You know about THC, pot's most famous intoxicant. You've probably heard about CBD, pot's chemical that can be medicine but won't get you high. But what about CBG, CBN, and CBC?
Scientists have identified more than 100 unique active drugs in pot that play with our body's endocannabinoid receptors, but the vast majority of legal weed is a mix of only two, THC and CBD.
That's due largely to the nature of pot prohibition. When weed was completely illegal, the incentives for black-market growers were simple: find a way to grow the most potent weed (the stuff with the most THC) from the smallest indoor plants as quickly as possible. Weed growers didn't have the luxury of spending resources exploring minor cannabinoids that may or may not be profitable, nor did they have access to labs that could precisely test for these compounds.
Legal recreational markets like Washington's are allowing some companies to look under the hood at pot's inner workings. They're trying to see how they can use pot's minor cannabinoids to create entirely new varieties of recreational and medical pot.
Right now, retail shelves are covered in pot that is mostly different shades of the same thing, but it's not going to be that way forever. Welcome to the future, where weed is more than just THC.
Pick up your nearest nug of pot and look at it. Is it covered in white crystals that are sticky to the touch? Those are the pot's cannabinoids, the active chemicals in weed, and chances are most of the chemicals that you are currently looking at are THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol. If you're holding a particularly potent nug, THC makes up more than 20 percent of the entire weight of that flower in your hand.
All cannabinoids are united by the fact that they interact with our body's endocannabinoid system, a neurological network of receptors our body uses to regulate many of our core physiological functions, like appetite, mood, and memory. Each cannabinoid has its own chemical structure, which determines what kind of effect it has when it interacts with the endocannabinoid receptors in our bodies.
A change in one atomic bond here or there will elicit different effects when consumed by humans. And these chemicals are constantly changing: Before a pot plant produces THC, it produces a different cannabinoid called cannabigerol, or CBG, which the plant then converts into pot's most famous chemical. Cannabinoids continue changing after the plant has been harvested. Sometimes they change into entirely new, and possibly profitable, chemicals.
For example, if you let the THC on a harvested flower degrade, it slowly turns into cannabinol, or CBN, a cannabinoid that appears to be less psychoactive than THC but also extremely sedative.
More than 10 million Americans are prescribed pharmaceutical sleep aids like Ambien that can have terrible side effects. Is aged weed, aka CBN, the herbal sleep aid that can safely put America to sleep?
Joe Derr, of Poulsbo processing company Green Revolution, thinks so. Green Revolution sells a weed tincture called Beauty Sleep that is loaded with CBN, and Derr said it is helping people with sleep disorders across the state free themselves from pharmaceutical drugs."
I think more people are finding that it is a good alternative—instead of the bullshit that their doctor wants to put on them," Derr said.
Beauty Sleep comes in a bottle that has 80 milligrams of THC, 40 milligrams of CBD, and 20 milligrams of CBN. I used the dropper to dose myself every night for a week before I went to sleep, and this stuff definitely works.
That's unusual for me with pot. Most weed will keep me up for at least an hour after ingesting it. But Beauty Sleep consistently relaxed my body and mind, and within 30 minutes I felt physical relaxation. I was asleep before I could notice any strong mental stoning.
It also did not feel in any way like Ambien. Beauty Sleep felt like something that was casually guiding me to sleep, whereas Ambien, a drug I've been prescribed in the past, feels like sleep is being forced upon you by something that will fuck you up if you try to resist. Beauty Sleep also doesn't have Ambien's horrible side effects, like diarrhea, nausea, or headaches.
My week on CBN convinced me that this minor cannabinoid is worthy of study. If a fairly small pot processor in Poulsbo could get these results, what could the might of America's billion-dollar biochemistry industry do?
Don't hold your breath to find out. There are currently no clinical trials in the United States on CBN, according to clinicaltrials.gov. Thanks to the federal government's effective ban on studying pot, there aren't likely to be clinical trials anytime soon. Anything that is derived from pot is considered a Schedule I substance by the US government, the most tightly controlled class of drugs according to federal law. That adds years of bureaucratic red tape and legal hoops to jump through, which scientists are rarely able to successfully navigate.
That creates an ironic situation where recreational pot customers have better access to these compounds with tantalizing potential for research than the world's leading medical institutions.
What researchers must wait years for is available on retail shelves right now for anyone with cash and a valid ID.
At first blush, Oleum Extracts' d8Aquatek looks like it should probably be illegal.
