Cannabis Scientists: Every Business Needs One!

Imagine you’re an investor in a new cannabis growing facility. You’ve had hours of planning and strategy meetings, interviews to find the right staff, weeks or months of waiting on the harvest and a couple more for curing. The test results from that first crop come back from the lab and your sample tests positive for pesticide or fungal contamination. Now what? 

Legally, you’re supposed to destroy the entire lot—but that could bankrupt a number of people! What are your options? What steps can you take to prevent this? 

How about a less dramatic but still serious situation of your extract technician producing a dark and cloudy oil that no retailer is interested in selling? What can be done to clean it up?

Much of this could have been avoided by having a scientist involved from the beginning: a scientist who understands organic growing practices and how to use beneficial organisms rather than pesticides; someone with knowledge of how to modulate temperature and humidity accurately for proper curing to prevent mold/fungus. Moving forward, depending on the issue for which the sample tested positive, a scientist should able to help with further processing of the material to recover some of the losses. Even those cannabusinesses lucky enough to not experience the failed lot scenario can benefit from having a scientist at hand, or better yet—on staff full time! 

In my time as the science director of a cannabis company, I have met producer/processors who have scientifically-trained folks and those who don’t … anecdotal evidence suggests that when someone ensures that standards are being met, consistent processes are being followed, and reliable analysis is getting done, a company is more successful. 

The company I work for—Avitas Grown—provides high-end flower for the retail market in Oregon and Washington and performs extractions using supercritical CO2 to make oil cartridges. Here are just a few of the many different science-related activities that I have engaged in over the past year:

•Writing and implementing a standard operating procedure for our multi-step terpene isolation and extraction process to make oil

•Working with the analytical labs to interpret and ensure high-quality reliable results

•Running periodic mass balance analysis to track cannabinoids and terpenes to inform process optimization

•Acquisition and maintenance of scientific equipment (extractors, rotary evaporators, vacuum pumps, distillation apparatus, filtration equipment, the list goes on….)

•Education (e.g., budtender training sessions) about cannabis science

•Professional outreach to increase awareness and raise the scientific bar

•Internal research and development, new product development, and data tracking and analysis

Without a full-time scientist to oversee these aspects of running the company, it would be much more difficult to make informed, data-based decisions about equipment purchases, process upgrades, and quality control. And we’re only one aspect of a rapidly-growing industry. Food and formulations chemists are needed in companies involved with edibles or other medical formulations, chemical engineers are needed as facilities begin to scale up and increase output, geneticists are needed to breed cannabis plants for specific molecular profiles, medical researchers are required to run fundamental drug trials, and big data mathematicians are necessary to untangle the huge number of active compounds in endless combinations and their potential benefits.

In my previous life as an academic educator and researcher, getting access to the latest information and up-to-date research was easy through peers and colleagues around my institution. There were also many other legitimate opportunities to collaborate and discuss the scientific questions I was investigating. In the cannabis realm, much less published research is available to draw on and very few people are willing to share knowledge because the limited research being done in the US is conducted by private industry—and they are reluctant to share proprietary findings.

P_20180315_104309_vHDR_Auto(2).jpg

Luckily, this is changing somewhat and there is a growing movement to increase the number of opportunities cannabis scientists have to interact. The American Chemical Society’s CANN subdivision of Chemical Health and Safety division has monthly online journal club meetings and hosts symposia at the national ACS meetings twice a year. This will be the third year for jCanna’s Cannabis Science Conference in Portland, Oregon, and Emerald Scientific hosted the 4th Emerald Science Conference this past February. Regionally, in the Seattle, Washington, area, an informal group calling themselves CANN-STEM has been meeting monthly to discuss new research and to network. Other professional organizations, such as the American Oil Chemists Society, have been active in working toward industry-wide analytical testing best practice standards. 

P_20180315_104444_vHDR_Auto.jpg

As the legal cannabis industry continues to expand, the need for understanding the science behind cultivation, extraction, purification, and quantification of cannabis plants and related compounds will also continue to grow. The umbrella of “cannabis science” is large and includes fields as diverse as plant genetics, pest management, industrial agricultural techniques, medical research, chemical separations and extractions from research level to industrial-scale, chemical and analytical testing, big data management, and more.

Those in the cannabis business who don’t already have a scientist in their group may want to look for recent chemistry, biology, engineering, or data science graduates—or headhunt someone out of a boring  9-to-5 job into the new and exciting realm of legal cannabis. At the very least, hire a scientific consultant who has experience in the industry as part of initial business setup. There are great opportunities to get involved, benefit from scientific knowledge, and shape the future direction of the cannabis industry, not to mention the financial benefits of having a scientist on staff to avoid common pitfalls. 


Amber Wise, PhD, is the science director at Avitas Grown.