Laurel Friesen graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in environmental chemistry, and her plan was to go to medical school, "but then pot's sticky flowers got in the way." She realized cannabis had healing properties that scientists had not explored, and that working with traditional medicine was not going to allow her to explore them either, so she charted her own path.
She went to work for a cannabis-extraction equipment manufacturer, and then she founded her own extraction company, Heylo Cannabis. It is best known for producing flavorful, high-quality, all-natural vape cartridges. In light the coronavirus crisis coming close on the heels of the vape health scare, we talked about uncertainty in the industry, what the near future looks like, and the product she creates that she's using herself day-to-day right now.
You are an environmental chemist who created Heylo in the spirit of health and wellness. In terms of health and wellness, is this an okay time for people to be consuming cannabis?
I think it's a very good time for people to be consuming cannabis. I think our mental health is at risk, and it's important to maintain your mental health in order to keep your immunity strong. But, that said, listen to the advice of your physician.
But COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and we're talking about inhaling things.
You don't have to! Edibles are picking up in terms of popularity. I think people are trying to minimize their risk to their respiratory system. You would think that smoking would go down, but flower purchases are going up. I think it's people buying in bulk as opposed to just buying joints, so they don't have to go to the store as often. But yeah, edibles are rising in popularity. And I would say vaping is a healthier way [than smoking], as long as it's a safe product to use. Obviously I endorse Heylo products and low-temperature vaping, which a PAX device allows you to do, for example. But yeah, it's really interesting to see the trends in the market right now.
People are wondering how to mitigate risks in the environment of a pandemic.
There's lots of ways. Washing your hands. Using hand sanitizer. Keeping your distance. Wearing masks. But they do say: "Don't drink alcohol." That reduces the efficacy of your immune system. And we came out with our hygiene products, I don't know if you saw that?
That is our cannabis-infused hand sanitizer.
Wait, what? You make hand sanitzer?
Yes! So, we have ethanol as a side product of our extraction process, and we usually reuse it, because it stays 190 to 195 proof, but we were like: "Wait a minute. Hand sanitizer is sold out everywhere, and we have this as a byproduct. Let's put it out." Legally we're not allowed to give anything away to consumers, and I'm working with the Liquor and Cannabis Board to find ways for us to be able to donate our ethanol to hospitals. Meanwhile, another rule is, we can't sell anything into stores that doesn't have cannabis in it. So what we're doing is infusing the ethanol in with cannabis-derived terpenes, to make it smell good, and aloe, to make your hands feel good. And we're selling it at cost to all of our retailers. We've been asking our retailers to do as little markup as possible, because this is really just about creating access to hand sanitzer.
Does it get you high?
No. It just smells good.
In addition to your extraction company, you're also a consultant for other weed companies. Where do you see the industry going in the near future?
Well, man, if you had asked me eight months ago, I would probably have had a different answer. Even a month ago.
What would your answer have been eight months ago?
My answer eight months ago would have been all the people who are cutting corners, and who are just in it to pump as much out as possible—I thought a lot of those people would fail, basically. And I think a lot of them did, especially with the flavor ban in Washington, and what that would have caused would be prices to come back up, and people who are helping move this industry in a better way and creating lasting and sustainable business plans—sustainable meaning "we're going to be he a while"—this was the moment to shine. But COVID-19 now has put that strain on everybody.
So what does the future look like to you now?
I would say what the future looks like is a little bit uncertain. I think people are going to continue to buy cannabis, but I think they're going to focus on value buys, what's going to last them, and it's going to be about price point because a lot of people have lost their jobs. They don't have the expendable income that they used to have to allocate to their splurge weed or their favorite products. So, you're going to see a lot of lower-priced products come on the shelves. I think it will be lower prices and maybe a little higher quality than what's on the shelf right now. And fewer of the premium products.
What has been the fallout of the vape health scare back in the fall?
The vape industry has suffered, to be honest. And that's our biggest product line. We definitely saw a decline over the past eight months or so. But we also chose to use it as an opportunity to educate people on the importance of asking good questions when you're buying products. It's all about minimizing your risk. At Heylo, we do our best to do that for you.
What do you say to people who've heard vaping is bad but they don't know much more than that?
I would say that it's more important than ever to know your source. My partner always says: "If you knowing the source of your food is important, knowing the source of your inhalables is even more important because everything is more concentrated and everything interacts with your body even more through your lungs." And so I really do believe that vaping is much safer than smoking, even though plenty of people continue to smoke. And I believe that our products are as safe as you can consume, in terms of inhalables, especially at low temperatures. I also think it's one of the safest ways to try cannabis for the first time, because edibles, for example—you don't really know your tolerance. And distillate edibles are different than whole-plant edibles. There are all these variables.
