Is the cannabis industry ready for personalized products?

The future of marijuana could be intertwined with consumers’ DNA

Global sales of marijuana are set to grow 38% to $16.9 billion in 2019, bills that would legalize cannabis federally are making their way through Congress and more than 221,000 new full-time jobs have been created. This growth has created a thriving market, filled with thousands of products. For both new and longtime consumers, this product selection can cause analysis paralysis, leaving customers grasping at straws when choosing a product that will deliver the ideal high and/or relief from medical ailments.

The classic dichotomy of sativa for energy versus indica for relaxation has been the standard in the industry’s attempts at product curation. However, leading cannabis researchers have generally dismissed these kinds of binary classifications, stating instead that the cannabinoid and terpene ratios specific to each strain are the real drivers behind differences in a strain’s effects.

Given that strains and products contain different combinations of the hundreds of cannabinoids and terpenes found in the cannabis plant, it’s easy to see how incredibly complex it is for consumers to find the right product. A savvy user may take time to research reviews of strains and products to find one that matches their search criteria. However, this introduces a more deep-rooted problem: not everyone reacts to cannabinoids and terpenes the same way, and it can be a major challenge for businesses as they look to better serve their clientele. Despite a majority of cannabis purchasers looking for suggestions on product, almost 80% of budtenders reported feeling ill-equipped to provide meaningful recommendations, leaving a critical gap in knowledge.


Personalized medicine

Enormous product selection is not a problem unique to the cannabis industry. When medical doctors are faced with patients who are non-responsive to traditional treatment options, they often turn to pharmacogenetics — the study of how genetic factors can predict drug reactions. Insights can determine whether a patient lacks the right metabolism to break down and utilize a specific drug or if they may be more likely to experience aversive side effects.

The concept of learning about an individual and then providing a personalized service or product is being leveraged by dozens of new startups, stemming from industries where the choice of products is comparable to the cannabis industry. For example, you can now get personalized skin care products via one-on-one meetings, vitamins via blood test, or wine and fitness plans based on your DNA. But is the cannabis industry ready for personalized medicine?


The Future of Cannabis and DNA

There are still some glaring issues facing product and strain reliability in the cannabis industry. As such, specific product recommendations require consistent lab testing and updates, which new California legislation mandates as part of compliance. Nonetheless, insights from one’s DNA could provide a user with meaningful information when making a purchasing choice where lab testing data is available.

For instance, a user likely to develop dementia could scan a lab report for products highest in the terpene alpha-pinene. This process could often yield a product different than what they found on their last trip to the dispensary due to the multitude of factors that can influence cannabinoid and terpene expression in the cannabis plant (including curing method, adverse weather, etc.).

That’s a good perspective for consumers to have anyway; the combination of chemicals they are ingesting is far more important than loyalty to some esoteric strain. All things considered, this process is leaps and bounds more informative than simply providing a response to the standard “sativa or indica” question that most budtenders use to start the product selection conversation.

As regulations allow scientists to gain access to cannabis for research studies, more insights that can help predetermine the effectiveness of cannabis use at the level of an individual are certainly on the horizon. Other avenues could also provide insights as to other aspects of cannabis use as well. For example, new research from 2018 has even unveiled 35 genes that make you 11% more likely to be a cannabis consumer and revealed an interesting overlap in cannabis use with a gene that has been traditionally associated with risk-taking.

Regardless of the application, additional research into DNA, cannabinoids and terpenes promises to refine the personalized approach to cannabis that all consumers should consider, and all businesses should be aware of.


Nicco Reggente is the co-founder and CEO of Strain Genie. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from UCLA, where he focused on using machine learning and neuroimaging to predict efficacy of treatment regimens. He is passionate about helping to bring personalized medicine to the cannabis industry.


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