I vividly remember the first time I went shopping for toothpaste as a young adult.
I was at college and after years of simply using whatever it was my parents bought, I had the chance to strike out on my own and choose the brand of toothpaste I wanted.
But as I stood in the aisle at my local supermarket, I was confronted with what seemed to be a billion different choices. So many brands. So many flavors. So many extras. So many boasts about “NOW WITH” and “NEW AND IMPROVED.”
It was daunting and, admittedly, somewhat paralyzing.
For new customers looking to make their first purchases in a medical or recreational cannabis shop, the choice of product, strain and even mode of consumption can be equally daunting when faced with a wall of flower or a case filled with various types of extracts, especially for those who have either never tried cannabis or remember it only from their youth.
And this is not toothpaste, after all. Cannabis includes psychoactive compounds that affect everyone a little differently and everyone processes cannabinoids at a different rate. Which means that what works for you, may not work for me and vice versa.
And that can lead to a bad or unhelpful experience, especially for a newbie.
So where does one even begin?
According to Vancouver, Washington-based xChemistry DNA, begin where it all begins: your genes.
Laboratory director Dr. Charles Sailey, M.D, M.S., says the company’s CannaGX test is essentially the same type of pharamacogenetics testing that traditional pharmaceutical companies have been doing for about two decades, using a genetic profile to help guide treatment by profiling enzymes in the liver and other genetic markers to see how the body will respond to a specific drug.
The tests, generally speaking, identify if a drug will be effective for the user, what the best dose is and what, if any, side effects the user might experience. For example, before a doctor prescribes an opioid for pain management, they might prescribe a test to see how the patient’s body would metabolize the substance to see if the drug would work and if there would be an increased risk of dependence.
“We really just wanted to take a lot of that experience and move it into the cannabis space,” Sailey says.
Each patient receives a personalized report detailing how their body reacts to cannabis; a summary of personal product selections; a personalized approach to managing pain, anxiety/stress and insomnia; product selection guidance; potential side effects; and potential interactions with other drugs. There is also a small “education” section to the report that explains the endocannabinoid system and what genes are tested.
“We try to paint a picture to say, overall, ‘you have risks here and no risks here,’” says Sailey. “Cannabis is just another drug.”
Taken together, the report provides an interesting, colorful and easy-to-read science-based starting point for someone who finds themselves staring at the cannabis version of the toothpaste aisle and not knowing where to begin.
“What we’re trying to do is give them objective data and personalized info,” says Sailey. “All reports are going to be different.”
The test begins with four cheek swabs, two on each side. It’s a painless process I did right at my desk in our offices. The cotton swabs then get packed off in an envelope and shipped to Molecular Testing Labs, a CLIA- and CAP-accredited laboratory.
In the lab, Sailey and the other scientists look for variances in genetic codes to see if proteins or enzymes work the way they are expected to, meaning that compounds like THC or CBD are metabolized at a normal rate, to determine how a person will be affected.
The cannabis-specific tests were developed at the lab over the past two years. They began by surveying users and potential users and found that 80% of those the company surveyed were using cannabis to treat something, be it pain or anxiety or insomnia or whatever.
“Very few people were taking it just to veg out on the couch and play Xbox,” Sailey says.
In addition, as part of their research, he and members of his team went to local shops, asked the same questions of the employees and received “drastically different recommendations” from budtenders.
While I am, admittedly, not a first-time or inexperienced cannabis user, I was fascinated to get back my test results and see how they matched up with my experience trying the various forms of recreational cannabis available in my home state of Washington.
As it turns out, I have what Sailey called a “very boring genome,” though he did not mean that in any sort of negative way. According to the summary page of my report, I process both THC and CBD efficiently, I have no increased pain sensitivity, no increased genetic risk of addiction, no increased risk of paranoia or anxiety, an increased benefit from products rich in CBD and no genetic factors known for causing sleep problems.
According to the doc, what that means is that I can take either opioids or cannabis products and expect them to be effective for pain relief with no expected side effects. My body apparently breaks down THC and CBD “the way the enzyme was designed” and I can take higher doses — or use products with a high potency — without worrying about freaking out or not being able to sleep.
I can apparently follow standard guidelines for cannabis use, for both recreational and medical purposes, which, I have to admit, generally, jives with my personal experiences.
Diving deeper into the report, CannaGX provides detailed guidance to managing pain, anxiety and insomnia, including strain recommendations and terpene profiles, drawn from a database of flowers that Sailey says have been tested and have stable terpene profiles. For someone with experience in the cannabis world, some of the suggestions can seem a bit simplified, but then again, the test is designed for the new user, not necessarily the managing editor of marijuana magazine.
For example, in the pain management section, I am told to try a CBD-rich strain with lower THC potency, such as CBD MediHaze or Harlequin and to look for strains with terpene profiles that include myrcene, limonene and Beta-caryophyllene. To manage anxiety I should use equal amounts of CBD and THC, though it does recommend the Girl Scout Cookies strain with a potency of 17% to 28% and terpene profiles rich in myrcene, pinene and linalool.
There’s also a single-page “memo for your product consultant” that I can take to my local rec shop or dispensary to help the employees help me better.
But what’s fascinating about the results — and why this test might be quite helpful for new users — is that while my genome might be boring and my body works like it says in the textbooks, Sailey says that is actually “very rare” in his experience, putting me in a small group of about 1% of those they have tested.
If you think about it, this kind of proves the need for a test like this. If my “boring” genome’s ability to process everything normally and without side effects is as rare as the doctor seems to indicate, that means that any recommendations that I — or any local budtender, for that matter — would give to a new user will probably not affect them the same way it does me.
However, my experience — and Sailey is quick to point out that no matter what the tests may say, “nothing beats experience” — has shown that edibles, which are recommended in every category, are not effective for me. I am, again, part of what appears to be a small percentage of people whose bodies actually break down the cannabinoids quicker than normal in the liver, reducing the effects and duration of edible products.
Sailey says that I most likely have a variant in a liver enzyme for which the current form of the CannaGX process does not test, though he says it is to be included in future versions (he also recommended just trying higher doses to get the desired effects). But again, that little genetic variance could ruin a new user’s experience and color their views of a certain product if they are unaware of it.
“There’s a lot of targets that need to be looked at,” Sailey says. “We’re just basically scratching the surface.”
In the end, when buying toothpaste all those years ago, I went with the shiniest box. It was, admittedly, not the most scientific way to go about it and I would not necessarily recommend it at your local dispensary. For beginning cannabis users, the CannaGX test may not be necessary, but it’s certainly a better way to start …