The High Life

Le­gal­ized mar­i­juana goes luxe

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Jen Ger­son

Le­gal­ized mar­i­juana goes luxe

Aquic k Google search will re­veal the fol­low­ing of the pop­u­lar mar­i­juana breed known as Bubba Kush: “Sweet hashish fla­vors with sub­tle notes of choco­late and cof­fee come through on the ex­hale, de­light­ing the palate as pow­er­ful re­lax­ation takes over. From head to toe, mus­cles ease with heav­i­ness as dreamy eu­pho­ria blan­kets the mind, crush­ing stress while co­erc­ing happy moods.” This de­scrip­tion is from the pop­u­lar web­site Leafly, which bills it­self as the largest mar­i­juana re­source in the world and lists de­tailed tast­ing notes on thou­sands of strains that can be pur­chased across the globe. If you know your weed, you may al­ready be fa­mil­iar with names like Blue Dream, Green Crack, or OG Kush, each promis­ing a dis­tinct ex­pe­ri­ence. Some claim to in­duce sleepi­ness or in­crease ap­petite, oth­ers to pro­vide a sense of hap­pi­ness and well-be­ing. In ad­di­tion to vary­ing con­cen­tra­tions of the ac­tive chem­i­cal THC — the com­pound that gets users high — dif­fer­ent strains also boast com­plex of­fer­ings of ter­penes: aro­matic or­ganic com­pounds that can sub­tly al­ter the flavour and smell of cannabis (and, some claim, even the ef­fects of a high). In June, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced that recre­ational mar­i­juana was set to be­come le­gal­ized across the coun­try on Oc­to­ber 17. It is hoped that le­gal­iza­tion will end the il­licit trade in this com­par­a­tively be­nign ine­bri­ant. But the new law will do more than that. It will re­duce so­cial stigma and spur in­vest­ment; le­gal­iza­tion will fos­ter the grow­ing cul­ture of cannabis con­nois­seur­ship, com­ple­mented with a grow­ing ar­ray of swanky con­sumer prod­ucts like lux­ury hu­mi­dors and space-age va­por­iz­ers. While the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has set strict guide­lines for how mar­i­juana can be mar­keted, ex­pect high­end re­tail­ers to come equipped with knowl­edge­able sales­peo­ple — weed som­me­liers who can guide the will­ing con­sumer into be­spoke eu­phoric realms. Canada is cre­at­ing a new mar­ket, and as with any startup in­dus­try, ex­pect the sales pitches to be laced with a dose of hype. CIBC es­ti­mates that the le­gal mar­i­juana mar­ket in Canada will ap­proach $6.5 bil­lion by 2020 — nearly as much as wine sales. And, like wine tast­ing, much of the mar­ket­ing around the prod­uct will al­most cer­tainly be bunk.

Be­cause recre­ational mar­i­juana isn’t le­gal in Canada quite yet, the best way to get a sense of how things will un­fold is to look south of the bor­der: as one of the first states to le­gal­ize weed in the United States, Colorado boasts one of the most es­tab­lished and ad­vanced re­tail-mar­i­juana mar­kets. Walk into a cannabis shop there and the first thing you’ll likely be asked for is your ID. Once your age is con­firmed, says Sam Homsi, re­gional di­rec­tor at the Rocky Moun­tain High and Cannabis Sta­tion dis­pen­sary chains, you are let into the ac­tual store. But even then, there are strict lim­its on how he can sell his wares. Colorado law pro­hibits re­tail­ers from ad­ver­tis­ing on any ra­dio, tele­vi­sion, print, or in­ter­net out­let where more than 30 per­cent of the au­di­ence is younger than twen­ty­one years old. And re­tail­ers like Homsi are for­bid­den from sug­gest­ing par­tic­u­lar strains for spe­cific de­sires or ail­ments, although sales­peo­ple are per­mit­ted to make per­sonal rec­om­men­da­tions based

