In the last decade, many U.S. states have legalized either medical or recreational cannabis, and Canada followed through with recreational legalization in October.
In anticipation of those events, we have seen a “green rush,” where individuals and companies have been trying to build the largest cultivation, the biggest production or the widest distribution. It makes me wonder if the current green rush and the gold rush of the 19th century have a common ancestor, the “blind rush.” We are at a unique stage in the cannabis industry today; we can continue to blindly follow temptation, or we can stop, think and optimize our path.
Blinded by the potential riches, we are packing our figurative shovels and heading for the fields of green. But has no one stopped to think that a shovel, as history has shown us, may not be the best tool? In mining, dynamite has replaced shovels, and in agriculture, tractors have replaced horses. So why would the methods your college roommate used 30 years ago be the best methods to grow and extract cannabis today?
Let us first figure out the fundamentals, understand what we want to achieve and research how to go about it in the best possible way. Cannabis has a long history of half-truths, incomplete data and criminalization. What it does not have is a track record of peer-reviewed research, industry expertise and collaboration between the private, public and academic sectors.
So today, I stop and think about what we are doing. It does not take long to spot the lack of forethought industry players have demonstrated.
My pet peeve lies in what the extraction sector calls winterization. What is winterization? The dictionary defines it as the process of preparing something for winter.
Winter may be coming, but I am fairly certain that is not the intention in cannabis. Maybe it is in reference to the fluffy precipitate that swirls around in the beaker like a snow globe? No! Winterization, as used colloquially in the cannabis industry, means to remove plant fats from the ethanol/cannabinoid solution. This is a misnomer. In chemistry, the process of forcing something out of solution by means of temperature or solvent change, is called precipitation.
Now that we have correctly identified the process, we can look for how to optimize it. For decades, pharmaceutical producers have used precipitation to purify their products on a scale that even a Canadian licensed producer can only dream of.
Now that we know what we are doing, let us stop and think about why we are doing it. In this particular precipitation, we are using the reduced solvating power of ethanol to remove unwanted compounds from the solution. But why do we have to remove these compounds in the first place? If we want to extract “the good stuff” from the cannabis plant, why are we also extracting undesirables? We should optimize the extraction protocol.
Even if precipitation is required, the helter-skelter approach to scaling up the filtration may have led you to increase the size of the Büchner funnel, a piece of laboratory equipment used for filtration. But if we stop and think about how we are doing it, we would realize that large Büchner funnels cannot achieve full liquid coverage for vacuum filtration at such scales. Filtration by plate filters or centrifugal separation would increase scale and speed, reduce required manpower and improve reliability.
The cannabis industry has been chasing the shiny object of legalization for so long that we never stopped to think about what to do with it once we achieved it. How do we prepare for the time when normal economic forces take over and production costs and product offerings become a concern? While most of the industry will keep rushing, I will stop and think.
I will stop and think about the fundamentals, about how to achieve expertise and excellence, and most importantly, how to leverage what we learned in order to produce the right products in this new market. And I hope that many of you will join me, because the green-hued crumbles and black oils of the present will not secure success in a legal market for long.
Markus Roggen is the vice president of extraction at OutCo. He has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from ETHZ in Switzerland with postdoctoral studies at The Scripps Research Institute. He leads OutCo’s in-house and collaborative research efforts and is constantly testing the limits of cannabis science. More information can be found at outco.com.