower dose products to provide microdose options. We focus all of our products on functional foods for consumers. It’s why we have three different options for every single one of our products. We have what we call the Pure 10 which is 10 milligrams of THC per serving. We have what we call the Balanced 5. That’s 5 milligrams THC, 5 milligrams of CBD. Then as well as our Ripple Relief, which is a 40 to one ratio of CBD to THC at 20 milligrams CBD and 0.5 milligrams THC. We provide a variety of options for people looking for different dosage levels. We have to look at all of those trends. Packaging trends are also high on our radar.
Aaron: How about flavors?
Drew: We recently launched additional SKUs for our Ripple gummies here in Colorado. We have four different options. We have a sour variety pack that contains sour watermelon, sour apple and sour peach. We also just launched peach cherry, kiwi apple and sour watermelon by itself — and all of those are at the five milligram THC per gummy dose. That aligns with the Pure 10 line as well. We also have been working on some new flavors for the 10 milligram THC quicksticks, which we’re looking to launch early next year. Then, like I mentioned earlier, we’re expanding into Michigan with the THC business, which has been a big goal for us and something that’s gotten a lot of effort behind the scenes.
Aaron: So Drew, how did you get involved at Stillwater?
Drew: I like to describe myself as a traditionally educated food scientist. I went to college and got my bachelor’s and master’s in food science and technology at Ohio State. And then I ended up at a really cool company that was a very large food ingredient supplier. I was technical support to sales for their team. Through that position, I covered the Colorado territory as well as California and I got to cover Stillwater as one of my customers providing technical advice on different products and ingredients that they were looking at. I got involved with Stillwater through that position, back in the early days when they were still trying to develop and figure things out. That would have probably been about four years ago. I was able to see from the sidelines and I was dealing with some other cannabis companies in the space here in Colorado at the time too.
I recognized very early on what they were trying to do by making cannabinoids water soluble and water compatible. It was not only extremely challenging, but also had a ton of potential if they were able to pull it off. At that point, they were still trying to figure out how this is going to work. How do we produce it? How do we sell it? How do we make sure that things are stable? Things of that nature. I got an inside look at Stillwater from the very start, back when there were really only a few people at the company. I would check in with them regularly as they needed help.
I always joked that they were my least important, most interesting customer and I mean that only because they were buying extremely small amounts of ingredients from us. From a sales perspective, naturally, my manager didn’t necessarily want me spending a ton of time working with them. From a personal interest perspective, I was like, “these guys are doing something really intriguing and if they can pull this off this has a ton of potential, so I want to help them however I can.”
I dealt with them in that sales capacity for about two years before they talked about expanding into the CBD space with the Farm Bill passing at the end of 2018. I recognized at that point that I think they had two scientists including Keith, our head of R&D, and I said “alright, that’s really ambitious. You probably need some help! I think it’s time for me to take the leap and see if you guys are interested in having me come on board.” Fortunately, they were and so I’ve been with the company a little over two years now.
Aaron: Can you explain at a high level what the Stillwater products do?
Drew: The base technology behind all of our products for Ripple and Caliper is essentially converting your fat-soluble cannabinoids, whether it’s CBD or THC, into a water compatible product in a process referred to as emulsification. What you’re essentially doing is taking CBD and THC containing oils, whether it’s a distillate or isolate, and you’re essentially breaking those fat droplets into extremely small droplets and then stabilizing them at that size. We make our own emulsion — the fat droplets are extremely small — then when you draw that down into a powder format and redissolve it into water, you are dispersing billions upon millions of fat droplets into your glass. Those droplets are evenly dispersed through the beverage so that you get the same amount of THC or CBD in your first sip that you get in the last sip. That’s really the core technology behind everything that we do.
Taking cannabinoids and making them water soluble is the base technology necessary in order to make something like a shelf-stable infused beverage. There’s no way that you’re going to take traditional distillates or cannabinoids and be able to make a beverage that is shelf-stable otherwise. It’s been really cool since joining Stillwater to learn and understand how that process changes the way that those cannabinoids are absorbed by your body. Emulsification changes things like the onset time, as well as the total amount of cannabinoids your body’s absorbing and using. That’s been something that’s super interesting to see through the clinical research that we’ve done with human participants through Colorado State University.
Aaron: Let’s say if you just take THC oil and put it into an infused product. What’s the difference between that and Ripple?
Drew: Some products formats, such as beverages, just aren’t possible with THC oil without an emulsification technology. As the old saying goes in science, water and oil just don’t mix. So, if you were to take a traditional THC distillate and try to add it to a beverage, that would just float on top as a big oil slick. When you took your first sip, you would essentially get all of the cannabinoids in your first gulp which not only makes precise or partial dosing impossible, but also would taste absolutely terrible. Emulsification makes those infused beverage products possible and stable over a normal one-year shelf life or potentially longer.
Emulsification also changes the way that your body absorbs those cannabinoids, which is something that we’ve definitely put a heavy emphasis on and have really been able to validate with clinical research. I think that’s one of our biggest differentiators versus our competitors. We’re definitely not the only ones in the water-soluble cannabinoid space, but from my understanding, I think we’re one of the few companies that have actually executed human-based clinical trials (vs rodents) through a third-party university and been able to prove that these cannabinoids are detected in your bloodstream as fast as 10 minutes after consumption. We measured those results directly against an oil-based control, where you’re not going to get a peak absorption until maybe 60 to 90 minutes after consumption. What this research found was that not only was our product absorbed much faster, but it also enabled a significantly higher amount of the cannabinoids to actually make it into the participants’ blood stream where it can be used by their bodies. We also found the type of food emulsifier makes a significant difference in absorption – not just emulsion size, counter to common belief.
