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Inside the Search for a Better High

Scientists are taking the guesswork out of weed by creating the best strains and extractions — just for you

designer weed

Scientists are working to eliminate paranoia and anxiety, well-known side-effects for those who smoke weed.

Illustration by Yuta Onoda for Rolling Stone

It was once simply understood that, if you smoked weed, there were good effects and there were bad. A strain for relaxation might also lead you to gorge an entire box of cookies; a variety that helped ease social anxiety for a party might leave you unable to mutter a single coherent sentence. But in the dawning new age of designer weed, that’s no longer the case.

As researchers have learned, cannabis is an incredibly complicated plant. Of the cannabinoids — chemical compounds that bond to special receptors in the human body — the most well-known are THC, which gets you high, and CBD, which can relax or alleviate pain. But there are also minor ones like THCV, which can lower your appetite, or CBN, which can aid in sleep. Increasingly, cannabis producers are also focusing on terpenes, oils that not only give off that pungent aroma but can also change how the cannabinoids affect you. “We separate the plant and then rebuild, based on what we want it to be,” says Ryan Littman, CEO of the cannabis extraction company Herbology. “We start with one specific symptom — does it make you hungry or help you sleep? — and build things up.”

At one time, making concentrates was dangerous. “People essentially had a canister and a PVC pipe and were blasting oil in their garage,” says Mehran Moghaddam, founder of cannabis-oil company Kurvana. “There’d be explosions.” Those early days have given way to advanced extraction machinery, breaking cannabis plants down by any number of methods. They can be dismantled by soaking in alcohol, or broken down into a liquid by way of multi-tentacled CO2 machines. Another method uses butane to extract by way of heat in a vacuum. These concentrates are then made into tinctures, tablets and everything in between.

And yet designer weed isn’t just made in a lab; it can also be grown. At Flowr, a cultivation company in Canada, Deron Caplan is using a 62,000-square-foot facility to grow weed to target ailments like insomnia or opioid addiction. “We have the ability to control the breeding process,” says Caplan. “We can produce it the same every time.” According to Dr. Philippe Henry of the Canadian cannabis tech company VSSL, alleviating anxiety remains one of the leading goals of designer strains. “Sometimes people have tried it and had a panic attack,” he says. “So it’s about targeting those people and saying, ‘It’s OK to smoke weed.’ ”

For entry-level users in particular, concentrates may be key. “One day you’re going to walk into a CVS and want something for pain or a hangover, and you’ll find Advil, Tylenol and one of our projects,” says Chris Emerson, CEO of the San Francisco-based company Level, which offers varying formulations of THC, CBG and other cannabinoids as quick-dissolve pills and sublingual strips. “That day is coming.”

But beyond staving off a headache, designer weed also has more serious potential to help offset effects of Alzheimer’s, diabetes or even cancer. “It’s all in its infancy, but with research, we’ll be able to call on some of these cultivars and pit them against whatever symptom of disease,” says Dr. Lyle Oberg, Flowr’s chief medical officer. Oberg feels weed’s anti-inflammatory aspects, especially once refined, could ward off or lessen the chance of seizures or help with psoriasis. “A lot of this stuff has been limited because there isn’t even testing methodology to do the studies we want to do,” says Moghaddam. “So definitely in the future, we will be a lot more specific with some of those claims — but with good science behind it.”

 

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