Why We Should View Cannabis Through A Scientific Lens

Emma Chasen talks about medical cannabis in the same level-headed (yet enthusiastic) way that my chemist parents explained the reaction between vinegar and baking soda to me growing up. Her ability to cut through the sensational aspects of cannabis use (both negative and positive) make her a powerful and clarifying voice within the ever-expanding industry — an industry that, in as little as three years, she's already been able to influence, first as a budtender and now as an educator and consultant.
Chasen recently spoke with Refinery29 about her unique path into the cannabis industry, why CBD is a "gateway" compound, and why science just might be the thing that wins over cannabis naysayers.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to start working in the cannabis industry?
"I have been fascinated with plant medicine and folk medicine from a very young age... But I didn’t come to cannabis until college. My life thus far had been pretty puritanical — I was really focused on getting into Brown, so I was very intense, for lack of a better word, and kind of swore off all substances — alcohol, weed, everything — but then I got to Brown and I saw how many brilliant people were using cannabis for a variety of different things. [One friend] in particular was studying neuroscience and was really fascinated by the way that cannabis and other psychotropic substances influenced neural pathways. She was super brilliant and a huge cannabis consumer herself, so she was the one who got me to be like, 'Okay, it’s not that bad.' She got me to shed that stigma. I also happened to be taking a freshmen seminar at the time called 'Botanical Roots of Modern Medicine' that just blew my mind. It was the first time that I really thought that I could study plant medicine... Luckily, I was able to devise my own curriculum in the biology program that really focused on ethnobotany and medicinal plant research. I always wanted to study cannabis formally, but never could due to legality issues. I saw cannabis as this all-star medicinal plant, so when I graduated from Brown I worked in oncology research and I really thought that could be my point of impact, where I could bring cannabis into a more scientific space and unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
"There was a brilliant professor who did propose a cannabis trial and [was] laughed out of the office. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I was like, 'This industry is not for me.' So, I quit that job, went back to New York for a minute, and was like, 'I want to go someplace where there is an opportunity to work in the holistic, integrative plant medicine field.' And then I packed up my car, drove across the country, and arrived in Portland... I got a budtending gig at Farma, a dispensary here which definitely takes a more scientific-minded approach to cannabis. Since I had formal academic training in studying plant chemistry and secondary compounds, terpenes, alkaloids, and cannabinoids, I was able to apply my knowledge and found that I was really good at budtending. I loved helping people reframe their relationship with cannabis. I ended up sticking with it. I arrived in Portland about three years ago and I’ve been in the industry ever since."
You’ve always viewed cannabis through a scientific lens, but how does that point of view change other people’s impressions of cannabis, given its recreational reputation?
"For so long, cannabis has been demonised very unfairly and there’s quite [a few] ridiculous, negative stigmas around it. I definitely fell victim to those stigmas myself for most of my young life — I really believed that if you smoked cannabis, you were stupid and lazy and all of those awful things. But at the same time, I don’t think that the pro-cannabis movement should respond with the other extreme, where it’s like, 'It’s a cure-all! It’s totally safe! It’s not addictive! It’s fine for you and it’s good for everyone!' I mean, that’s not true. We need to approach the cannabis movement with reason, with scientific evidence, because that’s the way that we get people who are still on the anti-cannabis side to join us and say, 'Okay, this is just like any other substance — it should be regulated.' As soon as you give them that kind of reasonable perspective and dialogue [with them], I've found that it’s much easier to connect with people on both sides."
One area that’s seen mainstream acceptance is CBD-related products. Why, other than the matter of legality, do you think this is where cannabis is breaking through?