We use the analogy, “It’s getting a better bang for your buck.” The main purchasing consideration for a lot of edibles consumers when you go to a dispensary is “what is my cost per 10 milligram dose of THC?” That’s one of their key purchasing parameters, especially for your lower budget customer. What’s great with Ripple is one milligram of THC consumed through our Ripple technology is not really equivalent to one milligram of an oil-based product and that your body is actually going to absorb a higher percentage of it. And therefore, you’re going to get more of an effect, whether you’re looking for a medical effect or whether you’re looking for more of a recreational therapeutic effect. It also improves the consistency of that experience. So, with oil-based products, you could have the same products multiple different times and based on what you recently ate, you might get a higher or lower absorption rate or a faster or slower absorption rate. It’s also in the consistency of the experience and I know that from our market research of our consumers of Ripple products here in Colorado since that’s been in the market for a few years now. That’s the number one reason why people really trust our brand is because they can count on getting a consistent experience every time for the same dose.
As we all know, with the THC market and edibles market being newer in general, that’s most people’s biggest fear, especially if you’re a new consumer of THC — you obviously don’t want to consume more than what you can handle as far as getting higher than you want to be or anything like that — So consistency is a really, really key aspect for us and something that I’m definitely proud that we can provide that for our consumers.
Aaron: What does your product look like when you dissolve it into a liquid – let’s say something clear? Is the resulting mixture clear or cloudy?
Drew: We do have liquid concentrates, especially in the Caliper side of things, but with our powders, it kind of billows in as a cloud when you add it to a clear liquid. You can almost think of it like when we pour creamer into coffee: you see the cloud expand and then slowly fill out the cup and then be fully mixed in. Whereas with our products if you pour it into clear water, and you’ll see this white cloud form and then disperse. The final solution is generally a little bit cloudy depending on how much water you add it to.“I’ve been fortunate to be the lead developer for those products for Caliper and for Ripple, and flavor work is definitely something that never gets old.”
Aaron: How are customers using your products?
Drew: For a long time, we’ve had a variety of products in the market, some of which are still in the market, and some of which we’ve pulled since then. The key product for us has always been the Ripple dissolvable powder. It’s an unflavored, unsweetened powder that comes in a little sachet packet that you can tear open just like you would any other product and add to really anything. With its water compatibility, there’s really not a single product that you can’t add it to. It’s been really cool to see through social media, and in general, consumer engagement is electric and is kind of viewed as a novelty. The initial reaction is “Oh, I can take this little powder, put it in my eggs and now I have infused eggs!” It’s been great to see the creativity that our consumers have. We’ve seen it put in such a wide variety of products that literally you can make anything into an edible. I think that’s one of the coolest aspects of that product and why it’s been so successful.
One of the things we did realize pretty fast is that for a lot of people, the convenience and the consistency of the experience was a main driver for why they were purchasing our products. A lot of our real consumers just take that packet apart, ripping it open and pouring it straight in their mouth. It’s the fastest and most convenient way to consume the products, pretty much anywhere. We dug into that with our more recent launch of Ripple Quicksticks. And then we added some flavor, we added a little bit of sugar and sweeteners to make it a consumer-friendly experience where you get a really enjoyable flavor. It’s still just as convenient to consume by just ripping the packet straight open and pouring it in your mouth.
Aaron: It sounds like there must have been some interesting internal product development testing!
Drew: Yeah, definitely. That’s a fun one. I’ve been fortunate to be the lead developer for those products for Caliper and for Ripple, and flavor work is definitely something that never gets old. It can be frustrating at times, it’s definitely not the easiest thing to do. We’ve looked at traditional berry flavors, citrus flavors, as well as weird, kind of out-there flavors, to see what we like and what we think will work with our consumers.
Aaron: What states do you operate in?
Drew: Currently, our Stillwater THC business only operates in Colorado. That’s essentially the genesis of all the companies (Ripple, Caliper) is Stillwater being here in Colorado. We’re excited to announce that we’re expanding to Michigan next year. That’s something that we’ve all been working pretty heavily on developing and getting ready to go. That will be our first expansion of the THC brand to a different state.
We do have a licensing and distribution agreement with The Green Organic Dutchman (TGOD) in Canada. They produce our products using the same technology up there and license also under the Ripple brand name. So, it’s great to see the presence that we’ve been able to expand up there.
Then with Caliper on the CBD side of things with Caliper Ingredients and Caliper Consumer. We operate nationwide for that based on the more recent rules with the 2018 Farm Bill. For me, especially working across all of those business units, it’s really interesting to see the different business approach between your target CBD consumers and your target THC consumers because they’re really different markets. There’s definitely some overlap, but you’re targeting a different demographic to a certain degree. We keep those decisions in mind when we’re choosing how to market and what flavors to use and what products to make. So that’s been really interesting for me to see the behind-the-scenes discussions.
Aaron: I saw on your website, you’ve got consumer options via the dispensaries. Do you work with any infused product manufacturers on a licensing basis or partnership basis?“I’m super excited to continue to see how the medical research will continue to evolve.”
Drew: I’d say the majority of them are definitely on the CBD side for Caliper, partly because the regulatory environment of CBD just is a little bit easier to kind of engage other customers and to sell products across state lines and things of that nature. We do have some partnerships with some of the companies here in Colorado. I’d say the main one that we’ve promoted externally is with Oh Hi infused Seltzers based out of Durango, Colorado. It’s been a great agreement where we provide our base technology via liquid Ripple formulation that they can then infuse into their seltzers. They’ve done a great job with those products and it’s definitely a partnership that’s been mutually beneficial.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Drew: For me, the whole appeal of joining the industry was research. With prohibition and decades of those restrictions preventing true research there are so many unknown questions that still need to be investigated. I’m super excited to continue to see how the medical research will continue to evolve. I think we’ll get better clarity on the efficacy of individual cannabinoids versus different combinations and ratios of cannabinoids. The entourage effect is something that’s pretty heavily talked about in the industry. I do think there’s some research to support that. I also think there’s still way more unknowns than things that we actually know. So, I’m super interested in seeing how our understanding of everything will continue to improve over time.
