Making Marijuana Safer with Jeff Raber

Jeff Raber

Dr. Jeffrey C. Raber is the founder of The Werc Shop, a lab dedicated to testing marijuana flowers, extracts and other cannabis-based products for safety and accuracy (i.e. “are they appropriately labeled?”). And yes, his name rhymes nicely with the post of our title! A job that is essential to ensuring medical marijuana is of the highest standard. Dr. Raber received his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Southern California. We ask him what made him want to get into the cannabis industry and lots more besides. Some of you science geeks may want to take down some notes, too!

Please tell us how you came to start working in the cannabis industry …

In the end of 2008, my brother was working at a construction company, and was asked ifthey could help build a storefront dispensary. Then he came home and said, “Look at what these people have asked me to do.” Certainly, we were both surprised. Didn’t have any idea that cannabis and facilitation of product movement were legal in any fashion. Certainly not back then. But I did come to learn about Prop. 215 and SB420 and other voter initiatives and laws on the books in California, and that was the beginning of the interest.

In the early part of 2009, President Obama, who was nearly elected, said that his administration would not go after medical patients, only drug trafficking organizations. I saw that as the opportunity to both take care of my own health needs and see how many other people we could help out by understanding cannabis in a better fashion.

From there, we planned for the next year and built out the business plan and tried to understand what might be the best way to go about entering the market and working in it, and began opening our doors and offering testing services in the early part of 2010.

Cannabis sativa leaf.
Cannabis sativa leaf Dorsal aspect. Author: JonRichfield. From Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Could you tell us about The Werc Shop’s testing laboratories and what sort of process you go through to test for safety and efficacy?

Sure, it’s an independent contract analytical laboratory operations that provide cannabinoid profiles, terpene profiles, microbiological screening and pesticide screening, along with residual solvent screening. Those – and especially the last three – are test types that are performed in safety and profiling.

So efficacy is more along the terms of “What’s the chemical composition?” or “What’s the cannabis composition?” more specifically, and “What’s the dose?” and “Is the purported dose on the label accurate to what the lab is seeing?”

Could you tell us more about the  cannabis medications you’ve helped develop, and if you’ve noticed any patterns …?

I think the unfortunate pattern that I’ve recognized is that most products are not well-standardized at all. So, when you look at cannabis in its chemical composition, it’s exceptionally diverse. Very broad. Very different and unique in a large number of fashions. And, in that respect, if you look at only one specific composition or one specific analyte – say CBD or THC, for example – that doesn’t tell you about that entire strain or cannabis plant, nor what else might be in your derivative product form, like your edible, tincture or otherwise.

So, most of the time, we’re not even seeing consistent CBD or THC concentrations in a lot of the products that are formed from the plant. The plant itself can be widely variable. Most often, cultivar names I’d say are “colorful”. We know many of them as “Sour Diesel”, “OG Kush” or things of that type. And they do not always represent the same chemical composition behind the scenes of that name, either.

Testing Cannabis

So, what we’re unfortunately seeing is a large lack of standardization, and inconsistencies are rampant, along with misnaming of product types. So, what we’ve done a lot of, is broaden that perspective to include terpene profiling. We started doing that in 2011, noticing that, “Here are three different cultivars in our hands. The cannabinoid profile looks very similar, but the smell, taste and effects of these things are wildly different. What else is going on that makes these different in such a fashion, that they are providing unique physiological responses?”

And we believe, in now a pretty solid perspective, that it’s the terpenes that are really doing a lot of that. So, a lot of the other composition that was present that wasn’t looked at so well, is really important in terms of making that physiological response. We’ve gone so far to now see concentrates that are produced at high purity (they are typically called “distillates”) – and those are upwards of 80%-90% major cannabinoids, THC typically – and they’re devoid of most of the terpenes. And then you can insert your terpene composition back into that, and go from the same cannabinoid profile with different terpene compositions, and start to elicit different physiological responses.

