The Era of 'Fast-Food Cannabis' Is Here

Columns - Growing Pains

Tempted by processed, artificially flavored products, we enter the fast-food era of the corporate cannabis industry. Columnists Mojave Richmond and Robert C. Clarke ask, where do we go next?

Rolling Stones | Adobe Stock; Azure-Dragon | iStockphoto

As humans enter the latest phase of our lengthy relationship with Cannabis, we are offered a unique opportunity to pause, reflect and take a deeper look at the benefits offered by this truly wondrous plant. Rekindling our relationship with an ancient ally, we can explore many possibilities ranging from restoring ecological balance through sustainable use of resources, to the more intimate roles cannabis plays in the balance of mind and body.

Opportunities for fitting cannabis into our daily lives are seemingly endless. From myriad smokables and edibles to the mind-numbing possibilities of topicals, suppositories and even cannabinoid-infused sports bras, there are more products on the market today than we could possibly have imagined just a decade ago. Tempted by cannabinoid-laced hamburgers and soft drinks, we have entered the fast-food era of the corporate cannabis industry. Where will we go from here? What guidance should we seek from our venerable friend?

Marketing and Consumer Awareness

As the hand of free enterprise steadily pilots the ship of commerce, educating consumers can be challenging. Although people are increasingly aware of the health risks associated with readily available junk foods and beverages, we remain susceptible to convenience, aggressive marketing tactics and impulse purchases. Consumers in the relatively new cannabis market are offered a plethora of choices, but often encounter a dearth of product information and marketing messages. With new regulations comes packaging and labeling guidelines as well as sales restrictions. Budtenders in many states, even before COVID-19 precautions changed our way of doing business, can no longer let customers “smell the jar.” The only links between the sealed package of flowers and the potential buyer are the product’s brand name—possibly that of a popular cultivar—and its potency (THC percentage). More often than not, little else is provided to inform consumer decisions. The brevity of product labeling belies the complexities of the flowers within.

Sinsemilla marketing is based largely on THC percentage, a number with little bearing on the quality of experience. The potency of dry flowers available in California dispensaries ranges from 5% up to the favorites of 20% to 30% THC. Extracts and concentrates can reach 80% active ingredients, and even pure THC and CBD are available. Although edibles and vapes continue to gain market share, dry flower sales continue to dominate. By comparison, alcoholic beverages range in potency from almost alcohol-free to nearly pure ethanol, and there is an acceptable potency for each consumer; but in most cases, marketing is not based on potency. Excise taxes are determined in part by ethanol content, and this is likely where legislation will arrive with cannabis products. But for consumers, is the most important factor really the price per milligram of THC?

Differing forces exert selective pressures on the evolution of modern sinsemilla. Solid “nugs” that could be easily weighed into small plastic bags became the prohibition era standard that persists today. Buyers passed over flowers that lacked bag appeal, and varieties with less dense yet otherwise wonderful flowers with unique effects died by the wayside. Prohibition influenced cannabis culture and the plant itself, but consumers exert an even greater power.

A marketing trend back in fashion is the appeal of dynamic colorful varieties with strong hues of red, purple, pink and orange contrasting with lavender blue to neon yellow-green. Heirloom varieties like Panama Red, Acapulco Gold and Purple Haze enjoyed the limelight in the past, and even today they inspire wonderous colorful imagery that only adds to their legendary appeal. Purple varieties have experienced cyclical trends where they become desirable for a few years and then fall out of favor. In the past, a common misconception that the flower’s stigmas were psychoactive led to the proliferation of “hairy” varieties with orange, pink, magenta and red stigmas, making them more visually appealing and therefore easier to sell. Today’s cannabis purveyors often talk up the appeal of colorful flowers. However, no clear relationship exists between a flower’s color and its potency, aroma or effects. In truth, the majority of highly potent and flavorful cannabis is best characterized as simply a shade of green. But colors are cool, and colorful cannabis commands higher prices.

Smells Great and Tastes Even Better!

In addition to the psychoactive and medicinally effective cannabinoids, Cannabis flowers contain dozens of different terpene compounds, each with its own unique fragrances and flavors. The potency of sinsemilla results largely from its THC content, while the complexity of effects results from variations in the aromatic terpene profiles. Cannabis’ closest botanical cousin is Humulus, the source of brewing hops. As we wrote in the February 2020 issue of Cannabis Business Times, like sinsemilla, seedless female hop cones are also rich in terpenes. The increasing availability of newly developed hop cultivars with strong terpene aromas and tastes drives the cutting-edge brewing of hop-forward beers. (Editor’s note: For more on this topic, read “Cannabis and Hops: Understanding the Convergence of Beer and Buds.")

Recently, we have experienced the proliferation of Cannabis cultivars named after sweet candies, desserts and beverages. Consumers are amazed by the constant parade of diverse flower and fruit aromas and relish the mouth-watering experience. Modern products like candy-based edibles and vape pens, with their sweet aromas and flavors, are often artificially enhanced by off-the-shelf terpenes. Sweet and artificially flavored are also two defining characteristics of highly processed convenience foods. Even as awareness and appreciation of healthier alternatives gain traction, cake and ice cream will always be with us, and so will be sweet dessert cannabis cultivars. Some bonds are just too strong to break.

