Concentration 2019 Conference!

I went to Concentration 2019 (a.k.a. the Terpene and Testing Conference) that occurred at the end of May 2019 in Pala Resort, CA. It was an excellent conference overall and I met many amazing people and companies at the forefront of the US cannabis industry. In this article, I will present a summary of the materials presented and discussed during the conference and introduce some industry trends and topics of interest. If you are interested, we recommend looking at my 2018 conference summary from last year as well.

There were several topics that were of prime interest during the conference that need addressing within the industry: Universal Lexicon, developing universal standard operation procedures (SoPs) for the industry, extraction technology and trends, terpene formulations, vaporizer technology (such as controlled unit-dosing), cultivar genetic fingerprinting, good manufacturing practice and regulatory compliance, and research opportunities.

Universal Lexicon

Most of the leading speakers have one topic that is more important than any other: the words we use matter and need universality. As an industry, we absolutely need to get away from both the silly use of “strain” (read “cultivar”) names like AK47, Gorilla Glue, Blue Dream, etc., as well as terms like Indica and Sativa. The silly strain names prevent medical practitioners from taking medical cannabis seriously and do not usefully discriminate cultivars and their effects. In addition, the cultivars are not universally recognized and DNA fingerprinted for verification (more on this shortly). Additionally, the industry is also realizing that the distinction between Indica and Sativa is completely meaningless and the usage needs to be obsoleted. Unfortunately, this will be difficult because of the penetration into the popular culture of the ideas around those categories and their perceived distinctions.

However, speakers were explicit in stating the truth that Indica and Sativa are useful only in discriminating phenotypic adaptations the plant makes based upon the environment it grows in and is adapted to. So, what does that mean for the average patient? So, what do the terms Indica or Sativa even mean?

Hybrid: Almost all, if not all, cultivars that are currently grown are hybrids. These plants have been so incredibly interbred that their genetic origins from more than a century ago no longer designate meaningful differences.

Sativa plants are originally from stock that grew best in temperate to tropical environments and are adapted for higher environmental water and lower drought and salt tolerance. They have characteristically broad leaves and are taller and bushier. There is no relationship between Sativa designation and its chemical profile (chemovar).

Indica plants are from stock that originally grew best in dry environments and are adapted for drought, with characteristically narrower leaves and shorter stature. There is no relationship between Indica designation and its chemical profile (chemovar).

To develop a Universal Lexicon for Cultivars and Chemovars, the industry must come together and develop both a genetic fingerprint designation for each cultivar, a cultivar name that can be marketed and branded but is descriptive in nature, and a chemovar designation that describes the plant’s internal chemistry. For example, speakers discussed starting breaking down types of medical cannabis into Types I, II, and III.

Type I: THC Dominant containing CBD:THC < 0.5.

Type II: THC:CBD near equal in ratio.

Type III: CBD dominant containing CBD:THC > 3.

These are the beginnings of creating more useful distinctions but it is the absolute beginning. In order to achieve a more thorough descriptive universal lexicon, we must use the tools available to other industries and establish solid practices.

Universal Standard Operating Procedures

Many at the conference encouraged scientists, practitioners, growers, and manufacturers to participate in two major organizations that are being used to build a universal system: ASTM and ACS.

ASTM is the American Society for Testing and Materials and is the organization through which almost all manufacturers develop universal SoPs and best practices for their industries. The specific subgroup responsible for developing these standards in cannabis is called the Committee D37 on Cannabis. This committee is tasked with developing the present and future standards for this industry and should be a major resource and reference for US industry.

ACS is the American Chemical Society and it too has a subdivision that will be integral in developing cannabis medicine and chemistry standards. The ACS has a long history and is well-respected. In order to reach the next level of funding within this large organization, the subdivision must receive at least 500 members- as a result, I encourage those who are interested to participate in developing these standards within ACS. Please join and support this organization for the development of meaningful standards.

Extraction Technology and Trends

The conference had many presenters that were using the mainstream extraction technologies, but introduced some small improvements in processing and post-processing with a distinct trend toward solventless extraction technology and techniques. The newest technology was the introduction of filtration systems that used counter-flow filters that separate out unwanted materials such as lipids, waxes, chlorophyll, and solvents using a post-process filter rather than the technique known as winterizing. One of the major companies offering this service was Ecosce and, although it was compelling, it seemed clear that it was also extremely expensive to add. Although it was an interesting addition to the techniques currently being used, its expense may make it impractical to introduce into established businesses.

Freon 134a extraction was notably absent during this conference, having been more or less ignored during last year’s conference. I found this disappointing because of its potential for extracting the most medically useful biomolecules with the smallest amount of post-processing. Freon 134a resembles cold ethanol or a reduced temperature sub-critical CO2 extraction in its chemistry profile. Many of the more advanced presenters were using freon and found it incredibly useful and that it produced an amazing extract in potency and smell/taste but because freon is scary to many lay people, it is languishing on the sidelines. Freon 134a is an incredible, underused, and underrated extraction technique that we should watch for in the future.