I’d love to see the medical research eventually expand into what synergistic benefits exist between cannabinoids and other bioactive ingredients such as turmeric, catechins, antioxidants and other plant-based ingredients that have gotten a lot more interest through the medical research in the last decade.
Then one of the things I’m always excited about being on the science side of things is we’re still investigating the general compatibility of cannabinoids with various types of food and beverage products. That goes not only for ingredient interactions, but also factors like pH, water activity and moisture content. Even packaging definitely plays a role in cannabinoid stability for a variety of products. There’s also a variety of production processing technologies that still need additional investigation, whether you’re talking pasteurization, for beverages, or retort for canned products or newer technologies like high pressure processing (HPP). So, I think the most exciting thing for me, and the reason I was really willing and interested in joining the industry, is there’s so much to learn. I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to explore. I think as an industry the better we conduct this research, the better off we’ll all be.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview! Thanks Drew.
Dr. Markus Roggen is a chemist, professor, cannabis researcher and founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV). Founder & CEO of Ascension Sciences (ASI), Tomas Skrinskas has been at the leading edge of transformative healthcare technologies, including computer assisted surgery, surgical robotics and genetic nanomedicines, for over 15 years.
Leading researchers from the cannabis industry – Dr. Markus Roggen (Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures) and Tomas Skrinskas (Ascension Sciences) – highlight the challenges facing the industry’s current compliance testing standards and the opportunities emerging from the latest developments in nanotechnology and advanced analytical testing. Here are the key insights from the discussion.
What are the current compliance testing requirements for cannabis products? Are they sufficient in ensuring safety and quality?
In the current landscape, Canada’s compliance testing requirements are clearly laid out in the form of guidance documents. Specifically, for pesticide testing, cannabinoid concentration content in products, heavy metals, etc. Compliance testing can be roughly divided into two categories: 1) establishing the concentrations of wanted compounds, and 2) ensuring that unwanted compounds do not exceed safety limits.
In the first category, cannabinoids and terpenes are quantified. Their presence or absence is not generally forbidden but must stay within limits. For example, for material to be classified as hemp, the THC concentration cannot exceed 0.3 %wt., or a serving of cannabis edible should contain below 5 mg of THC. The second category of compliance testing focuses on pesticides, mold and heavy metals. The regulators have provided a list of substances to test for and set limits on those.
Are those rules sufficient to ensure safety and quality? Safety can only be ensured if all dangerous compounds are known and tested for. Take for example Vitamin E acetate, the substance linked to lung damage in some THC vape consumers and the EVALI outbreak. Prior to the caseload in the Fall of 2019, there were no requirements to test for it. It’s not only additives that are of concern. THC distillates often show THC concentrations of 90% plus 5% other cannabinoids. What are the last 5% of this mixture? Currently, those substances have not been identified. Are they safe? There is no concrete way to determine that.
The aforementioned guidelines have the best intentions, but do not adequately address two key obstacles the industry is currently facing: 1) what happens in practice, and 2) what can easily be audited? Making sure people follow the requirements is the challenge, and it comes down to variability of the tests. Testing has to happen on the final form of the product as well as every “batch,” but there is little guidance on how that is defined. With so much growth happening in the industry, how are these records even tracked and scrutinized?
And finally, there’s the question of quality. How do you define quality? Before establishing quantifiable quality attributes, it can’t be tested.
If compliance testing is insufficient, then why aren’t more cannabis companies testing beyond Health Canada’s requirements?
Compliance testing has always been focused on the end product, THC and CBD levels, and consumer safety. As long as cannabis companies are testing to determine this, doing further testing means added costs to the producer. There is a rush to get cannabis products to the new market because many consumers are eager to buy adult use products such as extracts or edibles, and quality is not the biggest selling point at this very moment.
However, there are unrealized advantages to advanced analytical testing that go beyond Health Canada’s requirements and that offer greater benefits to cannabis producers and product developers. Producers often see testing as an added cost to their production that is forced upon them by the regulators and will only test once the product is near completion. For cannabinoid therapeutics and nutraceuticals, advanced analytical testing is critical for determining the chemical makeup and overall quality of the formulation. This is where contract researchers, such as Ascension Sciences, come in to offer tests for nanoparticle characterization, cannabinoid concentration, dissolution profiles and encapsulation efficiency.
A lack of budget and awareness have prevented cannabis companies from advanced analytical testing. However, testing that goes beyond lawful requirements is an opportunity to save money and resources in the long term. This is where companies, like Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures (CBDV), offer in-process testing that provides a deep characterization and analysis of cannabis samples during every stage of product development. If tests are conducted during production, inefficiencies in the process are revealed and mistakes are spotted early on. For example, testing the spent cannabis plant material after extraction can verify if the extraction actually went through to completion. In another case, testing vape oil before it goes into the vape cartridges and packaging allows producers to detect an unacceptable THC concentration before they incur additional production costs.
Which methods are the most successful for cannabis testing?
The most effective method is the one that best determines the specific data needed to meet the desired product goal. For example, NMR Spectroscopy is paramount in assessing the quality of a cannabis sample and identifying its precise chemical composition.
