To Keep New Customers Coming Back, the Cannabis Industry Has to Perfect Dosing
For someone new to cannabis, a Day Dreamers peppermint chocolate bar looks like a delicious entry point. It’s divided into six bite-size pieces, and its wrapping promises: “Improving your everyday.” What could go wrong?
Maybe this: Just one of those little squares contains 60 times the THC recommended for a new consumer -- and although the bar’s fine print says that it’s for people with high tolerance, that’s an easy message to miss. If a newbie eats the whole thing, they’ll take in 360 times the suggested inaugural amount.
This is a classic example of why dosing -- that is, matching the right THC levels to an individual user’s needs -- is the cannabis business’s next frontier. As the industry matures, customers increasingly want to know exactly what they’re getting and specifically how it will make them feel. To deliver on that, the industry will need to make changes throughout the supply chain, from inaccuracy among labs and labels to lack of customer guidance at the retail level.
Why It Matters
Cannabis is tricky. The right dose induces relaxation or provides a mellow high. The wrong dose can result in anxiety, dizziness, vomiting, and a bad first impression that can be costly to the industry. Anyone who ends up uncomfortably high for eight hours after their first cannabis-infused chocolate probably won’t be eager to try it again, nor will they recommend the product to their friends and family.
But it’s hard to know how much someone should consume. Intuitively, you’d think that gender and body fat would play a role (smaller women needing smaller doses), but that’s not the case. “Everyone has a unique endocannabinoid system and will respond to cannabis differently,” says Patricia Frye, M.D., chief medical officer at HelloMD, which offers online doctor consultations to those seeking cannabis remedies. Jeff Chen, M.D., executive director at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, agrees. “No one knows what dose is right because people have different tolerances,” he says. The only way to find out: “Start low and go slow.”
Edibles complicate things further. One of the most common problems faced by newbies is cannabis’s delayed effects when eaten. According to the nonprofit research organization RTI International, inhaled (i.e. smoked or vaped) cannabis takes effect almost immediately, hits peak impact in about 20 minutes, and tapers off within two to three hours. But ingested cannabis can take as long as two hours to even be felt, with the “high” not peaking sometimes until four hours later. Inexperienced consumers may continue eating a bar or brownie when they don’t feel anything. To add insult to injury, when the full effects finally hit, any adverse symptoms last longer than if the same dose had been smoked or vaped.
Where the Gaps Are
Even if consumers know exactly the dose they need, they can get tripped up by the packaging. Because cannabis is still illegal at the national level, there is no federal oversight ensuring quality control or content accuracy, and no universal standards on testing. The result? The labels can be wrong. How often this happens is unclear. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers bought 84 hemp-based CBD products online to get a sense. After triple testing, they found that more than half the labels were inaccurate -- 43 percent of the products contained more CBD than they claimed, and 26 percent had less. The FDA, too, has tested a number of products with CBD and found claims to be inaccurate. And researchers have turned up similar errors with THC in medical marijuana.
One reason for the accuracy gap is testing. Without standardization, results from labs that certify concentrations of CBD and THC in products can vary from one facility to the next. In a 2018 study published in the journal Nature, scientists from Harvard University and Leafly’s data science division analyzed reports from the six biggest testing labs in Washington State and found clear, systematic differences in results, with some of the facilities consistently reporting higher or lower levels of cannabinoids than others. The discrepancies were, in part, due to labs’ use of different methodologies, which is problematic in itself. But there was also evidence of “cannabinoid inflation” -- intentionally faking higher amounts of THC and CBD (which producers know will bring in more money per gram of flower) in an effort to attract business. “Cannabinoid inflation is a well-known phenomenon in the industry,” says researcher Nick Jikomes, Ph.D. “Our study was limited to Washington labs, but this is a widespread problem. We have looked at data from dozens of labs across North America, and unfortunately, the majority seem to produce results that are concerning.”
The lack of accuracy and consistency not only makes it hard for consumers to judge how much cannabis they are ingesting; it’s also a problem for companies trying to do the right thing. How do you build brand loyalty if you’re promising an invigorating, “cerebral” high, but the actual dose puts people to sleep?
What Can You Do?
For entrepreneurs joining the Green Rush, there is ample opportunity to innovate within the testing sector and help brands eager to build customer trust. For companies that depend on the labs, Leafly has begun working with select facilities, whose data they have scrutinized and vetted. Meanwhile, budtenders and sales professionals are in a perfect position to educate consumers on all these issues, explaining the uncertainties of the industry and guiding first-timers.
And everyone in the industry can keep in mind that delivering the right dose is not only good for customers but also great for business.