Oleum packages this clear concentrate in a syringe, giving it a heroin-like feel. When a few friends were over at my house on a recent Friday evening, I pulled it out and immediately someone said, "Holy shit, what is that?"
While it may resemble some kind of hard drug waiting to be injected, d8Aquatek is actually just another dabbable concentrate. Oleum packages this clear distillation in a syringe because of its unusual texture. It's about the consistency of honey that's been left open to harden for a couple of days, which makes it unruly to work with in a normal jar.
After scaring my friends with the syringe, I proceeded to take out a blowtorch, heat up my dab nail, and drop some of the d8Aquatek onto the hot nail for my friends to try. We all passed it around, sharing our impressions of dabbing this unusual product.
D8Aquatek is filled with delta-8-tetrahydrocannabinol, a cannabinoid that is just a few atomic bonds different than delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the version of THC that everyone knows and loves. There has been very little research done on delta-8 (as it is usually referred to by people in the know in the pot industry), but what has been studied has yielded some very interesting results.
Scientists saw the promise of delta-8 way back in 1975, when it was shown to reduce the growth of cancerous lung tumors in mice. The researchers found, according to their study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, that when mice were given an oral mixture of delta-8-THC, delta-9-THC, and CBN, they saw a reduction in their primary tumor size—and they lived longer.
When Israeli researchers gave delta-8 to a group of pediatric oncology patients experiencing nausea from chemotherapy, it was completely effective. Over the course of 480 treatments, the doctors saw 100 percent cessation of any nausea, with negligible observed side effects, according to the study published in the journal Life Sciences in 1995.
Like CBN, there are no current clinical trials on delta-8 in the United States. So my kitchen counter d8Aquatek dab session with my friends might just have been the most up-to-date research on delta-8.
The dabs had a faint herbal, zesty flavor to them—delta-8 is tasteless by itself, though Oleum adds a small amount of pot terpenes back into the concentrate—but the dabs themselves felt especially light. Some research shows delta-8 is less psychoactive than pot's more famous version of THC, but these dabs absolutely got us high.
It gave me an intensely energetic head high without any feeling of physical relaxation. The dabs seemed to lead us into rabbit holes of conversations—we had planned on playing a board game but never got around to it—but without the goofy stoniness pot conversations usually have. It felt energetic and clearheaded, a high that clearly lent itself to being productive.
Earlier in the week, I had visited the Oleum facility in Kent, where dozens of hoodied and bearded employees were busily working with industrial lab equipment to create some of the finest concentrates in the state. Oleum, which shares an industrial park with an auto body shop, has a scrappy feeling to it, but they are actually doing some of the most advanced cannabis processing in the world. I asked Oleum founder Graham Jennings how it felt to be on the cutting edge of refining cannabinoids.
"That's my favorite part of this business, being able to isolate something and create these things that are entirely new," he said.
Jennings said Oleum is always working on isolating new cannabinoids and is developing products with CBG and CBN in them, so I asked him about a different cannabinoid that has been on my mind, tetrahydrocannabivarin, also known as THCV.
Jennings's face immediately lit up when I mentioned it. Unlike CBN and delta-8, THC cannot be converted into THCV, therefore you must find one of the rare plants that creates a lot of THCV by itself. Jennings and Aaron Palmer, Oleum's other cofounder, said they would love to get their hands on some of it, but the odds of that are minimal.
"There are a couple of varieties now that are high in it, but they are under super lock and key, I wouldn't even know how to get them," Palmer said.
That didn't stop me from looking.
THCV is probably the most sought-after cannabinoid on earth. Industry people call it things like "the sports car of weed" and "skinny pot," terms that allude to its effects and rarity.
In 2017, Vice news followed Franco Loja and Arjan Roskam, the founders of the famous Green House Seed Company, into the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they looked for rare plants that might produce THCV. A grueling journey brought back a strain that tested at only 1.1 percent THCV—a fairly tiny amount, but enough for Roskam to say that it was "worth the effort, going into the jungle, fighting your way through, bribing your way through, in the end you have the reward." Loja later died after contracting malaria on a subsequent trip in January 2017.
What about THCV could entice someone to risk death to hunt for it?
It's not because it will just get you higher. In fact, it appears to create effects that are almost the opposite of what most people associate with smoking weed. THCV has been shown to be energizing and appetite suppressing, two traits that make it an obvious candidate for a valuable form of pot. Who in America doesn't want to lose weight and get more energy from an herbal drug?