HPLC (liquid/gas chromatography) is the most precise method for quantifying THC, CBD and other known cannabinoids. However, if a cannabis extractor wants to quickly verify that their oil has fully decarboxylated, then an HPLC test will likely take too long and be too expensive. In this case, IR (Infrared Spectroscopy) offers a faster and more cost-effective means of obtaining the needed data. Therefore, it ultimately depends on the needs of the producer and how well the testing instruments are maintained and operated.
What’s next in analytical testing technology? What are you working on or excited about?
In terms of compliance, regulations to standardize the testing is the hot topic at the moment. For nanotechnology and nanoparticles, the big question now is what is known as the “matrix” of the sample. In other words, what are the cannabinoids, and what else is in the sample that’s changing your results? The R&D team at Ascension Sciences is in the process of developing a standardized method for this to combat the issues mentioned earlier in the interview.
Ascension Sciences is also excited about characterizing nanoparticles over time to determine how cannabinoids are released and how that data can be transferred or made equivalent to consumer experiences. For example, if a formulation with quicker release, faster onset and better bioavailability is found in the lab, product development would be more efficient and effective when compared to other, more anecdotal methods.
At CBDV, the team is working on in-process analytical tools, such as decarboxylation monitoring via IR Spectroscopy and NMR Spectroscopy. CBDV is also looking at quantifying cannabis product quality. The first project currently in motion is to identify and quantify cannabinoids, terpenes, and other compounds present when vaping or smoking a joint using a smoke analyzer.
A lack of budget and awareness have prevented cannabis companies from testing beyond what’s required by Health Canada. Compliance testing is designed to ensure safety, and for good reason, but it is currently insufficient at determining the quality, consistency and process improvements. As the above factors are necessary for the advancement of cannabis products, this is where further methods, such as advanced analytical testing, should be considered.
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.
Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!
Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.
Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?
Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!
Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?
Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.
When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.
Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?
Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.
Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?
Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.
I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on. I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.
Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?
Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.
When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.
I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.
So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?
Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?
Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.
Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?
Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”
So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.
Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.
Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?
Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.
I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.
I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.
Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?
Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”
Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?
Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.
Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?
Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.
Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?
Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.
Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fourth article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with Michael Schimelpfenig, head of R&D and BHO extraction manager at Bear Extraction House. Michael worked in the cannabis space for about five years prior to landing his role at Bear, having spent several years in the hills of Humboldt County. The interview with Michael was conducted on August 3, 2020.
In next week’s piece, we sit down with Kristen Suchanec, vice president of Production at Island. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Good morning Michael and thank you for taking the time to chat with me today!
Michael Schimelpfenig: Thanks, excited to be here!
Aaron: I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Michael can you tell me how you got involved at Bear Extraction House?
Michael: You know, I actually landed my role at Bear through a job search on LinkedIn. I had been working in the traditional market for five years and was getting tired of the irregular paychecks and general uncertainty of working in that market. You know, too many helicopter buzzes and all that. I felt like the risk vs reward just wasn’t there. I like Northern California and knew I wanted to find something up in Humboldt County where I had been fortunate to get experience out in the hills. After I applied on LinkedIn, I was contacted in twenty-four hours. I had an interview twenty-four hours after that and the next day I had a job! It’s been a big change going to a legal company. The possibilities are lightyears beyond what you can do in the traditional market. Lots of resources and equipment available that just aren’t there in the traditional market.
Aaron: Fascinating! I spent a week up on Humboldt last year and it is beautiful up there. The next questions will be focused on product development and manufacturing. What is your decision process for starting a new product?
Michael: We get feedback from a lot of different places. Sometimes a new product idea is coming from our CEO, Per. He comes to me with new ideas and asks if we can do something. Often it will start with a general question. Is it possible with the given capabilities? Is it scalable? Some of our new product ideas are based on market input and then others are based on employee input. Sometimes we have pre-existing ideas and just need to sit down to formalize them. Here at Bear we have the capability of making a lot from a little input.
We’re always playing with ideas. We have lively R&D meetings each week where we throw ideas around. Take byproducts from a product development run for example. Maybe it’s not a byproduct, but maybe a separate new product altogether! Sometimes we’ll start off wanting to make something and, in the process, create something unexpected that we are then able to turn into a product. Creating new products is just as important as improving optimizations. Ideas come from all over the place.
We focus these ideas through the R&D committee. Common questions include: How do we develop the product? What are the costs? Is it marketable? We have to view things from an economic standpoint and we won’t proceed until we can figure out what the product can be and what we can make money from. Our R&D committee is made up of our COO, Jeff, our lead extractor, our oven room manager and our post-production manager who focuses on product separation. When we kick a new project off It all takes lots of scheduling and coordination.
Aaron: Are you developing new products internally?
Michael: We do 100% in-house product development and manufacturing. We are formalizing and creating a more focused approach to R&D and are bringing in some academics now. They are young minds with backgrounds in organic chemistry and thermodynamics. This is important because it’s the science behind the process that helps to generate the products. We believe the added talent should help to provide some grounding to the R&D. Before we made a lot of products by accident. The ultimate goal is uniform manufacturing and that requires an understanding of molecular processes.
Aaron: Answer the next question however you like. What does being stuck look like for you?“If a product isn’t behaving the way we expect, we will do testing to determine cannabinoid and terpene levels to gain better understanding.”
Michael: Well, there are a couple ways to get stuck. Sometimes you can get stuck with a limited product portfolio. A year and a half ago all we made was live resin. Now we have different levels of live resin and six different vape carts. If you are not changing and developing new products, you are stuck.
When the web of production stops going that is definitely what I consider getting stuck. You can get stuck if sourcing material is difficult to find or cost prohibitive. We will pivot and adjust manufacturing material if that happens. We are also exploring best avenues for sourcing high quality trim and working with farmers to specifically grow strains and exotic genetics. But overall, getting stuck happens. Being stuck, on the other hand, is a lack of creativity.
Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?
Michael: We have redundancies for equipment and components. If we are getting stuck in the same place it is usually due to a lack of source material. Sometimes we get material that degrades prior to extraction. It’s a matter of contacting supplier to coordinate with them on the best approach forward. If a product isn’t behaving the way we expect, we will do testing to determine cannabinoid and terpene levels to gain better understanding. In the end, sometimes we just have to pivot to other products with things we have.
Aaron: Thanks for that. Now, imagine you have a magic wand that can take care of your issues. What does your magic helper look like?
Michael: My magic helper would be someone to help with reporting. Someone that can take care of METRC indexing and preparing final R&D reports. Like a magic data processor. Someone to handle the minutiae.
Aaron: What’s most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?
Michael: There’s never enough time! We continue to manufacture at full capacity all the time. With that demanding of a schedule it can be difficult to manage time between day-to-day processes and being able to look at bigger picture.
Aaron: Now for our final question: What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
Michael: I’m following the guys out there that are heavy into crystallization. There are some huge THCA diamonds coming from East Coast Gold. I would like to know what their solution is. What is their magic liquid and process? I am a big fan of diamond growth. You can grow extremely pure isolates that way. We grow our own diamonds and have had them tested greater than 99.99% THCA. I think high level purity THCA from diamonds is preferred versus distillate. There is a difference in the smoke between them too. Having a process for making large quantities of diamonds would open us up to sticking our foot in edibles and topicals too. There is control that comes with having a purity level like that. Dosage is difficult without it. I am also interested in improving extract purity and isolating terpenes. I like solvent-less products. It means it came from a high-quality source. I would be just as happy smoking good flower as concentrate derived from the same flower.
Aaron: Alright that concludes our interview! Thank you again for the time today, Michael!
Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the third article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.
In this week’s article we talk with Joaquin Rodriguez, chief operations officer at GenX Biotech. Joaquin was introduced into the cannabis industry through a close personal relationship and has spent seven years researching and navigating the cannabis market before jumping into his career with GenX Biotech. The interview with Joaquin was conducted on August 4, 2020.
Next week, we’ll interview Michael Schimelpfenig, head of R&D and BHO extraction manager at Bear Extraction House. Stay tuned for more!
Aaron Green: Hi Joaquin! I appreciate you taking the time to chat today. I’m glad we were able to connect!
Joaquin Rodriguez: Absolutely! I’m looking forward to it.
Aaron: Me too! So, I like to start off the interview with a background question so people get a chance to know about you better. How did you get involved with GenX Biotech?
Joaquin: I went to school at Cal Poly for mechanical engineering and spent some time in the oil industry. In 2011 I was introduced to who would be the future founder of GenX Biotech, Shea Alderete. I spent 7 years diving into cannabis industry to better understand the landscape and Prop 215 (California’s Compassionate Use Act of 1996) and then Prop 64. In late 2017, I joined GenX Biotech to spearhead the acquisition of licensing and scale up distillate manufacturing.
Aaron: Awesome. My next questions are focused on product development. What is your decision process for starting a new product at GenX Biotech?
Joaquin: Our founder, Shea Alderete, is an innovator in product development. He specializes in formulations and new formulas for vape products. We are big on gathering empirical data. In any new product we will run a small batch and test first with heavy cannabis users to gauge their reaction to the product. We will then test with light cannabis users and finally new cannabis users so we get the full spectrum of user experiences. Throughout the process, we are gathering empirical data on things like taste and perceived therapeutic effects.
Aaron: Are you personally involved in manufacturing? Tell me about your process.
Joaquin: I am, yes. We specialize in large scale distillate manufacturing to make THC oil and we formulate batches using cannabis-derived terpenes. This what we call Sauce, a full spectrum high-terpene extract obtained from a butane hash oil (BHO) process. This is a separate extraction method from our alcohol extraction process.
Aaron: Very insightful! What is your process for developing new products?
Joaquin:GenX Biotech’s core mission is to bridge the gap between cannabis culture and the science behind cannabis. We focus more on therapeutic effects as well as recreational. We keep a pulse on the industry as a whole to see what people are doing and saying as well as new extraction methods. When we capture that data we evolve and adapt and create new formulations based on that preference and test it out. It’s a constant game of “does this look good? taste good? make you feel good? how is the potency?” It’s really a big collaboration with our end users.
We will also collaborate with other brands and manufacturers to stay ahead of the curve, share information that can make us a better company, more power in numbers is what we say. As an example, Wonderbrett is known for their high-quality flower. They have a high-end product and high-end brand recognition. We would, for example, strategize and collaborate together to utilize a unique cannabinoid and terpene profile and test that with our vape products in the market. It’s more of a collaboration than a white label relationship. In this way, Wonderbrett can expand into the extracts space via their brand. We do this with other brands as well where we’ll use their raw material and joint market the brands on the final product.
Aaron: Fantastic. Are you developing new products internally?
Joaquin: We develop all our products 100% internally.
Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants?
Joaquin: Not for products, however there are certain situations, like hardware development, where we will work with outside groups that specialize in equipment manufacturing to create something specific and one off for us. We are currently working on bringing to the market an FDA-approved inhaler technology device that is a non-combustible metered delivery device that we are really excited about. In addition, we have an incubator program with our LA partners to introduce new brands to the market which is a great asset for consulting brands looking for a home and multistate resources.
Aaron: Very cool, that’s the first I have head of inhalers in the market. For my next question feel free to answer however you like. What does being stuck look like for you?
