Cannabis, we have a problem. Legalizing adult use cannabis in California caused the demand for high-potency cannabis to increase dramatically over the last several years. Today, many dispensary buyers enforce THC minimums for the products that they sell. If smokeable flower products don’t have COAs proving the THC levels are above 20% or more, there is a good chance many dispensaries won’t carry them on their shelves. Unfortunately, these kinds of demands only put undue pressure on the industry and mislead the consumer.
Lab Shopping: Where the Problems Lie
Lab shopping for potency analysis isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent with the increasing demand for high-potency flower over the last couple of years. Sadly, many producers submit valid, certified COAs to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), which show two to three times the actual potency value.
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve purchased products from dispensary shelves and found significant discrepancies between the analysis we perform and the report submitted to the BCC by the producer. So, how can this happen? Several factors are creating the perfect storm in cannabis testing.
Problems with Potency
Many consumers still don’t understand that THC potency is not the only factor in determining quality cannabis, and they are unwittingly contributing to the demand for testing and analysis fraud. It is alarming for cultivation pioneers and ethical labs to see producers and profit-hungry testing facilities falsifying data to make it more appealing to the unaware consumer.
Basically, what’s happening is growers are contacting labs and asking, “I get 30% THC at this lab; what can you do?” When they see our COA reporting their flower tested lower than anticipated, they will go to another lab to get higher test results. Unfortunately, there are all too many labs that are willing to comply.
I recently saw a compliant COA that claimed that this particular flower was testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible. Another product I reviewed claimed that after diluting an 88% THC distillate with 10-15% terpenes, the final potency test was 92% THC. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase. Finally, a third product we reviewed claimed 98% total cannabinoids (while only looking at seven cannabinoids) with 10% terpenes for a total of 108% of the product.
These labs only make themselves look foolish to professionals, mislead laymen consumers and skirt under the radar of the BCC with basic mathematical errors.
The Pesticide Predicament
Frighteningly, inflating potency numbers isn’t the most nefarious testing fraud happening in the cannabis industry. If a manufacturer has 1000 liters of cannabis oil fail pesticide testing, they could lose millions of dollars – or have it retested by a less scrupulous lab.
As the industry continues to expand and new labs pop up left and right, cultivators and manufacturers have learned which labs are “easy graders” and which ones aren’t. Certain labs can miss up to ten times the action level of a pesticide and still report it as non-detectable. So, if the producer fails for a pesticide at one lab, they know four others won’t see it.
In fact, I’ve had labs send my clients promotional materials guaranteeing compliant lab results without ever receiving a sample for testing. So now, these companies aren’t just tricking the consumer; they are potentially harming them.
An Easy Fix
Cannabis testing is missing just one critical factor that could quickly fix these problems – checks and balances. The BCC only needs to do one of two things:
Verifying Lab Accuracy
InfiniteCAL also operates in Michigan, where the Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) has already implemented a system to ensure labs are maintaining the highest testing standards. The MRA will automatically flag all COAs which test above a certain percentage and require the product to be retested by multiple labs.
Labs are required to keep a back stock of material. So, when test results come back abnormally high from Lab A, then Labs B, C and D are commissioned to retest the material to compare data. If Lab A reports 40% THC, but the other labs all report 18%, then it’s easy to see Lab A has made an error.
By simply buying products off the shelves and having them blind-tested by other labs, it would be simple for the BCC to determine if the existing COA is correct. They already have all the data in Metrc, so this would be a quick and easy fix that could potentially solve the problem overnight.
For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.
Labs Aren’t Supposed to Be Profit Centers
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve contacted labs in California where we’ve uncovered discrepancies to help find and flush out the errors in testing. All too often, we hear the excuses:
“If I fix my problem, I’ll lose my clients.”
“I’m just a businessman who owns a lab; I don’t know chemistry.”
“My chemist messed up; it’s their fault!”
If you own a lab, you are responsible for quality control. We are not here to get rich; we are here to act as public safety agents who ensure these products are safe for the consumer and provide detailed information about what they choose to put in their bodies. Be professional, and remember you’re testing for the consumer, not the producer.
With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.
Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.
Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.
Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.
Precision, Quality & Consistency
“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”
At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.
Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.
The Onyx Vision
Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.
“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”
Her Path to Leadership
Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”
Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.
A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.
What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”
This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.
“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.
At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.
Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe
Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.
Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.
Certified Efficiency is the Message
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.
Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.
The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.
Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant
From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.
Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).
That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.
Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.
Always Finish with People
Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”
“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.
Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”
Supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules. Once the extract is obtained the crude is often subjected to an ethanol winterization process to remove chlorophyll, fats and waxes.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods. They recently announced a technology advance enabling winterization in-process, which has the potential to remove the need for ethanol winterization.
We spoke with Jeff Diehl, director of marketing at Green Mill Supercritical, to learn more about the new process. Jeff was working in the tech industry in San Francisco in 2017 when he was invited to join Green Mill by his cousin, Jeremy Diehl, who is the founder and CTO.
Aaron Green: Before we get to your new technology, can you explain what industry trends you are watching?
Jeff Diehl: A big thing that I watch is the premium extract space. More and more consumers are demanding higher premium extracts. They want differentiated products. They want products that are safe and that have some kind of meaningful connection to the specific plant from which they came. Right now, CO2 plays a small role in the market for those products. Most premium products are generated through hydrocarbon extraction. So, I am watching how people are using CO2 to create the next generation of safe, premium products.
Aaron: What is the normal process for a CO2 extraction today?
Jeff: The current CO2 extraction process generally consists of two major phases to producing your final extract. In the first phase, you have extraction where you get your crude product. The second phase is post-extraction where you do cleanup to get your refined oil. Within that post-extraction phase, most operations include an ethanol-based winterization process.
Aaron: What does the winterization step do, exactly?
Jeff: Winterization is about removing waxes. Your main extraction is considered crude because it’s got a lot of materials from the plant that you don’t want. The large majority of unwanted material is waxes. Winterization is the process of using a solvent, traditionally ethanol, to separate the waxes from the cannabinoids. There are multiple challenges inherent in ethanol-based winterization that introduce cost, time and product loss. It’s terribly inefficient. Plus, there will always be residual ethanol left in your final product, and that’s not something consumers appreciate.
Aaron: You’ve recently announced a new process at Green Mill that moves the winterization step into the supercritical CO2 equipment. Can you explain how that works?
Jeff: With our process, which we call Real-Time Winterization, there is no ethanol involved in winterization anymore. It is all done with CO₂ during the primary extraction. That’s the major advance of our process and although it has been attempted before, no one has succeeded at doing it in a viable way. You take a process which is normally four days – one day for CO2 extraction and three days for ethanol winterization – and you do it all in less than a day. We have automated software, sensors and pumps that makes this all possible.
Aaron: How does the quality of the resulting product compare with the new process?
Jeff: You can see the difference right away, if you’re at all familiar with extraction. It just looks clean and bright. Lab analysis has been very positive thus far, but we continue to run tests. Our R&D team has done multiple tests, mostly on hemp and CBD. That’s because we don’t have a license for THC. We’re currently engaging with a licensed partner so that we can collect more data on THC-containing products, so we can give exact numbers. But with CBD, we’ve done multiple tests to validate the method and the technology, and are seeing consistently excellent results in regards to both purity of the product and efficiency of the process.
Aaron: How do yields compare between the processes?
Jeff: From the data that we’ve seen in the industry, it looks like when you winterize with ethanol, you leave anywhere from 5 to 10% of your cannabinoids behind in the waxes. That’s just lost. With Real-Time Winterization using CO2 we have seen recovery rates as high as 99%. We are continuing to investigate that result with testing to make sure it was not an outlier, but in any case, recovery rates look promising.
Aaron: One of the other issues with ethanol is taxes and the ability to find food grade supply. Do you have any perspective you can share on that?
Jeff: There are a number of advantages to moving away from ethanol. The sheer quantity of ethanol is a factor. There are a lot of regulations and fire requirements around managing large quantities of ethanol. The ethanol winterization process itself is not just one process. There are multiple stages, from mixing, to freezing, to filtering, to removing the solvent. These are all opportunities for things to go wrong, so you’re always managing those risks. Multiple large pieces of equipment, including fume hoods, filter skids, cryo freezers and rotary evaporators, are expensive and require heavy management.
I think Elon Musk said the best process is no process. Anytime in an industrial process when you can remove steps in the process, that’s the direction you want to go in. And, that’s what we’ve done. With this recent work, we have effectively removed post processing for certain categories of end product.
Aaron: Do you have any patents on the new process?
Jeff: We have a patent pending on both the method and the equipment, which is allowing us to talk about this as much as we are.
Aaron: So, how does this work if somebody already owns an existing piece of Green Mill equipment? Is this something that can be retrofitted? Is it a software upgrade?