The business appeal of THCV is painfully obvious. GW Pharmaceuticals, the British company that has used the cover of America's pot prohibition to go light years ahead of any other single company in developing pharmaceutical pot medicine, has won a number of American patents for the isolation and use of THCV as medicine. One of GW Pharmaceuticals patents gives a laundry list of uses for THCV, including treating obesity, schizophrenia, epilepsy, cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, bone disorders, bulimia, obesity associated with type II diabetes, and drug, alcohol, or nicotine abuse or dependency.
GW Pharmaceuticals has yet to publicly release any THCV, and it is exceptionally hard to find in any significant quantities on the recreational cannabis market. The highest THCV result in the 2014 High Times cup in Seattle was only 1 percent THCV. Even in the concentrate category that year, THCV tested up to only 2 percent.
I called and e-mailed every pot grower, breeder, and retail buyer I knew in the state, and I still couldn't find anything that could beat these percentages. The most fruitful result was from Western Cultured, the Bellevue farm that grows the best lemon haze on the market. Western Cultured is helmed by Brianna Hughes, who told me that most of their strains test at a minimal THCV level, but their Dutch Treat can run higher thanks to "a special genetic line we've kept since 2012 in the medical cannabis days."
"Most of our strains have trace—less than 0.2% THCV, but our Dutch Treat runs around 1.0 to 1.4%," Hughes wrote in an e-mail.
She had just cut down a new batch of Dutch Treat and sent it out for testing. A few days later, she e-mailed me back with the results. That latest batch was at 1.31 percent, right within Hughes's expected range.
That is an impressive result—remember Loja and Roskam were able to get only 1 percent from heirloom pot they had scoured the Congo for—but it is probably not enough to elicit those diamond-studded effects. There's some evidence that THCV behaves in very different ways depending on how large of a dose we give our bodies. At a low dose, it might be only a fraction as psychoactive as its common cousin THC. But at a high dose, it turns into the appetite suppressing, stimulating sports car of a drug that everyone wants to get their hands on.
And there are strains with high levels of THCV. Just nothing that's for sale in Washington State, it seems.
Eventually I got ahold of someone who actually has a lot of THCV. Kymron deCesare, the chief research officer for Steep Hill Labs in Tukwila, is one of the few people in the United States to have a legitimate supply of THCV.
"For more than a year and a half, I have been sitting on six pounds of plant matter that I know for a fact contains 200 to 250 grams of THCV," deCesare told me over the phone. "I have not extracted that yet because I am not going to consider touching it until I have exactly the right extraction equipment so nothing gets gooped up. It's so valuable, I cannot afford to make a mistake."
How did deCesare come into possession of more than 200 grams of the most sought after cannabinoid on earth? Mostly by accident. A California medical farmer, who goes simply by Doug, sent deCesare a sample of flower he thought was from a Harlequin strain, which is supposed to be high in CBD. But deCesare's testing showed something very different: The flowers came back with a remarkably high amount of THCV. In light of this discovery, deCesare named the strain "Doug's Varin," after the farmer, and has continued to work on refining the strain's THCV content, according to an interview "Doug" gave to a trade journal published in 2015.
Will Doug's Varin soon be on the shelves of retails stores across America? Probably not, as deCesare said he couldn't comment on Steep Hill's plans for the strain, although he did indicate the company is actively researching it.
Any seasoned hunter will tell you that not all hunting trips return any game, and so it went with my search for some tetrahydrocannabivarin I could try, the so-called "sports car" of pot. That doesn't mean we should stop keeping an eye out for these rare cannabinoids. We are still in the early stages of rigorous research on all that pot has to offer.
One of the most promising aspects of this research is the spread of professional cannabis testing labs across the country. The industry now has scientists at its disposal for testing for rare cannabinoids. Jeffrey Raber, founder of the cannabis lab the Werc Shop, said it is "exceptionally nominal" to test for cannabinoids beyond just THC and CBD, and added that exploring these other compounds might be a way for companies to set themselves apart in the industry.
"If I'm a cultivator that feels pressure because everyone is doing the same thing I am doing, then do something else," Raber said. "If you're the first with something new like that, it can be really beneficial to that group and solidify your place in the marketplace."
It's hard to say if CBN, delta-8-THC, or THCV will actually revolutionize the way we think about pot, but it seems like it's well worth looking into.