What We Don’t Know About Cannabis: A Conversation With Emma Chasen

What We Don’t Know About Cannabis: A Conversation With Emma Chasen

Key to the cannabis industry's maturation process is the filtering out of misinformation, replacing it with a science-based, factual appreciation for the plant. Emma Chasen is helping lead that charge. 

Because of the nature of prohibition, we humans may have had a ton of interactions with the cannabis plant, yet we still know very little about how it works. As more state laws bring regulated commercial cannabis in some form or another to more places, there is a similar proliferation in bogus science-based claims, usually from the sales-end of the market. It is more important than ever that we understand the science behind our interactions with the plant because that understanding has the potential to change American research and healthcare for the better.

Emma Chasen

It is in that spirit that Emma Chasen, a Portland, Oregon-based cannabis educator and consultant takes to her lesson plans: science will save us. And, the key to the saving grace of science is getting people to understand it. Chasen has developed a curriculum for both industry professionals and lay people seeking to understand how cannabis works and how to better predict and advise medical use with different varieties.

As a cannabis science geek with ten years of independent science study myself, I was shocked by how much even I had to learn, but excited about how lucky I was to be getting the inside scoop from Chasen. She has a knack for taking complicated, dense scientific concepts and distilling them down into digestible lessons. Sitting in on a recent class she was teaching for the Sativa Science Club, I was in awe of just how informed she had taken her classroom full of newbies in a matter of weeks: they were easily grasping concepts and asking complex questions about topics most of the industry's “experts” still hardly understand. Chasen developed her groundbreaking curriculum last summer, after about two years as the director of education responsible for training budtenders at one of Portland’s most science and research based cannabis dispensaries, Farma.

In 2015, about a year after completing her college degree, she moved cross-country from Rhode Island to Portland on a whim and landed at Farma. She had never even been to Oregon before but had found that she arrived at just the right place at the right time; Oregon’s adult use legalization had just gone into effect weeks before and there were plenty of jobs for someone with her background.

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Chasen did not originally intend to get into cannabis science. In fact, as a pre-med student at Brown University, she opted to live in “substance-free housing” and considered herself “anti-drug.” After her first interaction with the cannabis plant, she became so fascinated by plant medicine that she ended up designing her own curriculum within Brown’s biology department to create a degree centered on ethnobotany and medicinal plant research. After graduating, she worked on an oncology research team through the university, which she hated because “it was billion dollar pharmaceutical trial after billion pharmaceutical trial.”

Now, Chasen is blazing a trail for the mass education of the cannabis industry and movement stakeholders in hopes that it leads to better plant-human interactions, better science and better legislation. I sat down with Chasen over tea and, of course, some fresh cannabis buds, to talk about cannabis science and how to break through all the noise for a better cannabis future.

ANGELA BACCA: What are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about cannabis?

EMMA CHASEN: The biggest one, that I have talked about a ton, is this Indica-Sativa myth. [That you can predict effects based on these distinctions, you can’t.] Whenever I teach a workshop I ask the question, “What does Indica and Sativa mean to you?” Without fail, everyone [answers], “Indica is in the couch, Sativa is energizing.” That’s really the biggest misconception around cannabis science. And then, the hemp-derived CBD versus cannabis-derived CBD conversation is also another big one where, although it’s not necessarily a misconception, people just have no idea how to navigate the CBD market and the CBD space given that there is “hemp CBD” and “cannabis CBD.”

AB: The CBD market is really controversial — it is wildly unregulated or not regulated by any sort of science. What is your take on this? How should CBD be regulated?

EC: The CBD market has huge potential, but with that potential, conniving business people will look at that and say, “Oh great, we could basically just sell hemp seed oil" — which doesn’t have a measurable potency or concentration of CBD — and so they will just sell hemp seed oil as cbd medicine. It is this snake oil elixir kinda thing, which is really unfortunate for people who are looking to buy CBD and have access to CBD medicine to treat seizures.

That is the danger there, when companies try to capitalize on this market, which is a medicinal market, by basically just lying to people because there are no testing regulations there, both for potency and pesticides. You could be giving someone with a really compromised immune system or physiology a tincture that is dangerously high in pesticides, which really negates any of the medicinal value of the CBD potency. That is frustrating for me to see.

It is also really exciting that the CBD market is growing and that people are becoming interested in that as an option. I feel like that is really the gateway to people feeling comfortable about cannabis, where we can change the conversation that prohibition and the anti-drug campaigns gave us. We need more research on it, definitely, but we have enough at least to be able to speak about it with people. The tricky thing is making sure they don't fall in the trap of “Oh CBD is awesome and I am just going to buy something on Amazon without thoroughly vetting it.”

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AB: There are a lot of people on isolated CBD, do you have an opinion about CBD isolates?

EC: I have an opinion about isolates, in general. The true medical efficacy that we see and the huge potential we see in cannabis to be able to help people manage their illnesses is because of the level of diversity in that range of secondary compounds that exist in the cannabis plant matrix. All of those compounds are working together synergistically to produce the overall effect. So, when you have an isolate — when you remove just one compound from that matrix — sure you may get some of the benefits, but you will also get side effects, more negative side effects. In the case of a CBD isolate, you may not get negative side effects, per se, (or, at least not as serious as pharmaceuticals, like death or suicide), but it will definitely not be as medically efficacious as it would be in combination with THC, terpenes, flavonoids and all the other compounds.