Jeff: There are two components. One is an equipment upgrade, which can be done retroactively for existing customers, and one is a methodology upgrade, which we assist our customers with. The automation software inherently can handle the settings that you need to run the methodology. In fact, it’s that software and the rest of our existing tech stack, the proprietary pump, the triple inline fractionation, the precision and stability of the overall system, that is what made this winterization advance possible.
Aaron: Where are you rolling this out first? And do you plan to go international?
Jeff: International is definitely in the plan, since we’ve already sold systems abroad. We are currently getting ready to announce the opening of our beta program with the new technology. So, we’re not ready to sell this widely at this time, but we are taking submissions from companies that want to get in early and join us at the forefront of CO₂ extraction innovation.
Aaron: Okay, great. Thanks Jeff, that’s the end of the interview.
Due to quick progressions in legalization, today’s cannabis industry bears little resemblance to the industry of five years ago. As the cannabis space gains mainstream acceptance, it resembles more “traditional” industries closely. In turn, how we consume cannabis has changed dramatically within this novel legal framework.
A brief visit to a cannabis dispensary quickly illuminates just how much the industry has changed in the past few years.
Within the dynamic of modern cannabis, perhaps no vertical has seen the same advancements as cannabis extracts. It’s precisely the growth of the concentrate category that has given rise to the many branded products that define the legal market.
To give a clear picture of how advancements in extraction have stimulated the concentrate category’s growth, we put together this brief exploration.
Standards & Technology
Before legalization, the production of cannabis extracts was a shady affair done in clandestine and often dangerous ways. Especially concerning BHO (Butane Hash Oil), home-based laboratories have long since been notorious fire hazards. Even more, with a total lack of regulation, black-market extracts are infamous for containing harmful impurities.
In the few short years that cannabis has been legal in Nevada, Washington and other states, extract producers have adopted standards and technology from more professional arenas. By borrowing from the food and pharmaceutical industries, concentrate companies have achieved excellence undreamed of a decade ago.
Good Manufacturing Practices
One of the essential elements in the extracts vertical advancements is the adoption of good manufacturing practices. According to the World Health Organization website, “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is that part of quality assurance which ensures that products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use.”
When adult-use cannabis was legalized in markets such as Colorado, cannabis companies were able to come out of the shadows and discuss GMPs with legit businesses. In doing so, they implemented professional controls on extract manufacturing in accordance with “quality standards” of state regulatory agencies.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
As cannabis businesses adopted GMP from other industries, extract producers also embraced more sophisticated technology. Of these, supercritical CO2 has pushed the cannabis concentrates vertical into the future.
According to the equipment manufacturer Apeks Supercritical, “CO2 is considered to be a safer method of extraction because the solvent is non-volatile. The extract is purer because no trace of the solvent is left behind. It is also versatile and helps protect sensitive terpenes, by allowing cold separation.” By deriving methods from food production, supercritical equipment manufacturers have given cannabis companies a viable option for the commercial production of extracts.
Supercritical technology has helped push the concentrates vertical forward by providing a clean and efficient way to produce cannabis extracts. Nonetheless, supercritical CO2 equipment is highly sophisticated and carries a hefty price tag. Producers can expect to pay well over $100,000 for commercial supercritical CO2 extraction setup.
Just as standards and technology have evolved in the cannabis extracts vertical, we have also seen products rapidly mature. Notably, the legal environment has allowed manufacturers to exchange ideas and methods for the first time. In turn, this dialogue has led to the development of new products, like isolates and live resin.
Just as the name implies, isolates are concentrates made from a singular, pure cannabinoid. In today’s market, CBD isolates have grown increasingly popular because people can consume pure CBD without ingesting other cannabinoids or plant materials, including the legal 0.3% THC found in hemp.
Isolates are made by further purifying cannabis extracts in the process of purification, filtration and crystallization. As seen with other concentrates, isolates are used as the base for many cannabis products, such as gummies.
There is also growing interest in CBG isolate, which is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid when consumed orally.
The cannabis concentrate live resin has taken the industry by storm over the past few years. Live resin is a form of extract that is originally sourced from freshly harvested and frozen cannabis plants. The primary selling point behind this extract is the fact that fresh flowers produce much more vibrant aromas and flavors than dried cannabis. Interestingly, this pungency is tied to the preservation of terpenes in live resin.
To make live resin, producers “flash freeze” fresh cannabis plants immediately after harvest. Valuable cannabinoids and terpenes are then extracted from the fresh, frozen plant material using hydrocarbon solvents. This whole process is done at extremely cold temperatures, ensuring no thermal degradation to the precious and volatile terpenes.