on their own ex­pe­ri­ences with a brand. (In Canada, mar­ket­ing will be even more re­stric­tive: mar­i­juana will be sold in plain pack­ag­ing af­fixed with clear health warn­ings.) Yet even with these re­stric­tions in place, the price of an ounce (twenty-eight grams) of mar­i­juana in Colorado stores can vary widely — from $20 to $500 (US), ac­cord­ing to Wik­ileaf, an on­line price tracker. And the dif­fer­ence be­tween hig­h­and low-qual­ity bud doesn’t just have to do with the amount of THC, re­tail­ers say. “Some cannabis might give you dry mouth, it might make you hun­gry or more so­cia­ble — those are based on the ter­pene pro­files and cannabi­noids,” Homsi ex­plains. Cus­tomers “are also look­ing at the bud struc­ture, the smell. Al­ways a big one is the smell.” A cheap ounce looks very dif­fer­ent from an ex­pen­sive one. Cheaper cannabis may be a lit­tle older. Maybe the plant didn’t quite turn out the way the grower ex­pected — like a per­fectly good but mis­shapen ap­ple on dis­count at the gro­cery store, it may not have the shape, colour, or smell that the strain ge­net­ics promised. More ex­pen­sive mar­i­juana also tends to be hand trimmed rather than ma­chine trimmed — the lat­ter process can dam­age the del­i­cate psy­choac­tive crys­tals on the plant. Of course, like with any other pro­duce, price is also set by rep­u­ta­tion: some strains of mar­i­juana are more pop­u­lar than oth­ers. Pitch­ing any of this to con­sumers pre­sumes that ven­dors are de­liv­er­ing a re­li­able and con­sis­tent prod­uct — that a new batch of your favourite strain will of­fer the same ef­fects as the last. It turns out that is a dif­fi­cult claim to make. Com­mer­cial cannabis is largely prop­a­gated through cloning, so strains like Bubba Kush and Blue Dream should be ge­net­i­cally nearly iden­ti­cal from store to store — that is, if they are what they claim to be. Anna Sch­wabe, a PHD can­di­date who stud­ies plant ge­net­ics at the Univer­sity of North­ern Colorado, de­cided to test this pre­sump­tion. She trav­elled around Colorado, Cal­i­for­nia, and Washington, col­lect­ing dozens of mar­i­juana sam­ples and then com­par­ing their ge­netic sig­na­tures to see if dis­pen­saries were all sell­ing the same thing un­der the same names. (She had to ex­tract the DNA on the road or at home — the univer­sity risked its fed­eral fund­ing if it ex­per­i­mented with the ac­tual plant ma­te­rial on cam­pus with­out re­ceiv­ing a spe­cial li­cence from the US Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.) What Sch­wabe found is that many of them ab­so­lutely were not: even widely car­ried and pop­u­lar strains, like Sour Diesel and Blue Dream, of­ten con­tained at least one ma­jor ge­netic out­lier among her set of sam­ples. Only a few strains were ge­net­i­cally sim­i­lar across dis­pen­saries. “No­body is pur­posely be­ing ma­li­cious or mak­ing stuff up,” she says. “What I think we have is years of un­der­ground grow­ing and trad­ing, with no ver­i­fi­ca­tion or cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.” This lack of stan­dard­iza­tion fore­tells po­ten­tial prob­lems for the Cana­dian recre­ational-mar­i­juana mar­ket: there is noth­ing to stop an un­eth­i­cal dis­pen­sary owner from sim­ply re­la­belling a less ex­pen­sive or less pop­u­lar prod­uct. What’s even more in­ter­est­ing about this ex­per­i­ment, how­ever, is that what­ever buzz there may be around spe­cific strains, it seems as if not even dis­pen­sary own­ers can re­li­ably tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween them.

Le­gal­iza­tion in the US has led to growth in in­vest­ment; com­pa­nies are striv­ing to cre­ate a more pre­dictable and plea­sur­able ex­pe­ri­ence. One com­pany called Do­sist (“de­liv­er­ing health and hap­pi­ness”) is now of­fer­ing re­cy­clable vape pens that sup­ply spe­cific THC and ter­pene pro­files; the pens are sold in min­i­mal­ist pack­ag­ing with names like Calm, Bliss, Sleep, Re­lief, and Pas­sion. More at­ten­tion is also be­ing paid to the craft of grow­ing and pro­cess­ing the plant. Last year in the US two ad­vo­cacy groups merged to cre­ate the Cannabis Cer­ti­fi­ca­tion Coun­cil, which will ap­prove or­gan­i­cally grown mar­i­juana. Pes­ti­cides are a grow­ing con­cern for those who pre­fer “dab­bing” — in­hal­ing va­por­ized mar­i­juana oils or solids that have been con­cen­trated. Con­cen­tra­tion not only makes the prod­uct more po­tent with THC, it may also in­crease the rel­a­tive amount of any pes­ti­cides that were used to grow the plant. Health-con­scious con­sumers can also opt for more nat­u­rally con­cen­trated forms of mar­i­juana. For ex­am­ple, the oils used in vape pens are tra­di­tion­ally ex­tracted us­ing sol­vents like bu­tane. Those who find the thought of smok­ing lighter fluid a lit­tle off-putting may want to con­sider a con­cen­trate called rosin, which is ex­tracted us­ing sim­ple heat and pres­sure. In the US, even Wal­mart got into this game for a time, sell­ing an in­dus­tri­al­look­ing rosin press for $299 (US).

There are still a lot of unan­swered ques­tions about how, ex­actly, the com­po­nents of mar­i­juana work to­gether to de­liver its de­light­ful, eu­phoric ef­fects. “It’s im­por­tant for con­sumers to un­der­stand what are the valu­able com­po­nents in the prod­uct it­self,” says Josh Ka­plan, a pro­fes­sor of be­havioural neu­ro­science at West­ern Washington Univer­sity. “Is it just THC and [the cannabi­noid] CBD? And is ev­ery­thing else just smoke and mir­rors?” he asks. “I be­lieve that, based on the re­search out there that has looked at the ben­e­fits of ter­penes... there is some­thing to it. Yes, THC, yes CBD, those are prob­a­bly the most im­por­tant el­e­ments. But,” he es­ti­mates, “if that takes you 75 to 80 per­cent of the way, the other 20 is go­ing to come from other com­po­nents.” One could prob­a­bly make a sim­i­lar claim about the taste of wine. Yet very few peo­ple have a palate ca­pa­ble of de­tect­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween a $20, $100, or $1,000 bot­tle. For most of us, a wine splurge is sim­ply a show of sta­tus. Mar­i­juana looks set to fol­low that path. How much of the mar­ket­ing around it is go­ing to be, sim­ply, just hype? There isn’t an easy an­swer to that ques­tion, says Re­becca Jesse­man, the di­rec­tor of pol­icy at the Cana­dian Cen­tre on Sub­stance Use and Ad­dic­tion. “You can ask the same ques­tion of wine con­nois­seurs: What makes the best wine? It comes down to the in­di­vid­ual.” Jen Ger­son is the jour­nal­ist-in-res­i­dence at the Univer­sity of Cal­gary’s Fac­ulty of Law. She is a con­tribut­ing editor at Ma­clean’s and co-hosts the Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal pod­cast Oppo.

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