Joaquin: Getting stuck can happen in a few different areas. With respect to manufacturing, the main bottleneck issues are consistent quality of the raw biomass materials. Mother nature does not duplicate the same results exactly every time and fluctuations can affect the cost and quality of raw goods. Other things like wear and tear on manufacturing equipment are not normally an issue as everything is stainless steel and pretty stable. But things like valves, gaskets and grommets tend to wear down with consistent use. When those fail, a whole operation can be shut down. We keep a stockpile of those on hand to make sure we stay in production.
“I support the leaders that help increase the overall knowledge for consumer and patents to know the difference between a quality product and a boof product.”Aaron: If you get stuck is it usually the same place? Or is it different each time?
Joaquin: Like I said, if we get stuck its usually in the sourcing of raw materials. Cultivators can have a bad crop or weather might affect their crop. It almost always comes down to the relationship with your cultivators. They fuel the industry and are the back bone of the whole supply chain. If they have any issues it affects everyone down line.
Aaron: Do you ever hire outside consultants when you get stuck?
Joaquin: Not really. We rely on our experience and years of operating and going through our own failures to navigate any issues with manufacturing. Collectively we work together to pivot and adapt to the ever-changing legal cannabis landscape. We do on occasion outsource to a 3rd party to help acquire raw goods. On the other hand, we separately consult for other people and groups looking to build out labs!
Aaron: That’s an excellent position to be in! For the next question imagine there’s a magic wand. What does your magic helper look like?
Joaquin: Someone that can come in and help with taxation. Triple taxation is tough. There’s the cultivation tax, manufacturing tax, state tax and local taxes. Long Beach recently lowered their local tax from six to one percent, so that is encouraging, but there needs to be a fair taxation for this industry to really thrive.
Aaron: What’s the most frustrating thing you are going through with the business?“I’m really excited for the continued education and deregulation of cannabis and its medical applications.”
Joaquin: I think that would be sales downline. With Prop 215 and the transition to prop 64, legal outlets have been heavily truncated. There are now approximately 600 legal retail outlets down from a high of about 4500 prior to prop 64. The competition landscape is really high and it’s hard to get product on the shelves without proper capital to keep the brand going. It is advantageous to partner with an established distro in order to get involved with their downline and run lean and mean.
Aaron: Now for our final question. What are you following in the market and what do you want to learn about?
Joaquin: I’m really excited for the continued education and deregulation of cannabis and its medical applications. It never should have been illegal to begin with, but with government corruption and greed it was targeted and use for multiple agendas. I support the leaders that help increase the overall knowledge for consumer and patents to know the difference between a quality product and a boof product. You have seen the results of the vape scare and there’s a good reason for it. Most people don’t want to pay the high ticket for legally compliant product so they turn to the illegal side where no regulation or testing is conducted to ensure they are getting safe, quality products.
In addition, the demand is so strong that illegal producers are able to put whatever they want in their products and sell them as if they are legit, provided they have the knock-off packaging, and those operators further harm those people because the state they are selling in hasn’t adapted to the times and has prohibited the availability of legal cannabis. Their inaction and support of the continued “war on cannabis” makes them just as guilty in the results of those people who have fallen ill or been hospitalized.
There have been lots of new studies published that are slowly making their way into social media and reaching consumers so that is encouraging. Another important element is the education of bud tenders because they are the face of the brand when the customer or patient is at a legal dispensary so they need to be educated on what makes for a quality product and how it can help or achieve a desired result for a customer or patient.
Aaron: Well, that concludes the interview Joaquin. Thanks for taking the time today to talk. This is all awesome feedback for the industry. Thanks so much for these helpful insights into product development in the cannabis industry.
As cannabis markets continue to gain traction, inconsistent and largely unpredictable markets have left recreational consumers in an informational fog. Try as the industry may, or may not to inform consumers, the lack of knowledge was evident when an established Colorado hash company opened a second operation in California. Expecting high demand for their solventless concentrates, the demand for their solvent-based counterparts came as a surprise. Initially hoping to eliminate solvent extracts from their product line-up, the company was forced to devote about half their overall production to solvent extracts, until information spreads and attitudes start to change. Over the past year several companies have joined the solventless side of history, but consumer understanding remains largely stagnant. For those immediately overwhelmed by terminology, cannabis extracts, concentrates or hash are all interchangeable terms describing concentrated cannabis. Under these umbrella terms, two distinct categories emerge depending upon whether chemical solvents were or were not used to extract the hash. Hence: solvent or solventless. A brief overview of cannabis concentrates will help consumers to understand the evolution away from solvent extractions and toward a superior solventless future.
Before regulated cannabis markets, cannabis extracts had long been in use. These old-world methods of cannabis extraction use very basic solventless techniques to create more potent, concentrated forms of cannabis. Dry sifting is easily the oldest form of cannabis extraction and a prime example of one solventless technique. Something as simple as shaking dried cannabis over metal screens and collecting the residue underneath creates a solventless product called keif. Dark brown bubble-hash, made popular decades ago, is another ancient technique using only ice and water to perform extractions without chemical solvents. After decades of stagnant and limited old-world methods, changes in legislation allowed cannabis sciences to flourish. These old-world hash methods were quickly forgotten, replaced by the astonishing progress of modern solvent extractions.