In lieu of these intricate steps to preserve the flower and extracts, live resin has continuously gained popularity. Namely because vaping with live resin is the best way to sample fresh cannabis terpene profiles in its most authentic fashion
It is amazing to see how much cannabis extracts have grown and progressed with legalization. Due to such amazing advancements in standards, technology, and products, the concentrates category has exploded on the dispensary scene. In today’s market, flowers have been largely sidelined in favor of concentrate-based products like gummies. These products now adorn dispensary shelves in beautiful packaging replete with purity and testing specifications.
It’s an often-overlooked fact that the purity standards of the legal extracts have made reliable cannabis brands possible in the first place. You cannot develop a cannabis brand without consistent products that customers can rely on; all things considered, it can be said that advancements in extraction have not only stimulated the concentrate category but the entire industry as we know it today.
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.
There are obvious upsides and downsides to cannabis regulation. Gone are the days when it was a free for all, for outlaws growing in California’s hills, under the limited protections California’s medical cannabis laws provided. While there is no longer the threat of arrest and incarceration, for the most part, there are also a lot of hoops to jump through, and new rules and standards to contend with. This article highlights three areas in which your cultivation plan must necessarily change due to the new regulations.
1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is limited
In the new regulated market, products that were once widely used are now no longer allowed. Prior to regulation, in the days of Prop 215, you could spray your plants with just about anything, since there was no testing mandated for the products that were being sold. However, people unfortunately got sick and experienced negative reactions, with products like Eagle 20, which contains mycobutinol, and Avid, which contains bifenthrin. Accordingly, under new regulations there are thankfully much more stringent standards dictating what pesticides can be used. It’s ironic that for most of the “medical marijuana” era in California there were no mandatory testing requirements for the THC content of your cannabis, let alone testing for toxins, including pesticides, molds or heavy metals.
You need to have a very thorough pest management plan to make sure your bug populations are always in check. Given that there are a small number of allowable products for pest control in the regulated market, this can be tricky. You need to be extremely familiar with what is and isn’t allowed in today’s regulations. You must also make sure that someone who is certified to apply pesticides is applying them.
As a word of caution, there have been instances where approved pesticides were found to have old unused chemicals (that are not approved for use) from the manufacturing process in them. They may have only occurred in very small amounts, but they are harmful to humans and there is no lawful way to dispose of them.
Further, the presence of these harmful chemicals can cause your finished product to fail when undergoing mandated testing.
Rather than using risky chemicals, the best solution for (early detected) control of pests is the use of beneficial insects. Although they may not be the best solution for an infestation, predator bugs like Neoseiulus Californicus can efficiently control small populations of spider mites while ladybugs are good to limit aphids. Strategic planning of your IPM is one of the best ways to keep pest levels in check.
2. Plant size and plant count matter more than ever
Despite widespread legalization in the past few years for both the medical and recreational markets in the United States, the black market is still rampant and most cannabis is still being produced illegally in the US and internationally.
Generally speaking, in the black market, the less plants you have the better, as high plant counts lead to longer sentences of incarceration. With the passage of prop 215 in 1996, many growers, especially outdoor, started growing their plants as big as they possibly could because most limitations were based on plant counts. Some outdoor growers were able to cultivate plants that yielded over 10 pounds per plant. These days regulations are based on canopy measurements, meaning you can grow as many plants as you want within a defined, limited square footage area. This is where “light deprivation,” a method used to force plants into flowering, becomes favorable as it allows 2-4 harvests per year instead of just one. It is a much more intensive way of growing when you have tens of thousands of plants. While it is easier to plant, cultivate and harvest a larger number of smaller plants, it also requires a much more detailed level of planning and organization.
In order to achieve 4 harvests per year, you must have a well thought out cultivation plan and an all-star staff, but if you are able to accomplish this, you can increase your revenue significantly. Maximizing plant canopy space is essential to a profitable business in today’s market, and to do that will require more detailed planning, better organization and proper crop management.
3. How you grow and what equipment you use
With regulation comes liability for defects or injury. It is essential that all equipment used is approved for its intended use. Traditionally, cannabis was cultivated in secrecy in the black market. This led to many unsafe grow rooms being built by people who did not have the proper skills to be undertaking projects such as converting a garage into a grow room or handling the electrical and plumbing running into them. Accordingly, there were many instances of damages to property or injuries to people because of this. Now that counties and states permit cannabis cultivation facilities, the infrastructure and labor that is done must meet regulated building codes and general safety requirements. It is therefore imperative to know the codes and regulations and hire a professional that does, to ensure you meet the standards in order to avoid potential liability.