So, that’s really solid insight into saying, “Terpenes are a major driver of overall physiological response, and how patient populations may respond to different cannabis compositions.” So, the goal of trying to really standardize cannabis medications and cannabis products comes down to not only “How much THC or CBD do I have in there?”, but also, “How much of everything else do I have in there?” Looking for that in all those complex matrices is definitely a challenge, and the processing methodologies to standardizing them is also an exceptional challenge.

Are there any particular strains or terpene profiles that help with specific conditions?

Yeah, there are definitely a number of different profiles or cultivar names that may impart certain physiological responses. I’m very hesitant to say, “This strain name gives that type of effect” because we don’t even know how to define the strain names. So, quite often, you can pick up the same name out of many different dispensaries across California or other states, and see wildly different chemical profiles. So, you can’t say that this “OG Kush is going to provide relaxation or sedative-type effects” because the next OG Kush someone gets is going to be very different.

We also don’t know if everybody has the ability to respond to the same profile in exactly the same way. So some of them are very, very different in different ways. So, even if I have the same profile, I might end up with many different people responding differently to them. So, I think it’s really a broad-based question in terms of how variable compositions can impact different types of people in different ways.

In addition to that, you have many different modes of ingestion people might use. So even if I hand them the same composition in a plant, do they end up getting the same exact physiological response if they use it in a vaporizer, pre-roll or a small handheld device, versus a water pipe. You might inhale very different types of chemical compositions in each of those fashions. So it’s exceptionally complex and not a very easy answer!

This is going to be an increasing concern for most people, especially as more and more people begin to understand the benefits of cannabis. We believe the majority of people who are going to be interested in using medical cannabis are going to be using it as an alternative therapy or medicine, rather than “recreationally”. Knowing what they’re getting and the effect of what they’re getting is going to have is going to be a lot of people’s concern.

Pestle and mortar; essential oils; plants
By Mohamed Mahmoud. From Public Domain Pictures. CC0 Public Domain.

What does the future look like with regards to medical cannabis? How is it going to be more accessible?

One of the good things about regulations is it will mean improved standardization, and you’ll have better consistency. So, if someone feels that they’re comfortable in where they’re going to be located, they can invest in the right infrastructure and they can consistently produce the same cultivar harvest after harvest. That, if they attach a name to it, they can have a consistent chemical profile that goes with that name.

So, regulation will bring investment, it will bring effort and focus, and it will help standardize products, such that we can move into this position where we now know more consistently that this branded producer is always producing that plant product or derivative products from that. And that will help improve standardization and compositional standardization for many different uses.

I think that’s going to be a major change in regulations also for product testing. So, you will have improved safety profiling. You will have requirements for cannabinoid, perhaps even terpene, profiling, and identification of those types of compositions and marketing around that specifically. So it should help kind of clarify some of what I call the “name game”. Don’t just call it something. Make sure we know what it is and always make sure it’s that [product] we’re getting delivered to the patients and consumers every time.

And investment into infrastructure and feeling secure that you’re not going to have to move next week if somebody calls somebody or you’re fearful for how things are developing in a legal sense. That’s [regulation] really going to help improve and accelerate those positions, which should really help accelerate our understanding of which types of compositions are best for which kinds of patients.

Please tell us more about the effects the genetic makeup of a strain can have on a plant’s effects …

Cannabis Testing

It’s not so much the genetic makeup that matters – it’s the chemicals that are expressed from those genes that matter. So you really need to understand the chemical composition that’s being provided by the plant. The same genetics can respond differently to two different environments.

So, if I took the exact same clones and put them in two different environments, let’s say one’s outdoor and one’s indoor in a very different place, you can express very different cannabinoid and terpenoid profiles … Whatever they call it, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s really, “What molecules are in there and what’s being handed over”, and then hopefully, patients have standardized their use at home and can consistently use that to the same fashion and find out what’s effective for them in that way.

One of the biggest challenges a grower faces is getting consistency and reliability from a breeder. Sometimes, the genetics are mislabelled, or a company is just using a popular strain name for marketing purposes. This is sort of translating from grower to patient, as we don’t know what effects we’re going to get sometimes when we grow a new strain.

