Question the Cannasseur: Cannabis and Placebo

cannabis leaf in hand

What an incredible week for cannabis! Now, I don't know about you, but my entire newsfeed was about Canada. Our neighbors to the North flipped the switch, and legalized cannabis for all Canadians over the age of 18, and social media tried to break the internet by spreading the good news.

Meanwhile, a new Forbes headline suggests results from a new study out of Canada shows cannabis strains really aren't that different and contain nearly identical levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). This article prompted a question from a Quora user this week:

“Does that Mean that Cannabis Dealers are Exploiting Placebo Effect in the Mind of the Consumer? Or Does this Mean this Research is Wrong?”

Actually, the answer to both these questions is "No." Cannabis producers (dealers in the black market) are not exploiting the placebo effect; and after reading the original research, which was published in August, my opinion is the study isn't that it’s wrong, it’s just under-developed.

First, the headline on this article is misleading because the study doesn't actually say the THC and CBD were identical between strains, it merely states in this study, the THC content was similar between indica and sativa variations, which is something the cannabis industry has known for quite some time. The sedative effects of indica and the cerebral, energetic effects of sativa are not created by THC alone.

cannabis label
Rendering by Kristina Etter
Furthermore, the study only targeted THC and CBD cannabinoids. There are hundreds of other compounds found in the cannabis plant including, major and minor cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and alkaloids. With that in mind, I want to point out one statement in the study that didn't make into the Forbes article, under the heading "Untargeted Metabolics,"

"Unknown cannabinoids were quantified as THC equivalents using the THC calibration curves."

If counting all other cannabinoids as THC, these statistics are severely flawed.

Finally, researchers only tested 33 strains purchased from just five legal dispensaries. In my experience, cannabis grown by the same grower is usually reasonably similar because the strains are typically cultivated in the same environmental conditions. Why not test 100 strains from 33 different growers – from different regions to get an accurate cross-section of variables?

The Entourage Effect

Ask any cannabis connoisseur, they know THC, and CBD content alone does not indicate the effects of cannabis or hemp. Now, science is getting closer to proving it. More recently, in a study published last month, a team from the Department of Biology, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, released more comprehensive research on cannabis profiles. The research shows the importance of accurate cannabis profiling for dosing and effect consistency.

Also using just 35 strains, the researchers used high-tech chromatography methods to separate and identify all the compounds in the samples they tested. Results showed the cannabis sativa plant has more than 500 chemical compounds with more than 100 identified cannabinoids in 11 different classifications. In fact, the study states,

"As shown, no two Cannabis samples had the same phytocannabinoid profile. According to this histogram, the concentrations of most pairs of samples differed by more than 71% of the phytocannabinoid components."

This study indicates the importance of accurate and completely cannabis profile testing in the legal market. As we learn how the different compounds interact with each other, we can start to manipulate the effects for the desired outcome or even for targeted disease treatments.

Cannabis and the Placebo Effect

Now, I want to take a moment to touch on this terminology. While “placebo effect” may be a bit extreme, cannabis effects can be altered by the power of suggestion. The mind is a powerful thing. Just as your environment can play a role, your mindset when you consume cannabis can make a difference in how you feel the overall effects. If someone tells you a horror story of the panic attack he or she had while smoking Durban Poison, you will likely subconsciously expect anxiety when you smoke it, and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, you probably will experience it, too.

As research continues, logic suggests there will come a day when we no longer buy a strain based on its names, like Blue Dream or Golden Goat, but by a "Nutrients Label" which breaks down the entire cannabinoid and terpene content. By showing consumers the full profile, eventually, we can determine the constituents of particular cannabis effects and start to pinpoint a therapy plan.

Finally, both of these studies prove one thing – we have so much left to learn about the cannabis plant, the compounds it contains, and the effects they have on the human body. As Canada plows forward with legalization, we can only assume the move will push research into overdrive. In the meantime, lawmakers in the United States may want to take heed, Canada's jump on legalization has the potential to leave U.S. enterprise crippled as we try to catch up.