Larger scale cultivation requires bigger and more expensive equipment. Cultivation facilities are more likely to have sophisticated equipment, such as chiller systems, that are designed to control the grow room environment. While very efficient, some are not intended to be used specifically for cannabis cultivation, and can therefore be difficult to control and maintain. They perform very specific functions, and when not properly tuned to your conditions, can malfunction by prioritizing dehumidification over cooling. This can be a real challenge in warmer climates when temperatures rise, requiring cooling, but also necessitate removal of moisture from the cultivation space.
On the other hand, there is new technology that can make a huge difference in the success of your cultivation. I recently worked with two different companies that specialize in root zone heating systems. One manufactured equipment for root zone heating and cooling of 10k sq ft raised beds that had never been used in California previously. The other company specialized in root zone heating using radiant floor heat. They both worked as intended to maintain a constant root zone temperature, which increased plant health, and ultimately increased yield.
Many counties require data collection from your cultivation, requiring you to track the amount of water and nutrients used. Therefore, another useful tool you can use to increase efficiency, is data collection software that will allow you to collect different information about the amount of water and nutrients used, as well as specific information about the conditions in your grow medium. You can also record and display temperature and humidity readings in your grow room, in real time remotely through Wi-Fi, that you can then access from your phone or computer from anywhere in the world. This can be a useful tool when documenting information that your county, state or investors may require from you. Further, the ability to collect and analyze data will allow you to identify areas of inefficiency in order to correct and optimize your grow room’s potential. While you can achieve these same goals with simple in-line water meters, keeping track of nutrients and pesticides is not as easy. Data collection in the most basic form, using a pen and paper, can be an inaccurate and an inefficient use of time, and can easily be misplaced or ruined. Therefore, simple data software collection programs are the best solution to make the process simple and hassle free.
While it is nice to have state of the art equipment, if it does not work properly, or cannot be easily maintained, it will not be worth it in the long run and you will never see a return on your investment. Innovation comes with a price; using equipment that is cutting edge can be risky, but on the flip side, when done properly it can give you a big advantage over your competitors.
In switching from the black market to the regulated market, these three areas have proven to be the biggest areas of change and have presented the biggest challenges. It is important you consider these necessary changes, and make a solid plan before you begin your cultivation. This is where a cultivation consultant can help.
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.
Concentrates refer to products made from processing cannabis – often resulting in much higher THC or CBD percentages. The category includes oils, wax, dabs, shatter, live resin and hash. Consumers are increasingly drawn to these cannabis products for their near-immediate and intense effects. They’re often consumed through vaporization, dabbing or sublingual absorption and are sometimes favored by those who want to avoid smoking. Cannabis growers who have traditionally focused on flower yields may decide to prioritize quality and potency levels in order to tap into these changing consumer tastes.
What Growers Should Focus on to Produce High Quality Concentrates We’ll let you in on a little secret: making good concentrates starts with good flower. If you’re starting with low-quality flower, it’s impossible to create a high-quality concentrate. Whatever qualities inherent to the flower you’re starting with will be amplified post-processing. So, really, the concentrate-making process starts at the seedling level, requiring the right care and attention to coax out the results you’re looking for.
But what makes good flower? While this can be a subjective question, those producing concentrates generally look for flowers with big, abundant trichomes. Trichomes are the small, dewy structures found across the cannabis plant on buds, leaves and even the stem. They’re responsible for producing the plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes – the chemical compounds that give a strain its unique benefits, aroma and taste. Evolutionarily, trichomes attract pollinators, deter hungry herbivores and provide some defense against wind, cold and UV radiation.
Generally, trichomes indicate how potent the flower is. Plus, what we’re most often looking for when making concentrates is higher cannabinoid and terpene profiles, while also ensuring absolute safety.
What measures can growers take to produce crops that are ideal for concentrate production? Start with the following:
Avoiding Contaminants Just like you would wash your fruits and vegetables before consumption, consumers want to be sure there’s no dangerous residuals in the concentrate they are ingesting. Growers can avoid any post-process residuals by taking a few key steps, including:
Cutting out the pesticides. Any pesticides that are on your flowers before they go through processing will show up in your concentrates, often even more – you guessed it – concentrated. This is a serious health concern for consumers who might be sensitive to certain chemicals or have compromised immune systems. It’s dangerous to healthy consumers, too. Rather than spraying hazardous chemicals, growers could consider integrated pest management techniques, such as releasing predatory insects.