Further to this, how good a job are dispensaries doing at the moment in testing their cannabis?

marijuana dispensary

Not very good at all. Even the best ones aren’t doing very much. So, they’ll have a small fraction or percentage of the products they produce being consistently tested. They won’t do all of the tests. A lot of them will say, “Look, I’ve tested”, and just done potency testing and cannabinoid profiling, but nothing else. No pesticides, no biological checks. Very, very few far and between are doing any type of testing, and if they are, it’s predominantly for marketing purposes to say they have the “highest THC value”, but not looking at compositional consistency or much of the safety profiling you’d like to see done as well. It’s really disheartening, to say the least.

I think, in some ways, by doing that, we’re forgetting about the medical potential of this plant …

Yeah, yeah. If you call it medicine, that should hold a certain standard of purity, quality control and assurance, and it seems that has been significantly lacking in California.

How does that compare to somewhere like Nevada?

I think their [Nevada’s] system rolled out a whole lot better. They do require a lot more testing in terms of pesticides, heavy metals and things of that type. It’s all mandatory before it hits the shelf. But I don’t know if they’ve got much of the compositional control. You know, controlling the name. So if someone changes the name or that’s been adulterated in some fashion in that way, there’s not much control over that.

So, you’ll probably get consistent cannabinoid profile, but you might not know if that’s the same [product or strain] or not, in terms of terpene concentrations or how well it was expressed every time. It’s better than California, though, for sure.

Have you noticed any particularly interesting strains that you’ve tested?

They’re all interesting, right?! Which ones for which consumer or patient is really quite a challenge! It seems that ratios of THC and CBD are somewhat the most interesting. We do occasionally get some with wildly different terpene compositions, but we have not seen a great deal of cannabinoid variability. Most of it is consistently high THC. We have seen more and more CBD products being introduced, which is encouraging.

I don’t know if you know, there’s particularly one or two that stand out for certain reasons, or ones where we can say that is really going to benefit a significant portion of certain types of medical populations. I don’t think we have that understanding as of yet. It’s [cannabis] just not standardized or well-understood enough to the point where you can make those kinds of statement. Accurately, anyway. Everyone’s making those kinds of statements, but I don’t think it’s accurate or founded on solid data, sometimes.

Partly, this could be down to the legal issues and the difficulty of studying this plant in a laboratory setting. It feels like we’re trying to “connect the dots”, but we can’t say anything for definite, which is quite frustrating …

medical marijuana tax

It’s frustrating, but it’s also the interesting part of the challenge, right?! It’s an intellectual challenge and therein lies the opportunity, I believe. So if you can start to understand how to approach it better, we really could unlock something marvellous for a large number of people. We know there’s a great deal of therapeutic utility, that’s well understood. It’s not fair to tell someone who’s an insomniac that “This indica is going to cause you to go to sleep at night.” We really have no understanding of that.

And they go home and they’re awake when more it was the wrong thing [strain or product] for them, and then they believe that cannabis is not right for them. And they end up not becoming the patient or getting the benefits that really would lead them to a better quality of life. And that’s frustrating and exceptionally challenging, but I do think that there are ways that that could be changed. It will take a large, community-based effort and a lot of thought and collaboration to get there, but it is possible. And I think some of us are seeing some good paths to getting there.

What would you say about the sorts of products that are coming out now that are saying things like, “This one’s good for sleep, and this one’s good for passion” or whatever else?

I think it’s good marketing, but bad science. So I think that there’s a lack of understanding of how that can work in that fashion. There’s no study behind the scenes that says, “I know this composition was the same, and I gave it to a large number of people consistently, and I saw this percentage of people feel these types of effect. Therefore that’s why I’m making this claim.” What I’m hearing is, “I’m gonna make the claim, and then I’m going to go out there and say it’s that [what the label says], and hopefully people will believe it and keep buying it that way.”