So why do we like sweet smells? In actuality, “sweet” does not have a smell. We generally smell food before we consume it, and if what we smell is familiar, we make an association with a particular flavor. Studies have shown that various aromas experienced along with sucrose creates a connection linking the aroma to the taste in our brains, so the next time we encounter that particular aroma we automatically associate it with sweetness. The same goes for aromas when sampled with citric acid and associated with sourness. So, when we smell a cannabis cultivar with an aromatic profile that hints of desserts, does it stimulate our brain to anticipate a high calorie reward? And does our pleasurable response impact the shape of the effects associated with that particular cultivar?

One thing is certain: The yummy aromas of modern cannabis are truly amazing. They can be so complex that it proves challenging to even describe them—from tropical to temperate fruits and flowers both common and exotic, through incense, cheeses, herbs and spices, to far beyond the limits of familiar fragrances. Cannabis aromas possess the power to access and stimulate our associations with products and can form very strong consumer bonds, creating excellent marketing opportunities to develop brands based upon particular aromatic profiles. People are increasingly aware of what they consume, and “terpene” has become a major buzz word as more buyers demand to know what their sinsemilla contains.

Production Demands

There is a growing disparity between what farmers consider to be agronomically desirable Cannabis varieties they might choose to grow, and what the market dictates.

Growers are challenged by the commercial market. Modern sweet dessert cultivars can be tricky to grow and are often the bane of commercial cannabis producers. The market demands them, but they often require more infrastructure, agricultural inputs and labor. As a result, they are more expensive to grow, which then raises retail prices. Farmers want to make a predictable profit and avoid taking chances, and they would prefer to grow varieties with an established market value that are also relatively simple to grow. But many of these “grower-friendly” cultivars command lower farmgate prices, and they have fallen from grace in recent years.

As a result of the agronomic constraints imposed by prohibition, most modern cannabis cultivars were selected for higher flower yield, shorter flowering time and increased potency. Favorable plants were vegetatively reproduced and the cuttings distributed far and wide. The diversity of sexually reproduced seeds gave way to the evolutionary stagnation of cloning. In the breakneck race toward economically viable varieties, valuable agronomic characteristics and therapeutic effects were sacrificed in favor of those traits deemed more economically important.

Commoditizing Convenience and Choice

Fresh Cannabis flowers contain a full spectrum of everything the plant has to offer. They must be carefully harvested and dried, or they will lose much of their aromatic potential as the highly volatile terpenes evaporate. Adequate time and space are required to properly dry flowers, and they must be trimmed of leaves before packaging, which requires additional labor. Crops are increasingly extracted without drying and trimming to produce cannabinoid- and terpene-rich essential oils. When processors take the time to slowly make “full spectrum” concentrates and extracts at low temperatures, they preserve as much as possible of each constituent, but solvent extractions are often performed quickly at higher temperatures that alter the cannabinoids and purge the products of their valuable aromatic terpene content. Still, highly processed and vapid extracts are preferred by manufacturers as vape pen fillers.

It is natural to expect that the cannabis market will evolve along a trajectory similar to other agricultural commodities, whether livestock or food crops or flowers. First, a mature and stable market is established, then new cultivars are developed that suit the changing needs of that market, and eventually new products are launched from them. But market demand doesn’t always pilot the ship in a favorable direction. Consumer disinterest can impact every aspect of the supply chain from farm to home, leading to a lack of cultivar and product diversity. The fewer choices a consumer faces, the easier it is to make a quick decision. Some dispensaries serve as cannabis convenience outlets, and convenience stores attempt to make purchases as simple as possible by reducing choices while also raising prices. Is this the road cannabis marketing and sales will follow?

Cannabis is such a fresh actor in the commercial theater, and so much more potential is yet to be realized. Economic forces should not be the sole influencers of which cultivars are grown and what products will be developed. We should be asking ourselves which cultivars produce the most desirable outcomes.

Consumers of legal cannabis are a recently established and therefore relatively naïve customer base. Relying on them for market direction before their knowledge increases and tastes mature would be like asking our children what to serve for dinner. Their selections might not meet the dietary requirements of their growing bodies, nor satisfy parental consciences. It is difficult to remember the obvious values of nutritious foods when we are focused on sweet treats. Presently it is up to the many switched-on breeders, nurseries, boutique growers and family operations to make a difference in the market by providing new varieties and testing consumer response. Smaller businesses are well poised to explore and make discoveries by marketing something unique, capitalizing on the differences between their offerings and the competition’s. Once aware of the diversity of choice, consumers can better decide for themselves which products to buy.

Mojave Richmond is the developer of many award-winning varieties such as S.A.G.E., which served as a springboard for creating many notable cultivars. Richmond is a founding member of the international consulting company BioAgronomics Group.

Robert C. Clarke is a freelance writer, photographer, ethnobotanist, plant breeder, textile collector and co-founder of BioAgronomics Group Consultants, specializing in smoothing the transition to a wholly legal and normalized cannabis market.