AB: On that note, a lot of people swear by medicines like full extract oil (aka RSO) made from a lot of different varieties of cannabis, a “sausage,” if you will. In your curriculum, you describe how different compounds in cannabis bind to receptors in the human body through a “key and lock” analogy to regulate a variety of cell processes. Each of these compounds binds to different receptors in different ways to perform different functions, based on their shape. Would a multi-variety approach be more efficacious simply because there are so many more different shaped “keys” (medicinal compounds) hitting more “locks” (receptors)?

EC: Absolutely. The more you are able to diversify the secondary compounds in your sauce, in your formula, the more efficacious it will be. Sourcing trim from a variety of different cultivars and doing a full extract process where it is lower heat, where you are really extracting out most of those secondary compounds in the [plant] matrix, will create a more medically efficacious experience.

AB: You just used the word “cultivar,” and a lot of people tend to use the word “strain” when talking about varieties of cannabis. Do you have any opinions about the correct terminology and the weight we put on the “strain names” varieties are sold under?

EC: “Strain” and “strain names” are vernacular that the cannabis industry has adopted, but if we are looking at the scientific definitions, they are not accurate. There are not actually strains of cannabis. What they should be called is “chemovar”... I should say chemovar, that is really where the research community is at right now. But, I think before we jump from “strain” to “chemovar” we need another word that makes sense to people that can be adopted into the vernacular. This is why I use “cultivar” because it is easier for people to understand.

[Note: Chemovar refers to the plant’s “chemotype” which is far more accurate in predicting the effect of a bud on a human than the name it is being sold under. There are a few ways we classify the plant here. There is its “genotype”, or its DNA, it’s “chemotype” or the blend of chemical compounds it produces and its “phenotype” or the outward appearance and shape the plant takes as it grows. All of these things together can be referred to as a “cultivar”.]

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As far as strain names, they are a great marketing tool. If I see something called, like, “Honey Banana,” I want to smell that because it elicits some type of “yummy” feeling. But, again when we start to prescribe consistency and predictability of an experience attached to a strain name, that is where we can get ourselves in trouble. Right now there is no predictability in strain names. If I gave you something and said “this is Honey Banana” and you took a clone of it and grew it, you might find yours smells a bit more lemony and you might start calling it something different, like “Lemon Pineapple.” You could totally do that and it would be fine. I know a lot of growers, very reputable growers, who will grow something and say, “You know, ‘Dog Shit’ isn’t really going to sell, so we are going to rename it something else that will sell better.”

That’s fine, but it’s also why we can’t prescribe an experience or any sort of consistency to these strain names. That is doing yourself a disservice. Even if there was consistency in strain names, where a name actually did correlate to a specific genotype — the specific DNA of the cultivar — it doesn’t necessarily correspond with exact consistent levels of cannabinoids and terpenes. Someone who grows a “true” Blue Dream may come up with different results than another grower growing a clone from the exact same plant.

I don’t think strain names should go away entirely, people like them. Instead, [we should identify the compounds, terpenes and cannabinoids that make a person feel a certain way]. Let’s use those details, that data to then go into a dispensary and choose something instead of just the name.

AB: We know a lot about cannabinoids and terpenes, but not much about the third most prevalent class of compounds found in cannabis, the flavonoids. Flavonoids are also known to have their own medicinal qualities (they are antioxidants) although we know very little about them. Should we also be testing for flavonoids?

EC: Definitely. I don’t know any lab that does though. We should definitely test for flavonoids. It can be done, it’s not being done yet —

AB: Well, until we find out they are the “next hot molecule” in cannabis, like CBD.

EC: Exactly! I believe there are 23 flavonoids identified in cannabis. All of them are found in other plants as well, except the two [unique to the cannabis plant], the cannaflavins.

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AB: Knowing that, that these medicinal compounds are found in basically every other plant we consume, although it is not cost-effective, is there a scientific argument for testing other plants we consume the way we test cannabis?

EC: There is an even bigger conversation with the pesticide testing situation [in cannabis] versus food. A lot of people were upset about the pesticide regulations that came out when we transitioned [to legalization]. They said, “Well we don’t test for pesticide this much in our food. These regulations are so much stricter than our food. Why do we have to test for more?”

For me, I wonder why we aren’t testing more of our food for more pesticides. When you eat or combust pesticides, they can turn into very toxic compounds and it is just a different way we process it when it goes through our digestive system. A recent study testing cannabis flowers from California under Oregon’s testing regulations found 83 percent failed for a pesticide that turns to cyanide when heated. That’s insanity.

AB: So, if through the process of taking a lighter to a contaminated bud to smoke it you ingest cyanide, couldn’t the same thing happen by throwing a pesticide-covered tomato into a hot pan?

EC: Yes. Very true.

AB: That’s terrifying.

EC: Exactly! We really should be looking at cannabis as the model for how we treat everything else that goes into our body.

AB: What do you see as the biggest frontier to cross in cannabis science today?

EC: I am a big advocate of moving cannabis to a more nutraceutical model [supplements and foods that provide medical support], rather than an allopathic model [pharmaceutical]. The problem with that [allopathic] is the barrier to that kind of research being done. There is hardly any funding for looking at how natural plant compounds work together. Our entire research system is set up to extract one compound from the matrix, run a battery of tests on it and draw conclusions from it. Cannabis doesn't work that way because the efficacy lies in the diversity of compounds all working together synergistically. I would love to see research move in a way where we are able to study the synergistic interactions. That would be so much more beneficial than studying the compounds on their own and instead looking at how they interact together. I hope that is how we move forward in understanding and talking about cannabis, rather than isolates or pharmaceuticals derived from isolates.