Canada’s legal cannabis market grew a whopping 118% in 2020 and is expected to grow another 60% this year, according to market research firm, Brightfield Group.
This explosive rise in popularity, fueled by Ottawa’s 2018 legalization, makes it both a frustrating and exciting time to be a chemist in the cannabis industry.
The frustrating part? “There’s currently no standardized testing method for measuring the potency of the dried flower’s most popular cannabinoids – THC and CBD,” says Max Alsayar, director of regulatory enforcement for Canadian cannabis producer, HEXO Corporation. “Even though all labs used validated methods, there remains some variability where one lab will tell you the dried flower has 18% THC and another will tell you it’s 15%.”
The excitement is the other side of that coin – the opportunity for chemists to come together to create a global standardized testing method for a wildly popular product.
Alsayar is one of four panelists featured at the September 23rd CIC Talks Careers: Cannabis Industry Mentors. Along with Angelica Velasquez Gordon, HEXO’s commercialization manager (formerly extractions manager at High Park Company), Mehdi Haghdoost, senior organic chemist at Smith Falls, Ont-based Canopy Growth, and Aziz Chraibi, president, PBE- Expert, Alsayar will highlight the multiple career paths for chemical sciences and engineering professionals.
Velasquez Gordon says there is opportunity for getting more out of the plant, like the cane sugar industry does when it converts waste into ethanol. Currently, cannabis plant waste is deactivated and discarded.
“Cannabinoids aren’t fully extracted. We get maybe 70% potency in the oil,” she says. “We give up too quickly.”
Another significant opportunity for chemists stems from the industry’s laser focus on just two cannabinoids, THC and CBD, to the exclusion of the plant’s other chemicals, says Haghdoost. These include terpenes, flavonoids, alkaloids and lipids – all of which can affect human health.
“We are missing things about this plant that has a very, very sophisticated chemistry,” says Haghdoost. “While it has been consumed for 2500 years and it’s safe, we are producing more potent material now.”
But both industry and government are starting to talk about these issues, and Haghdoost says it’s just a matter of time before chemists can tackle the science needed to resolve them.
However, it will require changing the current regulatory environment around studying the plant, say Haghdoost and Chraibi. Right now, it’s hard for researchers to get licenses to study the plant – a hangover from when cannabis was a controlled substance.
“I believe this will happen in the future. But right now, it’s not optimal,” says Haghdoost.