In every market that goes legal, customers first seem to flock to products that test highest in THC, the cannabinoid found in marijuana that gives you the “high.” It often drives an arms race of growers and processors trying to raise plants or refine extracts to eye-popping percentages.
Over the past couple years, attention shifted somewhat as public interest has spiked in CBD, a non-psychotropic cannabinoid that has been found to relieve a multitude of symptoms without getting users stoned. With the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which essentially legalized hemp production across the country, the market for CBD is increasing steadily.
But with more than 100 known cannabinoids already discovered in the cannabis plant, many savvy cannabis businesses have their sights set on the future as they create the next wave of consumer products high in CBC, CBN, CBG, THCV and others.
It’s a bit of a risky proposition in a market that often tends to be numbers-driven. But that’s not stopping several producers and processors from carving out a growing niche of shoppers looking for a wider range of effects than simply the highest high.
“We’re known for our cannabinoid profiles, not the highest THC,” says Laurel Friesen, founder and CEO of Heylo, a Seattle-based processor that makes a high-THCV line of vaporizer cartridges, which have established the company as one of the more unique oil manufacturers in Washington.
“Our mission is to provide rarer cannabinoids to the marketplace, particularly California,” echoes David Lampach, CEO and co-founder of California Cannabinoids, makers of the Doug’s Varin brand that features a product high in the minor cannabinoid THCV, or tetrahydrocannabivarin.
Both companies are hoping to be at the front end of the search for the Next Big Cannabinoid.
Lampach is the co-founder and former CEO at Steep Hill Laboratories, the first California lab to run cannabinoid profiles for the state’s medical marijuana industry. During his tenure at Steep Hill, he ran the tests on the first high-CBD strains.
At that time, while CBD was a known compound, it was somewhat rare in a market dominated by THC. Lampach looks back at those days as a missed opportunity to get into the CBD market early, something he is looking to rectify with Doug’s Varin.
“I was there at the beginning of CBD,” he says. “I saw how it grew and went way beyond anything I would have imagined.”
Lampach says he sees a high demand in the market for rare cannabinoids and few providers filling that need.
“You want to be in a niche in this market,” he says. “It’s a growth opportunity.”
Lampach and his company are focusing first on THCV, a three-carbon version of the five-carbon THC molecule, a change that affects how the compound interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system. Both THC and THCV affect the CB1 receptor, first identified in the early 1990s. How each cannabinoid fits in the receptor and the interaction between the cannabinoids themselves create “complex effects in the body.”
“Those differences can either make a compound not work at all or work differently,” he says, noting that CBD and its variants interact with the body’s CB2 receptor. “THCV is the real deal. It’s distinctive, it’s different, it’s noticeable.”
According to Lampach, THC is an “agonist,” while THCV is an “antagonist” of the CB1 receptor. The two chemicals are opposites and create “an entirely different experience,” though he admits that due to the lack of scientific testing that comes as part of nearly a century of prohibition, all reports of the effects of the different compounds are anecdotal in nature.
“THCV tends to increase focus,” he says, adding that his THCV-rich vape pens make him feel smarter. “My joke is, like, ‘operate heavy machinery.’”
ON THE LOOKOUT
Friesen says her company’s high-THCV products had a more “serendipitous” discovery. Friesen was working with “forward-thinking labs” that provide full cannabinoid profiles for the raw product Heylo was extracting. She recognized the market appeared to be moving toward high-THC products, but she saw a portion of the customer base shunning the “narrow high” of big numbers for a wider range of cannabinoid availability.
“Consumers are more familiar than ever with what (THC and CBD) do,” she says. “They’re searching for something more.”
Like Lampach, Friesen also got started in the business working in labs and then moved into the processing side. The high-THCV strains she and her company began extracting got a great response from buyers who most often said the cartridges made them feel creative.
Heylo has also developed cartridges high in CBG (cannabigerol) and CBN (cannabinol), two more of the minor cannabinoids that are gaining in prominence. Friesen calls CBG the “godfather cannabinoid” as it is the one from which most others form. She says it usually prompts laughter in users, which is why she refers to it as “CB-Giggles.” CBN, on the other hand has nearly the opposite effect, promoting relaxation and sleep.
Mary’s Medicinals of Colorado was one of the first-to-market with a high-CBN product five years ago and now offers multiple products that are rich in minor cannabinoids, mostly delivered through gels, capsules and transdermal patches, as well as vape cartridges.
“We try and develop innovative and alternative forms of delivery of cannabinoids,” says Jeremy Riggle, chief science officer at Mary’s Medicinals. “We’re always on the lookout.”
Riggle says Mary’s aims to stay on top of innovation and novelty and says the demographic is growing for minor cannabinoids, even as most major cannabis companies and brands look to increase THC and CBD numbers.
“The market is craving them,” he says. “I think the market is going to be huge.”
Riggle thinks the next cannabinoid to ride a wave into the national consciousness will be CBN, which he says appears to interact with the CB2 receptor and does not create THC’s feelings of euphoria or high, but instead encourages sleep, though he admits most of the evidence is still anecdotal.
CBN is also different from other cannabinoids as it does not form from CBG, but instead is created as THCA — the acidic form of THC, which turns to THC when exposed to heat — breaks down due to sunlight or other ultraviolet light, making it one of the most accessible cannabinoids, another reason Riggle says it will probably take its turn in the limelight next.
All three of the scientists are also interested in how the cannabinoids interact with each other to create what is known as the “entourage effect,” which is why they promote full-spectrum extracts and products instead of creating pure forms of the cannabinoids.
“I don’t think isolating things is the way of the future,” Friesen says. Heylo works with mostly outdoor growers and has formed partnerships with cultivators that have interesting and unique genetics that are high in the minor cannabinoids. “We don’t add anything from outside of the plant we are extracting from.”
Doug’s Varin products are also created using varietals rich in the minor cannabinoids, such as the THCV that fills Lampach’s best-selling items.
He is also working to develop products that highlight the interactions between cannabinoids to create distinct effects. He believes CBG, particularly when combined with THCV, will be a strong market in the near future. And because of the ability to extract the cannabinoid from hemp, he thinks CBG will be the next one to hit.
Mary’s Medicinals also combines minor cannabinoids in its products, such as creating 1:1 topicals and vape cartridges using CBD and CBN.
For all three companies, establishing a foothold now in what they see as the cannabinoid marketplace of the future is an important strategy and all have their sights set on the potential for big sales.
This year, Lampach, for example, plans to maximize his THCV sales and expects his products to have a wholesale value of $25 million. The Doug’s Varin brand is now available at the Sparc stores in California, but Lampach says they keep selling out.
Heylo is also working to solidify its place in the market as a provider of unique cannabinoids, and Freisen says though the science is not quite there yet, the idea is to tailor experiences to meet consumer demand.
“Our goal in this industry is to find something that works for everyone,” she says, adding that she hopes to create products for the “curious cannabis consumer.”
“We don’t want to limit ourselves,” she says.