The emergence of solvent extracts revolutionized cannabis around 2011, creating new categories of cannabis products that exploded onto the scene. Not only did solvent extracts produce the most potent and cleanest forms of hash ever seen at this point, it also created new possibilities for hash-oil vape cartridges and cannabis extract infused edibles. These solvent extracts use butane, propane, or other hydrocarbon solvents to extract, or “blast” cannabinoids from the plant. By running solvents through cannabis and then purging or removing leftover, residual solvents, a super-potent, premium hash product is achieved. Regulated markets require testing to ensure only a safe level, if any, of the solvent used in the extraction process remains in the final product. This technology ushered in the first wave of concentrates to medical and recreational markets under the descriptive titles of wax, shatter and crumble. While these effective and affordable products can still be found today, far superior products have largely replaced wax and shatter. Distillation techniques can further purify and isolate THC-a, while removing harmful residual solvents. For a time, Solvent-free was used to describe this ultra-purified distillate, but the needless term has fallen out of use. Solvent-free is still a solvent extraction using chemical solvents, don’t be fooled. Distillation and CO2 extractions have fallen into general disfavor as they destroy the flavorful terpenes and valuable cannabinoids, that when present create an “entourage effect.” This “entourage effect” happens when the medicinal and recreational properties are most effective, pronounced, and impactful due to a full range of terpenes and cannabinoids being present in the final product. With companies manually reintroducing terpenes to their final extracts, it’s an attempt to restore what was lost during solvent extraction processes. Many brands claim to use cannabis derived or food-grade terpenes to infuse or reintroduce terpenes into their purified hash oils. While this adds flavor and taste, especially to distillate cartridges, it’s far from an ideal solution. Armed with this new information, the informed consumer looks for a full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids in their hash.
With terpene preservation a new priority, all aspects of hash making were reevaluated. By using fresh-frozen cannabis flower, solvent extractions quickly reached new heights. Using the same techniques as prior solvent extractions, the cannabis plant is frozen immediately upon harvesting, rather than trimming and drying the crop as usual. Freezing the plant preserves valuable terpenes helping to create a new category for hydrocarbon extracts under the general label of live resins. This live resin, containing vastly greater profiles of terpenes and cannabinoids than earlier waxes, shatters or crumbles is sold as live-resin sauce, sugar, badder, frosting, diamonds and more. Many versions of live resin re-use previous terms that describe consistencies. These live resin solvent extracts outperform the wax, crumble and shatters of old, and are priced accordingly. Some of the best solvent extracts available today use butane to extract hash oil, which forms THC-a crystals and diamonds seen in live resin sauces. Having learned the value of terpenes and cannabinoids, early efforts to purify THC were clearly misled. The industry defining use of fresh-frozen cannabis flowers greatly improved the quality of all extracts having realized the psychoactive effects are largely dependent on the various profiles of cannabinoids and terpenes. Pure THC-a crystals and isolates are easily achieved with solvent extractions but, produce inferior effects both medicinally and recreationally. Discovering the “entourage effect” as described earlier, these elements of cannabis allowed old-world solventless techniques to be re-inspired and reinvigorated with the benefit of healthy genetics and a hearty understanding of past mistakes.
Having gone full circle, solventless techniques are again at the forefront of the cannabis industry, having attained near perfection for our current understanding of cannabis anatomy.
Using the lessons and tendencies of prior extractions, the solventless method, in all its final forms, begin with the same initial process to make ice-water hash oil. Often referred to as solventless hash oil (SHO), fresh-frozen flowers are submerged in ice and water, soaked and agitated before the water is filtered through mesh screens. As these mesh screens are measured by microns, the increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes that break free from the cannabis plant. The 120- and 90-micron mesh screens usually collect pristine trichome heads. After scraping the remaining material from the screens, its sieved onto trays where the hash can dry using modern techniques of sublimation. The results are beyond phenomenal and are sure to shock even life-long cannabis consumers. This technique isolates only the most potent and psychoactive parts of the plant, to produce white to clear solventless ice water hash. When done with precision 6-star ice water hash is formed. The hash can be sold and consumed as is or undergo additional solventless techniques to produce hash-rosin. Not to be confused with live-resins, rosin uses pressure and slight heat to squeeze ice-water hash, into hash-rosin. Some companies have elected to whip their rosins into a solventless badder or allow their hash rosins to undergo a cold cure process that creates textures and varieties like hash rosin sauce. Regardless of the final solventless product, they all begin as ice water extractions. These simple, natural methods of extraction are quickly being adopted by companies known for live resin. As solventless extracts are safer, cleaner and superior in quality to solvent chemical extractions, the race is on as the industry shifts toward a solventless future.
While I’d be happy to never see another solvent extract again, without the miraculous breakthroughs and advances in all aspects of cannabis manufacturing and production we may have not yet arrived where we are today. When using solvents to extract, the trichomes, which contain the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, are dissolved by the solvent, which is then evaporated off, leaving behind dissolved trichomes. In solventless hash, these trichomes remain whole and are never dissolved or broken down. Instead they are broken free by agitation in ice and water, separating the trichome heads from their less-active stems. These valuable trichomes heads contain everything pertinent and are never destroyed, dissolved or melted like solvent-extractions are forced to do. The benefit of keeping the heads of these trichomes whole results in a far superior product expressing the full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids the way mother nature intended. This natural profile of trichomes lends itself directly to the entourage effect that solvent extracts were found to be missing.
Extraction techniques are not equal and depend upon whether quality or mass production is the aim. Solvent extracts have quickly begun to represent the old-guard of mass-produced cannabis concentrates, with the solventless new-guard focusing on quality, small batch, hash-rosin excellence.
Canapar SL, an Italian organic hemp producer has just announced it is breaking ground on what it is being billed as “Europe’s largest hemp processing facility.”
Located on Sicily, Canapar is already established as a manufacturer and processor of CBD oil and concentrates. On its roadmap already is to become a leader in the CBD-infused cosmetics, skincare and beauty industry with the additional benefit of bearing the “Made in Italy” imprimatur. In addition to the upscale export market of course, Italy is Europe’s fourth largest consumer of such products.
There has been much noise made about the CBD market in Europe, which even surprised experts by the end of year when it reached a magical 1-billion-euro sales cap.
However, things are not all smooth sailing on this front, no matter how much the market exploded. With the success of CBD, in Switzerland, Spain and beyond, regulators in Europe began looking at how the entire enchilada was regulated.