"I call CBD the 'gateway' compound to cannabis. Because it is a non-intoxicant, it’s not as 'scary' as THC. While THC can’t kill you and it has a lot of great medicinal properties, it is not without negative side effects. It can cause anxiety, paranoia, elevated heart rate, and heightened self-awareness — which can be really uncomfortable for a lot of people. CBD does not cause those negative side effects. You can still get medicinal properties without experiencing any of that anxiety or paranoia. It allows [people] to feel more okay with cannabis. I think a disservice the government did when approaching cannabis is that they only ever defined cannabis by THC — when you take a drug test for weed, they’re testing your THC levels — so, for so long, cannabis was only synonymous with THC. But that’s just not true. Cannabis has a very complex phytochemistry, which is why it’s so medicinal and there are other compounds, like CBD, that may offer symptom relief that won’t get you intoxicated."
What was your work like as a budtender?
"I budtended just for a few months at Farma three years ago and then I was very quickly promoted to general manager. I won a very lovely award that named me Budtender Of The Year in Portland in 2016, but by April of 2016 I was the GM. I managed the shop and was able to devise an onboarding educational programme for the employees. After about over a year of acting as the GM, I chose to step down from that role and took on a new role for myself within Farma’s organisation: the director of education. I saw this complete lack of comprehensive education, for not only consumers but everybody else in the industry, and not have a training program for budtenders was completely inexcusable. These are the people that are acting as the direct link between the rest of the industry and the consumer market. They’re also interfacing with consumers who oftentimes have really serious medical concerns. Consumers are going to budtenders because budtenders are their one source of reliable cannabis information and if they’re not trained, then that’s a huge liability. So I got to work on a really comprehensive onboarding program for the budtending community that ended up also appealing to the consumer market and other industry professionals because it focused on the fundamentals of cannabis science as well as product knowledge and consumption information (tips on microdosing and keeping a consumption journal). The piece that applies specifically to the budtending community is client care: How do you speak to people? How do you connect with consumers in a high-level boutique customer service way? How do you make recommendations? How do you predict experiences for your consumer so that you can help people feel more comfortable integrating cannabis into their lifestyles?
"I teach those workshops in Portland frequently now. I left Farma about a year ago and since then have been working as a freelance consultant where I'll work with different brands in the industry to help them develop educational programmes that will help elevate their brand presence and connect with budtenders and consumers. I also conduct dispensary training; I also offer workshops to the community here in Portland; just trying to get the education out there in as many ways as possible for the consumer, the industry professionals, and specifically the budtender."
What do you recommend to people who aren’t familiar with using cannabis medicinally, but are interested in learning more about it?
"I’ll first ask, 'What do you want to experience from cannabis? What are you looking to achieve? Is there a certain symptom that you’d like relief from? Is there a certain cognitive experience that you want? Are there certain side effects that you really don’t want?' I try to collect as much information as possible about the experience that they are looking for because cannabis has such diverse chemistry it can give so many different types of experiences. Then I would make a recommendation based on the information that they share with me for what compound to look for. Of course, if they’re in a non-adult-use or non-medical state, then at this point they only have access to hemp-derived CBD, which could be beneficial — again, depending on why they are choosing to consume. Then it becomes more of a conversation around sourcing to make sure that you find a product that’s been extracted in such a way that it’s thought to preserve the full range of compounds so that you can get the most medically efficacious experience possible.
"But, if we are in an adult-use state and you do have access to many different types of products, then it does become a bigger conversation around cannabinoid ratios and what you’re looking for in terms of a THC-CBD percentage ratio. So we’ll talk about terpenes, the aromatic compounds found in cannabis that give products their unique smell but also correlate to certain physiological experiences, in terms of it being more sleepy or more energising. And then we will talk about dosing — how much should you take and when should you take it? My approach, when I talk to new people who are thinking about getting into cannabis, is to provide them with as much accessible and meaningful information so that they can feel empowered and safe to take charge of their own experience. Because everybody has such a unique physiology, everybody will respond differently to cannabis. What we can do is guide people and provide them with enough information so that they can experiment (or feel comfortable experimenting) to find what really works for them...
"Another thing that I recommend is to keep a consumption journal — a journal that allows you to track your experiences [using cannabis]... [That way] people can begin to track what their body likes, what works for them — and what doesn’t."
Refinery29 in no way encourages illegal activity and would like to remind its readers that cannabis is a Class B drug and illegal under UK law.

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