(This is the first of a two-part series about potency in the cannabis industry. Part 2 will deal with the role testing labs play.)
Marijuana customers around the world by and large shop based on one number: THC percentage.
Marijuana flower that doesn’t test above 20% THC often doesn’t make it on the shelf, and shoppers many times will pay a premium for flower that tests above 25% THC.
Despite the industry claiming it is educating consumers and budtenders alike on the myriad benefits of terpenes and minor cannabinoids, the majority of marijuana customers see potency as the No. 1 indicator of quality and value.
But strictly relying on THC or CBD percentages ignores many other factors that can affect a consumers’ experience, industry insiders say.
“The legal cannabis system is driving that high THC percentage and completely ignoring everything else,” said Kim Stuck, founder of cannabis consultancy Allay Consulting, which has an office in Portland, Oregon.
According to June data from Canadian cannabis retail data tracker Hifyre, “THC potency is still a top purchase consideration” in Canada, wrote Tamy Chen, an analyst with the Bank of Montreal.
This also appears to be true across the pond.
“Currently in Europe, potency is synonymous with quality,” said Nick Pateras, managing director of Materia, which has a cannabis production facility in Malta and a medical marijuana distribution license in Germany.
“There is a direct correlation between the THC percentage of a product and its sales performance.”
To solve this problem, Pateras said marijuana companies need to do a better job of explaining how quality goes beyond just THC and why other factors are important in purchasing decisions.
When Stuck walks into a marijuana retailer and asks for flower that’s, for example, 15%-20% THC, high in the terpene limonene and low in the terpene pinene, the budtender often doesn’t know what to say.
“They straight up are shocked by that,” she said.
“Most of the time, they don’t even know what terpenes are in the flower. They’ll go, ‘It’s up to 30% THC, and that’s really bomb.’
“That’s not what I’m asking for.”
She likes to roll a joint and sit on her patio for an hour and enjoy the entire experience.
She doesn’t like to do that with flower that’s 30% THC. It’s too strong.
Consumers are typically given three choices of flower when they first speak with a budtender: sativa, indica or hybrid.
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Stuck said that oversimplification is lazy marketing and doesn’t do enough to communicate what’s in the plant.
“The only thing a consumer knows is it has the highest THC, that must be the best,” she added. “Many people are still stuck in that world of the stronger the better.”
But people who are new to cannabis or don’t have much of a THC tolerance are unlikely to have a good experience if they consume too much highly potent cannabis.
“The consumer isn’t educated on any of this,” she added. “Even if they are, they walk into dispensaries and get these budtenders that don’t know what they’re doing. That’s an issue.”
Budtenders, like many retail employees, are often difficult to retain, and turnover is common in the industry.
A recent report from Seattle-based Headset, a cannabis industry data and analytics company found, that “in both the US and Canada, 55% of budtenders who worked at any point over the previous 12 months had departed by the end of that time period.”
So putting too much emphasis on them as the first line of education is a problem, Stuck said.
“We’re almost relying on our budtenders like we would a pharmacist,” she added.
It’s not just that the budtenders often aren’t educated, Stuck said.
A lot of state regulations don’t require testing for minor cannabinoids and terpenes, she noted, so the information is not available. Regulators are more concerned with health and safety.
Part of the issue: Cannabis business are reacting to what their customers want.
That’s according to Kyle Sherman, CEO of Denver-based Flowhub, a cannabis software company serving marijuana retailers.
“The industry reacts to consumer demand,” Sherman said. “Up until recently, consumers assumed that higher THC percentages meant they would get a more full experience out of the product.”
Tracking consumer purchasing data shows that higher potency products are more attractive to consumers, so growers try to produce more of that.
“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Sherman said.
In reality, what leads to a good experience is much more sophisticated than just high potency, he added.
As a consumer himself, Sherman said he prefers smoking flower with a relatively lower THC potency and a higher terpene profile.
“You get a really rich, comfortable, non-paranoid high,” he said. “That’s amazing.”
Sherman was recently visiting retail clients in Portland, Oregon, and said some offer very clear labeling with terpene percentages along with data on THC and CBD potency.
“So you can look at that and say, ‘I want the 4% terps with 17% THC and 2% CBD,'” he said. “That’s going to be an interesting high.”
Sherman said his clients in Colorado don’t offer much more than the strain name and THC percentage.
“I think what’s happened in this particular market in Oregon is that you just have more discerning buyers that actually care about flower,” he added.
The edibles perspective
At infused cannabis product maker Cheeba Chews, Chief Marketing Officer Eric Leslie said the Denver-based company is trying to diversify its products to use the entourage effect – in other words, the experience generated by different cannabinoids working in concert with other cannabinoids and terpenes.
“THC potency is not the solution,” he said. “It’s not the only thing to look for based off of what experience you’re expecting.
“You should really be looking at the combination of terpenes, flavonoids and cannabinoids.”
Leslie said his company’s goal is to help consumers recognize how these different components affect them.
“So they no longer have to look for, ‘What’s the highest-potency THC?'” he added. “They’re looking for more complexity from their flower and their extracts as well.”
To increase the entourage effect, Cheeba Chews adds cannabinoids such as CBN or CBG to formulations beyond just using THC distillate. The company also uses full-spectrum oil in some of its products.
“Having a better understanding of what the cannabinoid does for you – and conditioning consumers to look for those versus just potency – helps retrain expectations of what they’re going to get from the flower, the oil or the edible,” he said.
Leslie has seen a shift in what consumers want as their tastes become more sophisticated and mature. To cater to that, some products that are made with live rosin include a full terpene profile on the label.
“So you understand the flavor and effects from that edible specifically and how you can closely connect that to what the terpene profile is,” he added.
“We’re trying to help that process by introducing it into our packaging and the way we display our products. So it becomes more normalized for the consumers.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.