There was greater emphasis on solventless extraction methods in this year’s conference. Given that creating extracts that are clean, pure, and absolutely honest to the plant chemistry is the Holy Grail of cannabis extract techniques, solventless extracts such as Rosin, Water/Bubble Hash are enjoying top-rated status in the artisanal side of business. The main limitation to these techniques is that they are incredibly hard to scale but they, without a shadow of a doubt, create the highest-quality extracts that contain all of the medically interesting cannbinoids, flavinoids, and terpenes without contamination or selective alteration of the chemistry. If you want an artisanal top-shelf side to your cannabis extracts, this is it. In addition, supremely entertaining and enlightened characters such as Frenchy Cannoli provide both educational and entertaining refinements to millennia-old techniques.

Terpene Formulations

There were two major trends present during the Concentration 2019 Conference that were being touted for terpene formulations: Recipe Style and Extraction Focused (my own terms) .

Recipe Style: Most companies are using naturally isolated pure terpenes that are isolated from a variety of plants and are reintroducing them either to mimic the known chemistry of certain cultivars or to simulate either their effects or taste and smell. Most of these formulations are arbitrary in nature and have some underlying dangers and, disappointingly, one of the major companies doing this, Lucid Mood, did not show for its presentation. The problem is that mixing in arbitrary amounts of terpenes in order to create clinical/physiological effects or smells/tastes has little research and most are mixing in much larger amounts of terpenes than are naturally present in cannabis in order to create a distinct effect or character. The problem is, although cannabis is extremely non-toxic, many of these isolated terpenes ARE extremely toxic and can undergo changes when heated (especially in dabbing) and some of these additions might be responsible for cannabis-associated hospitalizations such as with cannabis hyperemesis syndrome.

The Israeli company Eybna, which last year introduced its comprehensive cannabinoid and terpene clinical research in the Israeli Medical Cannabis program, did not show this year. This was the biggest disappointment since Eybna is doing the detailed, AI-powered, cultivar/chemovar distinguishing research that is absolutely what is needed in the industry. Eybna and SteepHill are doing some incredibly interesting research and I really wish I could have seen some of the updates from last year. For example, Eyba elucidated the terpenes that are the likely to create the Indica/Sativa (sedating/non-sedating) formulations (and they aren’t the ones you expect) and is doing more research into various effects.

Unfortunately, although many are excited to be developing formulations using terpenes “to steer” the motive force that THC and CBD provide for medical formulations, most are wandering in the dark at the moment and most of the hype around terpene formulations is just hype for now. As the biblical quote states: “The blind will follow the blind, all will fall into the pit.” For now, most of the terpene formulations will be formulated more or less Recipe Style by manufacturers but these formulations will likely not have any real medically-interesting/useful effects in the near-future. In addition, manufacturers must be cautious about adding terpenes to formulations that are sometimes thousands or tens-of-thousandsfold higher than what is present in the plant, especially since many terpenes are extremely toxic and change chmically with temperature and moisture.

Extraction Focused: Because of the risky terpene recipe-creating that is going on, there is a harkening back to more pure, “honest-to-the-plant” extractions for cannabis. For many, this means either Cold Ethanol or Solventless extractions or using advanced CO2 machines that can be customized to do multi-phased or multi-solvent systems. In addition, there is research into using particle-size reduction, microwaves, sonic pulses, electrical pulses, mechanical agitation, freeze-drying, or floculation to improve extraction extent and efficiency or to lyse trichomes without damaging cell-walls in order to avoid lysing cells and extracting all of their internal contents such as organelles, chlorophyll, waxes, and other components.

It remains to be seen which techniques will win out but using some sort of system to improve extraction efficiency such as sonication or electrocution to lyse trichomes while leaving cells intact, is incredibly useful. For most, what this really means is solventless extraction, as I outlined above. For most major manufacturers, this will remain impractical due to the problems scaling solventless extraction. However, if a manufacturer wants a top-shelf medical product, solventless extracts are probably the way of the future.

Vaporizer Technology

There were two main trends when it came to vaporizing technology at the Concentration Conference 2019: Unit-Dosing Systems and Pod-Style Cartridges.

Unit-Dosing Systems are vaporizers that will deliver fixed unit doses for the medical cannabis community. Manufacturers such as GoFire, Dosist, and some others are involved in making pens that will deliver precise doses every time.

GoFire has a technology-rich system with several downsides. It is an incredibly large unit with a steep learning curve and will be a hard-sell for most patients. It is also incredibly expensive at $500. Although it is clearly navigating the Alpha to Beta phases of its developments, it will need to reduce its size, cost, and complexity to be attractive to patients and practicioners.