Limiting foliar spraying. Some growers will use foliar spraying to address nutrient deficiency or pest-related issues through delivering nutrients straight to the leaves. However, this can also result in contaminated concentrates. If you really need to spray, do it during the vegetative stage or investigate organic options.
Taking the time to flush the crop. This is a critical step in reducing potential contaminants in your concentrate, especially if you’re using a non-organic nutrient solution or fertilizer. Flushing simply means only giving your plants water during the final two weeks of flowering before harvest, resulting in a cleaner, non-contaminated flower and therefore a cleaner concentrate.
Perfecting the Indoor Environment When cultivating cannabis indoors, growers are given ultimate control over their crop. They control how much light the plants receive, the lighting schedule, temperature and humidity levels. Creating the ideal environment for your cannabis crop is the number one way to ensure healthy plants and quality concentrates. There are many factors to consider when maintaining an indoor grow:
Temperature regulation. Trichomes are sensitive to temperature changes and start to degrade if they’re too hot or too cold. To maintain the best trichome structure, you’ll want to maintain an ideal temperature – for most strains, this falls between an idyllic 68 and 77 degrees.
Adequate light. For plants to perform photosynthesis indoors, they’ll need an appropriate light source – preferably one that is full-spectrum. Full-spectrum LEDs are able to closely replicate the sun and provide ample, uniform light to your crop. Another selling point for LEDs is their low heat output, making it much easier for growers to regulate ambient heat.
CO2. Another necessary ingredient for photosynthesis is CO2. Providing your indoor crops with CO2 can boost plant size and yields and, therefore, provides more surface area for trichomes to develop and thrive.
Cold snap prior to harvest. Some growers rely on this age-old tactic for one last push before harvest – lowering their temperature for a few days right at the end of the flower cycle. They believe this puts the plants into a defense mode and will produce more trichomes in order to protect themselves.
Following Best Practices Post-Harvest You made it to harvest – you’re almost done!
When harvesting and storing your plants, handle them with care to reduce damage to trichomes. If you’re planning on immediately making concentrates, you can move forward to the drying and curing process. If you’re going to wait a few weeks before processing, freeze your plants. This will preserve the cannabinoid and terpene profiles at their peak.
As the cannabis industry continues to expand, more consumers are likely to reach for concentrates at their local dispensaries. It makes sense that businesses want to diversify their offerings to satisfy customers looking for the most effective way to consume cannabis. As with any cannabis-derived product, producers will want to prioritize quality and safety – especially in the concentrate market.
For years, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) got all the attention. While THC certainly delivers its own benefits (such as relaxation and pain relief), there’s a whole host of other – and often overlooked – compounds found in cannabis with important benefits as well. THC is truly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cannabis’s potential.
As the cannabis industry evolves with changing consumer tastes and developing medical research, growers may employ techniques to boost cannabinoid and terpene profiles in their harvests – beyond merely focusing on THC. Advanced LEDs allow growers to elicit specific biological responses in cannabis crops, including increased concentrations of these naturally occurring chemical compounds.
The Foundation of Cannabis’s Effects Whether used medicinally or otherwise, cannabis has changed our society and many of our lives – and there’s a collection of naturally occurring chemical compounds, known as cannabinoids and terpenes, to thank.
The cannabinoids THC and CBD are the most common and well-researched, however they are accompanied by more than 200 additional compounds, including cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), among others.
The cannabis plant also contains terpenes. These structures are responsible for giving flowers (including cannabis), fruits and spices their distinctive flavors and aromas. Common terpenes include limonene, linalool, pinene and myrcene.
Both cannabinoids and terpenes are found in the cannabis plant’s glandular structures known as trichomes. Look closely, and you’ll notice trichomes coating the cannabis flowers and leaves, giving the plant an almost frosty appearance.
Trichomes – which are found across several plant species – are a key aspect of a cannabis plant’s survival. The specific combination of metabolites produced by trichomes may attract certain pollinators and repel plant-eating animals. Moreover, trichomes (and specifically THC) may act as the plant’s form of sunscreen and shield the plant from harmful ultraviolet rays.
While they play an essential part in the cannabis plant’s lifecycle, trichomes are volatile and easily influenced by a range of environmental factors, including light, heat, physical agitation and time. Therefore, environment is a defining variable in the development of these important structures.
