Cannabis potency: “The cart is before the horse, and the horse hasn’t even been born yet”

Dr. John MacKay, a consulting chemist, spoke to Rotary members about cannabis extraction companies and his concern for the relaxation of cannabis restrictions. Photo by John Hammer

The Rotary Club of Charlotte-Shelburne-Hinesburg was recently entertained and informed by its own small version of a TED Talk. The talk was given by Dr. John MacKay, a consulting chemist, who helps cannabis extraction companies test and optimize their product. This report is based on his 30-minute presentation and subsequent correspondence. 

He began with a dog-and-pony show in which he showed how he tests cannabis plants or products for their potency using a portable liquid chromatograph made by Orange Photonics, Inc. located in New Hampshire. He emphasized that “Good is not a number.”  Potency should be calculated as a specific percentage of product or in milligrams per milliliter, not as subjective boundary for a range.

However, it was not long before he had issued a cautionary warning concerning the recent relaxation of cannabis restrictions in Vermont. He cautioned that the “cart is before the horse, and the horse hasn’t even been born yet.” He warned that government understanding of the products and the risks they present is way behind that of the rest of the world. The current federal policies that restrict funding for our public and private research institutions are hindering progress. The government of Canada provides tax relief for companies that are doing research as well as funds grants for research. Some of the Western states are following suit and are beginning to take on the challenges of research, and their initial attempts at regulating are being tightened to ensure that their citizens are provided with safe products. 

MacKay has seen his specialty of cannabis testing and science grow in importance as more and more states have loosened their cannabis laws. Nevertheless, broad federal regulations regarding potency and testing standards are sorely needed, and better research collaboration is needed between scientific and government policy experts. 

In his five years of concentrating on cannabis and the extractive processes that producers have developed, he has found that producers—or what he calls extractors—have little actual knowledge of the actual composition and potency of their product. What he has found is that extractors were initially often unaware of the different chemical properties and potencies of the different varieties of the cannabis plants they are using for sourcing. Some are now willingly implementing Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) to assure they exceed the levels normally set for natural products on over-the-counter shelves of stores.

Parenthetically, he issued another warning: Federal prohibitions on the testing of cannabis products have also resulted in failure to test for any pesticides that may be present in cannabis sources. When the components of the cannabis plants are extracted, they are increased and concentrated. So too are the pesticides that might be present.

After a complex few minutes describing the molecular components of the cannabis sativa plant he entertained the audience with stories of extractors who had little idea of how potent their products were as well as those that now have highly advanced products. These latter companies are self-regulating and self-funding to ensure the highest levels of accuracy. 

His boutique firm, Synergistic Technologies Associates, travels the country helping the extractors maximize productivity, exercise quality control and content uniformity, and optimize yields. As a result of his travels, he is very troubled because the potency of current marijuana now has become so high that users will not know precisely what the effects of the new products will be. As an example, he passed around an empty box that had contained four marijuana lozenges each containing 60 mg of cannabidiol (CBD). These candies are openly sold in California. The recommended beginning dosage of CBD for use as a sleeping aid is five mg. What, might one then ask, would be the result from ingesting only one lozenge, or even all four at one sitting?

So the need for standards and regulations governing the potency of different products, whether they be CBD for medical usage or THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive constituent of cannabis) for recreational use, are sorely needed. Unfortunately, federal regulations have stymied testing, and national policies seem to be pointing toward the states to handle the problem. But even with the Western states displaying some experience in the effects of cannabis plants, some of the Eastern states have yet to understand that this is a significant problem. The states need the federal funding that was promised in late summer of 2016. 

As a prime example, there is currently no way to test how impaired a person is after ingesting edible marijuana. Even more important to deal with are the increased dangers arising from the new vaping craze. As Dr. MacKay pointed out, a vape pen contains upward of 80 percent THC per inhale. How does that compare to the marijuana cigarette of the past with its comparatively low percentage?

With all these new cannabis products becoming available, he left the meeting with a plea for more aggressive testing and the development of standards. The risks are high and “the horse has not even been born.” 

The Rotary Club of Charlotte-Shelburne-Hinesburg holds a breakfast meeting every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. in the Fellowship Hall behind the Trinity Church in Shelburne. Visitors are always welcome.