And that’s, again, not the honest type of marketing approach. And that’s exceptionally unfortunate because I think it does detract from what people may perceive as the potential benefits of cannabis. So new users that are told, “This product is going to make you sleep or feel aroused”, and it doesn’t, people are going to go “Ah … I guess that’s not for me” or “Everything’s a lie out here.” And there may well be those types of compositions that are helpful to them in those fashions, and you just haven’t been able to figure out which ones they are, and you’ve misled them on your first chance.

And that’s just exceptionally unfortunate, because they’re not going to be adopting those kinds of modes anymore. So you’ve missed an opportunity and you really are sending us backwards instead of sending us forwards. It would be far better if we just said, “We don’t know yet today. We believe these may be some of the things you might get. My composition is going to be consistent. Why don’t you tell me what you’re feeling?” And then, from there we can have a lot of other feedback that says, “OK, we’re starting to see patterns, we’re starting to make sense of this … Here’s what we can see in that respect.” But that’s not what we have today.

Could you tell us more about your findings on edibles and their labelling?

We did a collaborative study with Johns Hopkins researchers and published that in the journal, the American Medical Association [the JAMA Network] and demonstrated that 83% of the products that were selected – and it was over 40 different branded products – were outside of a 10% variable on the label claim. So, if they said they were, you know, “20 mg in a unit”, it was 18 – 22 mg, so it was a +/- 10% of the value. And consistently, 63% of them overall were higher than what the label was saying.

So most of the time, it was not what you were thinking you were getting. And that’s of huge concern. Not only could the same 10 mg in three different products act differently because of absorptivity and different ways you can react in that respect, like how much is going to get in your bloodstream and at which rate of time. But you don’t even have the 10 mg you thought you were getting. So, communication between doctors and patients and even consumers and providers is all mixed up, because no one had standardized the products.

So, it gets better with regulation. There are tighter tolerance windows. We’ll see that with products here in California in the not-too-distant future, hopefully, and we have seen that in other states that are regulated, so it will improve. But for the most part, most of what we’re seeing in California today is really difficult to trust that that’s exactly what you’ve got. And every edible even within that same batch could be variable. So, are they consistent? Is it homogenous? Are you sure that every type of cookie has the exact same milligram it says it has in there?

Most people haven’t studied that at all. A lab would know because the lab would have to do a test of a lot of different cookies to know, and you’re often only handed one cookie. So, I think it’s unfortunate for a lot of patients because they might not be getting a lot of consistent stuff.

Why do you think dispensaries aren’t getting a lot of feedback from their patients?

I don’t know if they’re afraid of HIPAA-type controls, or they’re not configured to capture that sort of information. I don’t know. I know very few have actually tried to do that. I don’t know if a lot of them are like, “I know a lot of these products aren’t really consistent, so why bother?” That might be part of it, too: they just give up and throw their hands in the air. But I’m not sure why they haven’t done more in that respect.

It seems like a massive opportunity missed. No one loses, everyone wins …

Do you have any advice for patients? At the moment, our advice is, “Go in and try a little bit of several different things in several different ways. Start slow. What works for other people might not work for you.” Is there anything else you’d like to add to that?

I think that’s great advice. “Start low and go slow” is definitely a good idea. Try some diverse aspects and different types of products to find which one’s right and works best for you. See if you can “trust your nose” to seeing how consistent it is if it’s plant material. And ask frequently, “Where are the most recent test results for this particular batch? When was it tested, what was it tested for, what was put on it and how do I know what I’m getting what I think I’m getting?” And patients might get frustrating answers that way, but they’ll at least understand how much they can rely on the information they’re being given.

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Written by
Dipak Hemraj
Dipak Hemraj

Dipak Hemraj is a published author, grower, product maker, and Leafwell’s resident cannabis expert. From botany & horticulture to culture & economics, he wishes to help educate the public on why cannabis is medicine (or a “pharmacy in a plant”) and how it can be used to treat a plethora of health problems. Dipak wants to unlock the power of the plant, and see if there are specific cannabinoid-terpene-flavonoid profiles suitable for different conditions.

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