The Columbian / Associated Press

Beyond the high: WSU researcher identifies chemicals in marijuana

Spokane — A Washington State University researcher and a Spokane budtender have at least one thing in common: They want more cannabis research.

Mark Lange, WSU professor with the Institute of Biological Chemistry, published research in Plant Physiology on May 29 which differentiated nine strains of marijuana based on their chemical properties. The research identified terpenoids, which give the plant its aromatic qualities, commonly marketed by marijuana dispensaries as contributing to something known as the “entourage effect.”

“What we don’t know is how different combinations that we find in different strains are actually perceived by us,” Lange said. “The entourage effect is something that describes that people have a different experience when they’re exposed to different combinations of these compounds.”

As a non-user, Lange only understands the entourage effect based upon how it has been described.

“You would have to hypothesize here that if there was an entourage effect that’s it’s not just the smell, but that there is something that has a direct effect on how we perceive the THC and I don’t know what that would be,” Lange said.

Lange doesn’t know how much of the entourage effect is real and how much is folklore. Besides, he said, “sometimes there is something to folklore.”

The findings may begin helping people determine what to buy as recreational cannabis is legal in 11 states.

Lange selected the strains his study looked at based upon availability and diversity of the plant itself. The strains he studied were Blackberry Kush, Black Lime, Canna Tsu, Mama Thai, Valley Fire, Cherry Chem, Terple, Sour Diesel and White Cookies.

“One of the things that interested us initially was that if you look at all of these names that people have given the strains, we wanted to know how different they really are,” Lange said. “Does a different name really mean that they are very different?”

By looking at the genetic sequences of the plants as well as the different compounds the plants produce, Lange was able to fully differentiate each of the nine strains he studied.

“That’s the first step for us to begin to understand what’s behind the aroma of some of those strains and some of the purported properties,” Lange said.

The next step has a significant barrier.

“You need a DEA license,” Lange said. “There are very few people that are allowed to do any of this type of work, and I think that there is value in having research being done by people that are not funded by others that have a vested interest in a potential particular outcome of that research, and that’s why the situation is so difficult, and in a way untenable.”

Lange was only able to study the strains by joining forces with Evio Labs, a cannabis analytical testing company based in Oregon. Lange never handled the plants directly.

“When I met the person that runs the research at Evio Labs down in Oregon, he’s a PhD level biochemist who later started a testing lab, and because it’s so difficult for any university researcher to get their hands on product this turned out to be a really lucky break for us,” Lange said.

Two of the strains Lange studied are available at Spokane Green Leaf: Canna Tsu and Sour Diesel. Canna Tsu is a good example of how chemical properties can vary from plant to plant. Anderson said Spokane Green Leaf’s strain has 25 percent CBD; the Canna Tsu studied in Lange’s experiment came in at 7.8 percent. Lange’s study also determined the plant had 3.3 percent terpenoid content.

“I still hope that the general public is interested in having a scientific foundation for marketing claims,” Lange said. “You’re now finding CBD in more and more products where people make health-related claims and obviously it would be good for the consumer as well as from a regulatory point of view if we had more certainty, and the research that would support such claims.”

Talee Anderson, a Spokane Green Leaf budtender, said the terpenoids in these strains create an entourage effect, but she would be able to better serve her customers if more fine-tuned information was available. As an example, she said it would be helpful if she could narrow which strains might help certain ailments.

Anderson said she wishes there was “more research and more knowledge for even the budtenders like myself that are trying to educate so many people, but we’re also trying to educate ourselves. It feels as if there’s still a lot of mystery but I think it’s going to feel that way for a long time.”

Since suppliers do not provide this data, Spokane Green Leaf cannot account for terpenoids, other than providing customers experiential information about the product. Anderson explained she uses it when she wants to take the edge off after work, “when I still have stuff to do, but I just want to kind of bring it down a notch,” she said.

Sour Diesel, which Anderson described as “a pungent, grapefruity, deep, dark, danky citrusy flavor,” is something Anderson uses for a happy high that gives her energy to power through a project. But what works for her might be vastly different for others, she said. Being a budtender isn’t easy, Anderson said, and one of the more difficult aspects is not being able to predict what effect a strain will have on an individual.

“I could smoke a blueberry strain and love it and get super stoned, and that would be my perfect one,” Anderson said. “Then the next person could smoke a blueberry … and they don’t like it and it’s because the terpene chemistry maybe doesn’t connect with them in that way, their bodies aren’t triggered by it.”