How LEDs Support Cannabinoid and Terpene Development in Crops Spectrally tunable LEDs give indoor cannabis growers unparalleled control over their crops. As research has expanded about plants’ responses to the light spectrum, growers have discovered they are able to elicit certain physiological responses in the plant. This phenomenon is called photomorphogenesis. At its root, photomorphogenesis is a survival tactic – it’s how the plant responds to miniscule changes in its environment to increase the chances of reaching full maturity and, eventually, reproducing. While cultivated cannabis plants won’t reproduce at an indoor setting, growers can still use the light spectrum to encourage strong root and stem development, hasten the flowering process and the development of bigger, brightly colored flowers.
It makes sense that using the proper light spectrums may also have an impact on the production of specific cannabinoids and terpenes – an important factor when responding to highly specific consumer needs and desires, both within medical and adult-use markets.
Here are a few more reasons why utilizing full-spectrum LEDs can lead to higher quality cannabis:
Lower Heat, but the Same Intensity. When compared to HPS, fluorescent and other conventional lighting technologies, LEDs have a much lower heat output, but provide the same level of intensity (and often improved uniformity). This represents an enormous advantage for cannabis cultivators, as the lights can be hung much closer to the plant canopy without burning trichomes than they would be able to with other lighting technologies.
UV Light. Cannabinoids and terpenes are part of the cannabis plant’s natural defense mechanism, so it makes sense that lightly stressing plants can boost cannabinoid and terpene numbers. Some studies illustrate an increase in UV-B and UV-A light can lead to richer cannabinoid and terpene profiles.1 It’s a fine line to walk, though – too much UV can result in burned plants, which leads to a noticeable drop in cannabinoids.
Full-Spectrum Capabilities. The cannabis plant evolved over millions of years under the steady and reliable light of the sun. Full-spectrum is the closest thing to natural sunlight that growers will be able to find for indoor growing – and they’ve been shown to perform better in terms of cannabinoid development. A 2018 study titled “The Effect of Light Spectrum on the Morphology and Cannabinoid Content for Cannabis Sativa L.,” explored how an optimized light spectrum resulted in increased expression of cannabinoids CBG and THCV.2
This is the most important tip for indoor growers: your plants’ environment is everything. It can make or break a successful harvest. That means cultivators are responsible for ensuring the plants are kept in ideal conditions. Lights are certainly important at an indoor facility, but there are several other factors to consider that can affect your lights’ performance and the potency of your final product. This includes your temperature regulation, humidity, the density of plants within the space, CO2 concentration and many other variables. For the best results, your lights should be fully aligned with other environmental controls in your space. Nothing sabotages a once-promising crop like recurrent issues in the indoor environment.
Cannabinoids and terpenes take time to develop – so cultivators will want to avoid harvesting their plants too early. On the other hand, these compounds begin to degrade over time, so growers can’t wait too long either.
Cultivators seeking potent cannabinoid and terpene profiles must find a happy medium for the best results – and the best place to look is where cannabinoids and terpenes develop: the trichomes. With a microscope, cultivators can get up close and personal with these sparkly structures. Younger plants begin with clear trichomes, which eventually become opaque and change to amber. Once your plants show amber-hued trichomes, they’re ready for harvest.
The truth here is that there’s no perfect formula to elicit show-stopping cannabinoids and dizzying terpenes with every harvest. A lot of cannabis cultivation is based around trial-and-error, finding what works for your space, your business and your team. But understanding the basics around indoor environmental controls like lighting and temperature – and how they can affect the development of cannabinoids and terpenes – is an excellent place to start. Using high quality equipment, such as full-spectrum LED lighting can boost both cannabinoid and terpene production, resulting in richer, more potent and higher quality strains.
Lyndon, John, Teramura, Alan H., Coffman, Benjamin C. “UV-B Radiation Effects on Photosynthesis, Growth and Cannabinoid Production of Two Cannabis Sativa Chemotypes.” August 1987. Photochemistry and photobiology. Web. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1751-1097.1987.tb04757.x?&sid=nlm%3Apubmed
Magagnini G., Grassi G., Kotiranta, S. “The Effect of Light Spectrum on the Morphology and Cannabinoid Content of Cannabis sativa L.” 2018. Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids. Web: https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/489030
Consumers are largely unaware that most commercial cannabis grown today undergoes some form of decontamination to treat the industry’s growing problem of mold, yeast and other microbial pathogens. As more cannabis brands fail regulatory testing for contaminants, businesses are increasingly turning to radiation, ozone gas, hydrogen peroxide or other damaging remediation methods to ensure compliance and avoid product recalls. It has made cannabis cultivation and extraction more challenging and more expensive than ever, not to mention inflaming the industry’s ongoing supply problem.
