In Alaska, cannabis is regulated like alcohol, and while the two controlled substances work very differently inside the human body, they do have one important commonality: There’s much more to consumption than a simple mind-altering experience.
“When you walk into a liquor store, do you ever walk up to them and ask, ‘What is going to get me the most drunk the fastest?’” asked Jessica Alexander, technical director of The New Frontier Research in Wasilla. “Do you say ‘What’s your strongest? Where’s your Everclear?’”
No, she continued, most alcohol users don’t pick their beverage based solely on alcohol content. They look for flavor and a positive experience. Cannabis is similar in that different strains deliver different kinds of highs and effects. It’s a simple notion rooted in science that is surprisingly complex -- and still not completely understood.
The science of cannabis
At this point, especially in states like Alaska that have passed legalization, people are generally familiar with the two primary active chemical components of cannabis. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is just one of the 113 cannabinoids known to be present in cannabis, and the primary psychoactive component -- the part that gets you high. Cannabidiol, known as CBD, is the cannabis plant’s second major compound. It doesn’t have the psychoactive effects of THC; in fact, research indicates that CBD acts to modulate those effects while enhancing some others.
“There are a lot of details to the science of cannabis,” said Jonathan Rupp Strong, the scientific director at CannTest, which, along with New Frontier, is one of four licensed cannabis testing businesses in Alaska. “Even the experts, in general, don’t know all the details.”
One thing that is well established at this point is that humans actually have an endocannabinoid system that exists specifically to interact with cannabinoids. Two cannabinoid receptors were discovered in the 1990s, helping researchers begin to better understand how this system can impact anything from memory to female reproduction to exercise euphoria.
“THC makes you feel high, and CBD has these other properties, medicinal and otherwise,” Rupp Strong said. “On our body’s side of it, there are receptors in the endocannabinoid system that these plant compounds interact with. Different strains have different amounts and different ratios, and that’s going to have a different effect.”
In fact, he said, not only can the same strain of cannabis have different effects on different people, it can have different effects on the same person depending on when they use it and what state their body is in at the time.
“It’s complex,” Rupp Strong said. “The chemicals in the plant interact with different things in our body. There are receptors in our cells that activate different pathways in our biology.”
So while THC content is one factor to consider, Alexander said it’s far from an indicator of whether a cannabis product will be the right fit for a consumer.
“It doesn’t correlate to sensation,” she said. “It doesn’t correlate to enjoyment.”
And in fact, she added, it may not even correlate to potency. Concentration -- the percentage you see listed next to strain names at your local dispensary -- only tells you the amount of THC in a product. Potency, or the strength of its effect, varies depending on the complete cannabinoid makeup.
Cannabinoids aren’t the only compounds that affect how cannabis acts in your body. Even if you don’t partake, you might be familiar with the word “terpene.” These essential oils are found in different amounts and combinations in many plants, including cannabis, and they’re an important part of the cannabis experience.
“Terpenes, by and large, are not exclusive to cannabis,” Rupp Strong said. “Limonene is an example of a terpene; it’s found in citrus and it has a lemony smell. There’s lots of them that have different smells (and) different potential influences on the effect of the product.”
In the cannabis plants themselves, terpenes often play a defensive role.
“Cannabinoids and terpenes are equivalent to what our immune systems are,” Alexander said. “So when the plant is threatened or when the plant is trying to interact with its environment” -- repelling or attracting insects, healing a break, protecting itself from too much sun -- “it produces terpenes and cannabinoids -- terpenes in particular -- and those serve a purpose in its own personal health. And luckily for us, those terpenes and cannabinoids often do the same thing in our bodies.”
Terpenes interact with cannabinoids, with each other, and with the human body to achieve different results. In fact, a terpene’s effects may change depending on what other compounds it’s interacting with, a phenomenon known as the Entourage Effect.
“Different ratios of these compounds can work together synergistically, and that will produce this different effect in the user,” Rupp Strong said. Strains with similar THC and CBD content may have very different effect profiles because of their terpene content.
We do know what we don’t know
There’s much more going on inside the cannabis plant that still isn’t well understood. For example, Rupp Strong said, we know that cannabis contains flavonoids -- some of them unique to cannabis -- and that they likely contribute to the Entourage Effect.
“It’s a new area,” Rupp Strong said. “A lot of this stuff we’re still learning about, and flavonoids are even less known.”
Prohibition has made it difficult for researchers to have access to cannabis, so in many ways the science of cannabis is still in the early stages of exploration. Both Rupp Strong and Alexander stressed the need for further research to better understand cannabis and its effects, both medicinal and recreational, as well as whether certain strains may have compounds you might want to avoid.
“They’re actually even finding that there is one cannabinoid that is highly concerning for being something that promotes cancer,” Alexander said. “So it’s important that we learn about all the cannabinoids and what they do in the body.”
With so many factors to consider, and THC concentration no meaningful indicator of how a strain works, how does a consumer know what’s going to work for them? That’s where a budtender comes in.
“If you were to walk in and say to a budtender, ‘I want to giggle for hours and have a good time with my friends. What is that (strain)? And don’t talk to me about numbers,’ you’re going to get quality cannabis,” Alexander said.
In search of Alaska’s best bud
This month, Alaska cultivators are putting their products to the test in the Great Alaskan Cannabis Bowl, a locally produced event that will provide a way to learn even more about different strains and what they do. Twenty-four judges will evaluate commercial THC and CBD products, as well as homegrown flower entered by personal-use cultivators.
“They’re going to be looking at the aroma, the taste, the high or stone, the burnability or flush, the visual aesthetics, and a few other aspects,” said Cody Coman, co-owner of Trich Productions, who is producing the event. “Edibles, they’re going to be looking at the product originality, its healthiness, its strength and effect, the visual aesthetics of it. For the topicals, they’ll be looking at the aroma, the strength and effectiveness, the consistency, the ease of use.”
Rupp Strong said that while judging is ultimately subjective, the range of criteria being evaluated provides nuance and value.
“They aren’t just saying ‘This one’s the best, that one’s the worst, the end,’” he said.
Products will be tested at CannTest and New Frontier Research and evaluated by a panel that includes four members of the public -- selected through a random drawing -- as well as cannabis experts.
“Our biggest focus was to make the competition as even a playing field as possible,” Coman said. The winners will take home hand-carved, jade-inlaid burlwood trophies made by AK Manshed owner Scott Schwartzbauer-Carver, along with recognition for their prizewinning product.
“Part of the competition is figuring out who’s really good at their job,” Coman said. “Who has taken the responsibility of a young and growing industry and cultivated that responsibility? We want to help highlight and honor the people that are taking the responsibility seriously and at the same time being unique in their craft, helping move the industry forward.”
The Great Alaskan Cannabis Bowl may also be an opportunity to learn about strains that cultivators themselves love the most, including ones that often aren’t cost-effective to grow because they don’t have the high THC concentrations that customers want. Alexander said she hopes more consumers will educate themselves about the science of cannabis so cultivators aren’t discouraged from growing some of these strains.
“I see literally hundreds of cultivators,” Alexander said. “One question I ask every single person that comes through the door: ‘What is your favorite strain that you have?’ I can’t tell you the last time a cultivator told me, ‘Oh, it’s my strongest one.’”
Trich Productions presents the Great Alaskan Cannabis Bowl, July 27-28 at Settlers Bay Golf Course in Wasilla. Use the code GACB19ADN to save $15 when you buy your tickets online at https://events.bizzabo.com/GACB19?promo=GACB19ADN.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Trich Productions. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.