CBD isolates are falling into a very strange gray territory at the present across the continent. Why? As a plant extract, extracted CBD from cannabis absolutely falls into territory ruled “novel food” in the EU. In effect, what this means is that anything with CBD distillates that do not come from hemp, now requires an expensive licensing process to prove they are not harmful. In places like the UK, Spain and Austria, this became so contentious that police raided Spanish stores over health food products. The UK is now requiring tighter licensing and labelling for these products. Last December, the Austrians banned the entire industry. Take that, Switzerland!
CBD distillate made from hemp, however, seems, for now, to have survived this battle, which is why the strategic investment of Canopy last December was also so intriguingly timed. Why? It appears to be the loophole in the EU in which CBD producers will have to hang their hats until the broader CBD question is answered satisfactorily at both the UN and EU level.
Producing hemp distillate on the Italian island of Sicily also represents an interesting step for the entire cannabis industry as it develops in the country. There have been many efforts to legalize cannabis because this will then end the direct involvement of the Mafia. Perhaps the multi million investment from Canopy will be enough foreign capital to start to do the trick if not turn the tide.
But Won’t CBD Just Be “Rescheduled” By the UN?
There are many reasons why this is a strategic move for Canopy (if not producers moving in similar waters). Yes, CBD is likely to be descheduled by the UN at some point in the near future, but this still will not solve the larger question of “novel food” issues until the EU formally issues regulations on the same. Until then, EU will be a state by state hop for CBD, much as the United States has been so far. And will be, until that debate is settled across the EU at least, sourced from hemp.
With Italian food products export just behind things like cosmetics, Canapar is clearly moving into strategic and potentially highly lucrative territory.
Now, I will explain how the current “smoke and mirrors” of distillation claims are impacting the cannabis industry in the recreational and medical areas. We have all heard the saying, “ignorance is bliss.” But, the ignorance of how distillation really works is creating misinformation and misleading consumers.
That is, just because a cannabis extract has been distilled, doesn’t mean it is safer.There have been reports of people claiming that “Distilled cannabis productsthat are Category 2 distillate are pesticide free and phosphate free, while Category 1 has pesticides and phosphates, but within acceptable limits”
The problem is that these claims of Category 1 and Category 2 cannot be proven just by saying they are distilled. Ignorance of the physical chemistry rules of distillation will lead to increased concentrations of pesticides and other organic contaminants in the supposedly purified cannabis distillate. That is, just because a cannabis extract has been distilled, doesn’t mean it is safer.
So, let’s look at a basic physical chemistry explanation of the cannabis distillation process.
First off, you must have an extract to distill. This extract is produced by butane, carbon dioxide or ethanol extraction of cannabis botanical raw material. This extract is a tarry or waxy solid. It contains cannabinoids, terpenes and other botanical chemicals. It will also contain pesticides, organic chemicals and inorganic chemicals present in the raw material. The extraction process will concentrate all of these chemical compounds in the final extract.
Now you are ready to distill the extract. The extract is transferred to the vacuum distillation vessel. Vacuum distillation is typically used so as to prevent the decomposition of the cannabinoid products by thermal reactions or oxidation. Under a vacuum, the cannabinoids turn into a vapor at a lower temperature and oxygen is limited.
Part of the vacuum distillation apparatus is the distillation column. The dimensions of this column (length and width) along with the packing or design (theoretical plates) will determine the efficiency of distillation separation of each chemical compound. What this means is that the more theoretical plates in a column, the purer the chemical compound in the distillate. (e.g. Vigreux column = 2-5 theoretical plates, Oldershaw column = 10-15 plates, Sieve plate column = any number you can pay for).
The temperature and vacuum controls must be adjustable and accurate for all parts of the distillation apparatus. Failure to control the temperature and vacuum on any part to the apparatus will lead to:
Thermal destruction of the distillate
Oxidation of the distillate
Now, you can see that a proper distillation apparatus is not something you throw together from a high school chemistry lab. But just having the proper equipment will not produce a pure cannabis product. The physical chemistry that takes place in any distillation is the percentage a chemical compound that occurs in the vapor phase compared to the percentage in liquid phase.So, how can you produce a cannabis distillate that is clean and pure?
For example, let’s look at whiskey distillation. In a simple pot still, alcohol is distilled over with some water to produce a mixture that is 25%-30% ethanol. Transferring this distillate to an additional series of pot stills concentrates this alcohol solution to a higher concentration of 85%-90% ethanol. So, each pot still is like a single theoretical plate in a distillation column.
But, if there are any chemical compounds that are soluble in the vapor produced, they will also be carried over with the vapor during distillation. This means that pesticides or other contaminants that are present in the cannabis extract can be carried over during distillation!
So, how can you produce a cannabis distillate that is clean and pure?
Produce a cannabis extract that has lower concentrations of bad chemicals. Since a lot of the cannabis extracts available for distillation are coming from grey-black market cannabis, the chances of contamination are high. So, the first thing to do is to set up an extraction cleanup procedure.
An example of this is to wash the raw extract to remove inorganic phosphates. Then recrystallize the washed extract to remove some of the pesticides.
Make sure that the distillation apparatus is set up to have proper temperature and vacuum controls. This will limit production of cannabis decomposition products in the final distillate.
Make sure your distillation apparatus has more than enough theoretical plates. This will make sure that your cannabis distillate has the purity needed.
Finally, make sure that the staff that operates the cannabis distillation processes are well trained and have the experience and knowledge to understand their work.
Inexperienced or under-trained individuals will produce inferior and contaminated product. Additional information of extract cleanup and effective vacuum distillation can be obtained by contacting the author.
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