Dosist pens are less precise than the GoFire product and can still create variation depending on puff strength, but it has developed a very simple system for unit-dosing by having the unit cut off after 3 seconds of inhaling, theoretically giving a dose of 2.25mg per 3 second puff. It has some problems such as being unable to charge the battery and the battery running out of power prior to using the full volume of medication, but it is a much simpler unit-dosing system and many will probably mimic this vaporizer style over the next few years.

Pod-style cartridges have fewer moving parts and problems compared to their CCell technology cartridges. They are easy to use, self-contained, refillable on a limited basis, and have a much lower failure rate compared to other systems. Most CCell cartridges have a failure rate of at least 1% or higher while the pods typically fail at 0.1% or lower which is incredibly important. They also don’t leak or have spit-back (oil coming through mouthpiece) as problems. If you are interested in changing to a new cartridge system, this is the time to abandon the older CCells and to move to the new pod systems. They are the clear up-and-coming standard in the near-future. A couple of good examples of manufacturers are the Kandypen Rubi or PlugPlay.

Cultivar Genetic Fingerprinting

Given that there is no consensus on identifying, determining ownership, and naming of cultivars, many companies are offering genetic fingerprinting and sequencing services. However, there is no universal technique or system that has stood out so far. Be careful when it comes to buying these services because without a universally recognized system to genetically characterize cultivars, many may buy a product or service but not really understand what that tells them. Until there is more agreement on how to fingerprint cultivars across the industry, these services are interesting in the same way 23andMe is for human genetics- interesting, but not incredibly useful or practical quite yet.

Genetic Modifications of Cannabis or Organisms

There is great interest in using CRISPR/CAS-9 or similar techniques to alter cannabis, improve its yields, add disease or other resistance, or to create genetic knockout cultivars that produce large amounts of a single cannabinoid. GW Pharmaceuticals, Bedrocan, and a small number of other companies have developed stable cultivars that produce very stable chemovars and many of those are knockouts that produce CBD, CBG, or other single cannabinoids. These cultivars and techniques will be incredibly useful in isolating large amounts of individual cannabinoids for research and will be necessary as we discover the medical benefits of individual cannbinoids and terpenes and other chemicals.

Additionally, similar techniques are being used to create algae and yeast that produce specific cannabinoids. Eventually, these techniques will produce both cultivars and new organisms that we will be able to manufacture individual cannabinoids in fermenting vats using yeast or algae in ponds or reactors.

Unfortunately, the cannabis industry doesn’t like the idea of genetically modifying cannabis or yeast in this manner. For example, never cross Frenchy Cannoli with this idea unless you want a very entertaining and loud verbal beat-down. For most, this is an unattractive idea that leads us further away from the natural evolutionary “wisdom” contained within cannabis through its co-evolution with humanity and further into flawed human-intended engineering and all of its unintended consequences. Watch for research into this in the future but its tie-in to the pharmaceutical industry and genetic manipulation will keep its popularity low.

cGMP and Regulatory Compliance

If there is a second key theme aside from a Universal Lexicon and SoPs, it is regulatory compliance. What all of the experts hammered effectively into the audience is this: Compliance and good manufacturing practice is going to be mandatory shortly, so get on it. If you are a new company, becoming a cGMP, cGLP, ISO-compliant manufacturer should be your top priority in short order. If you are retrofitting a company, it is incredibly, almost impossibly costly. So, do it up front and do it now. Also, when buying products, if you stand out as compliant to these standards, you will be an automatic industry leader and gain trust that many manufacturers simply can’t meet. As cannabis medicine and manufacture comes into the light and is legalized on national or global scale, cGMP compliance is mandatory. Any company who does not learn this will become extinct. Word to the wise: adapt or die.

Conclusions

Overall, the Concentration 2019 Cannabis Conference was again a great experience, full of wonderful people doing amazing things. There were some severe disappointments involving no-shows of Nadav Eyal of Eybna Technologies on “Data-Driven Research”, Tristan Watkins, Chief Science Officer of LucidMood on “Formulations for Mainstream Consumers”, and Joseph Resnick, DIrector of Nano-Biotechnology of RMANNCO on “Microencapsulation: The Optimal Delivery System”. These were the topics and presentation I found most compelling but were not presented.

I will be going to the 4th Annual Chemistry and Pharmacology of Drug Abuse Conference in 2019 in Boston, MA in early August. This is a more science-heavy conference and I will present a summary of the conference towards the end of the summer.

In addition, do not miss my presentation to the Minnesota Society of Health-System Pharmacists at their Mid-Year Meeting on September 20th on CBD!

Ethan Carruthers