Cannabis Industry Searches for Consistent High

By Kelly Burch 12/13/18

“No one ever knows what they’re getting, and it’s a huge problem. It’s making it so the [cannabis] industry doesn’t work very well," said one scientific expert about the lack of consistency.

scientist holding a vial of cannabis to research the potency of the strain

The cannabis industry is expanding rapidly, but scientists and investors are still chasing an elusive goal: a cannabis plant that can provide a predictable high when it is smoked. 

Although tinctures, edibles and other products made with cannabis extracts can offer more exact amounts of cannabinoids that make the effects more consistent, industry leaders say that consumers want a bud that can offer the same type of reliable experience. Right now, that doesn’t exist. 

“No one ever knows what they’re getting, and it’s a huge problem,” Mowgli Holmes, chief scientific officer of Phylos Bioscience in Portland, Oregon, told NBC News. “It’s making it so the industry doesn’t work very well. Often it’s way too strong. It’s Russian roulette. New customers get burned and don’t come back.”

Jon Vaught, CEO of agricultural technology firm Front Range Biosciences, tells NBC News that people who want to know what effects they’ll experience when using cannabis often opt for manufactured products because they better understand what they’re getting. Still, there is a demand for a marijuana flower that offers the same consistency. 

“Folks are using it in new forms, low-dose, edibles, tinctures, capsules, and what they care about is the effect," Vaught explains. "But there are consumers who want to consume cannabis the way they have for years. They like the things they know.”

Growers have been chasing the goal for years but now there are more financial incentives than ever to get a product to market, with marijuana flower sales expected to reach $8.5 billion annually by 2022. 

Greg Zuckert, a cannabis producer, says, “That's been the goal forever." 

Some growers and researchers are analyzing the DNA of marijuana plants to better understand the effects they’ll have when smoked. 

“I’m working on genetic markers and looking at taking DNA from different species, trying to create genetics to fit neurochemical profiles to treat different ailments,” Zukert said. “These are exciting things.”

Growers who use specific genetic traits may be able to patent their plants, leading to an industry full of brand-name marijuana varieties that are much more tightly controlled than the strains pot aficionados are familiar with today. 

Marcus Walker, founder of Cult Classics Seeds in Colorado, says that “in the future, those strains will all be irrelevant.”  

Attorney Gary Hiller of California’s Napro Research, a California seed-to-sale producer, said that various cannabis plants will likely become proprietary.

“It doesn’t matter what it's called once it’s correctly characterized and a good breeder can replicate it,” he said. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.