And everyone's different.
Vaping I think allows you to narrow down the variables and focus on dose control, and it doesn't last as long as an edible experience. So I think that with a lot of people being alone and having time on their hands, I do think that new users are coming into the market, and I still encourage people to try vapes, because it gives you that control. Just make sure you that you are paying attention to your sources. Coming out of the vape crisis, budtenders are hungry for knowledge because they're the ones on the front lines recommending this stuff to people.
The big thing with the health scare with vaping was about this ingredient vitamin E acitate. Has that ingredient ever been in a Heylo vape cartridge?
No, no, no. Never! And it never will be. Our vape products are 100 percent cannabis. So, yeah, that was never an issue for us. Honestly we were really grateful that the Liquor and Cannabis Board acted quickly—although not quickly enough, I would say—to start banning these foreign substances that are not necessary to creating a cannabis vape product. We use a 100 percent clean cannabis to produce our vapes.
Why do other vape producers use weird, sketchy products like that?
It usually comes down to money. Being able to dilute your product makes your margins a little bigger. But it's also about viscosity. With higher THC products—for example distillate, which is extremely popular these days—high-THC products inherently are extremely thick, and those thick products don't function in vapes unless you add some sort of thinning agent. If we were to do it, we would use cannabis-derived terpenes. Terpenes oftentimes act like solvents, or they are solvents, so they're able to bring the viscosity down, which is why natural vape products don't need to use any outside agents. But yeah, you can use cannabis-derived terpenes, but those are expensive. Or you can use botanically derived terpenes, which are from plants like citrus fruits, lavender, pine. Or you can resort to the e-cigarette world, which uses propylene glycol flavorings and synthetic agents. Vitamin E acitate mainly functioned as a dilutant and a thinning agent, and then they would add flavors as well.
You mentioned people are turning to edibles. I know Heylo doesn't make edibles, but are there any you recommend?
Well, Heylo actually supplies oil to a number of edibles companies.
So that's really great for us. Botanica Seattle makes Journeyman cookies, Spot edibles, and Mr. Moxey's Mints, so I love them. Their new mints just came out and they're lavender-flavored and so good. Botanica and the Spot and Moxey's crew—they're all just really great people and they've been in it a long time and have always been moving forward in the right way and helping progress this industry, so I'm very grateful to be a partner and supplier of theirs and cannot recommend them enough. And Wave Edibles is another one. They are relatively new and it's just incredible chocolate. And the variety! It is so good. I can't even... I couldn't have dreamed that there could be an edible this good.
What's your favorite of their chocolate?
I don't remember the names of them, but there's a peanut butter one, there's a caramel nut one, there's a toffee one... She is a third-generation chocolatier and just such an amazing woman. It was a no-brainer for them to start doing cannabis products, and they have really figured it out.
What helps you get through the day-to-day and not go crazy in self-quarantine?
Our CBG Blend!
What is that?
It is a product that we created. It has 16 percent CBG, and CBG-A is like the grandmother of all cannabinoids. CBG-A is the cannabinoid that the plant makes, and then based on the genetics of the plant and the environment, the plant releases these enzymes that convert CBG-A into the other cannabinoids, whether that's CBD-A or THC-A or THC-VA, and so some plants genetically produce more CBG-A because they don't have as much of the enzyme, or they finish later and people harvest it before it fully converts into THC. In any case, CBG mitigates most of the negative side effects of THC, and it's known as CBGiggles because it brings you so much joy.
Did I read about this in The Stranger?
Yes! We first realized that this was an important compound when we launched one of our products, called Where's My Bike, and Lester Black did a story on it. It was the first time we had seen over 3 percent CBG, and we just had an overwhelming response from the market, people saying: "This seriously helped my anxiety and depression, and made me so happy." So ever since then we've been looking and looking for products that we could extract that would have more CBG just so we could see what it did.
And have you discovered anything?
We finally came up with this magic ratio and it's about a three-to-one ratio of THC to CBG. It sells out all the time in stores because people really get benefit from it. And especially right now when you're looking for something through the winter when you have Seasonal Affective Disorder, for example. Personally I use it all the time. It's helped me quite a bit. But we've had such an overwhelming response to it, and are very, very grateful for the notes of positivity that come through our website, from people talking about how much it helps them.
It's not even Seasonal Affective Disorder—right now it's more like The World Is Ending Disorder.
Exactly. It's what you need for the apocalypse.