The problem is only going to get worse as states like Nevada and California are beginning to implement more regulations including even tougher microbial contamination limits. The technological and economic burdens are becoming too much for some cultivators, driving some of them out of business. It’s also putting an even greater strain on them to meet product demand.
It’s critical that the industry establishes new product standards to reassure consumers that the cannabis products they buy are safe. But it is even more critical that the industry look beyond traditional agricultural remediation methods to solve the microbial problems.
Mold and other microbial pathogens are found everywhere in the environment, including the air, food and water that people consume. While there is no consensus yet on the health consequences of consuming these contaminants through cannabis, risks are certainly emerging. According to a 2015 study by the Cannabis Safety Institutei, molds are generally harmless in the environment, but some may present a health threat when inhaled, particularly to immunocompromised individuals. Mycotoxins resulting from molds such as Aspergillus can cause illnesses such as allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis. Even when killed with treatment, the dead pathogens could trigger allergies or asthma.
There is an abundance of pathogens that can affect cannabis cultivation, but the most common types are Botrytis (bud rot, sometimes called gray mold) and Powdery Mildew. They are also among the most devastating blights to cannabis crops. Numerous chemical controls are available to help prevent or stem an outbreak, ranging from fungicides and horticultural oils to bicarbonates and biological controls. While these controls may save an otherwise doomed crop, they introduce their own potential health risks through the overexposure and consumption of chemical residues.
The issue is further compounded by the fact that the states in which cannabis is legal can’t agree on which microbial pathogens to test for, nor how to test. Colorado, for instance, requires only three pathogen tests (for salmonella, E. coli, and mycotoxins from mold), while Massachusetts has exceedingly strict testing regulations for clean products. Massachusetts-based testing lab, ProVerde Laboratories, reports that approximately 30% of the cannabis flowers it tests have some kind of mold or yeast contamination.
If a cannabis product fails required microbial testing and can’t be remedied in a compliant way, the grower will inevitably experience a severe – and potentially crippling – financial hit to a lost crop. Willow Industries, a microbial remediation company, says that cannabis microbial contamination is projected to be a $3 billion problem by 2020ii.
Remediation Falls Short
With the financial stakes so high, the cannabis industry has taken cues from the food industry and adopted a variety of ways to remediate cannabis harvests contaminated with pathogens. Ketch DeGabrielle of Qloris Consulting spent two years studying cannabis microbial remediation methods and summarized their pros and consiii.
He found that some common sterilization approaches like autoclaves, steam and dry heat are impractical for cannabis due the decarboxylation and harsh damage they inflict on the product. Some growers spray or immerse cannabis flowers in hydrogen peroxide, but the resulting moisture can actually cause more spores to germinate, while the chemical reduces the terpene content in the flowers.
The more favored, technologically advanced remediation approaches include ozone or similar gas treatment, which is relatively inexpensive and treats the entire plant. However, it’s difficult to gas products on a large scale, and gas results in terpene loss. Microwaves can kill pathogens effectively through cellular rupture, but can burn the product. Ionizing radiation kills microbial life by destroying their DNA, but the process can create carcinogenic chemical compounds and harmful free radicals. Radio frequency (which DeGabrielle considers the best method) effectively kills yeast and mold by oscillating the water in them, but it can result in moisture and terpene loss.
The bottom line: no remediation method is perfect. Prevention of microbial contamination is a better approach. But all three conventional approaches to cannabis cultivation – outdoors, greenhouses and indoor grow operations – make it extremely difficult to control contamination. Mold spores can easily gain a foothold both indoors and out through air, water, food and human contact, quickly spreading into an epidemic.
The industry needs to establish new quality standards for product purity and employ new growing practices to meet them. Advanced technologies can help create near perfect growing ecosystems and microclimates for growing cannabis free of mold contamination. Internet of Things sensors combined with AI-driven robotics and automation can dramatically reduce human intervention in the growing process, along with human-induced contamination. Natural sunlight supplemented with new lighting technologies that provide near full-light and UV spectrum can stimulate robust growth more resistant to disease. Computational fluid dynamic models can help growers achieve optimal temperature, humidity, velocity, filtration and sanitation of air flow. And tissue culture micropropagation of plant stock can eliminate virus and pathogen threats, to name just a few of the latest innovations.
Growing legal cannabis today is a risky business that can cost growers millions of dollars if pathogens contaminate a crop. Remediation methods to remove microbial contamination may work to varying degrees, but they introduce another set of problems that can impact consumer health and comprise product quality.
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