Extracted Episode 16: Science, Strains & CBD with Nick Jikomes

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Season One of Extracted comes to an end as we welcome Nick Jikomes, Leafly’s Principal Research Scientist. Nick holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Harvard University and a B.S. in Genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been a professional cannabis researcher and data scientist since 2016. Needless to say, Nick is a living legend in the cannabis industry and we were fortunate to get his perspective on the podcast.

In this two-part episode, we start with some science as Nick takes us on a tour through the endocannabinoid system. Then it’s time to take a closer look at the industry’s system for strain classification. Nick explores the shortcomings of the current indica vs sativa system and provides a glimpse into how Leafly plans to classify strains in the near future. Finally, Nick sheds light on the CBD craze and the importance of analytical testing. Let’s dive into it!


Inside the endocannabinoid system.

We’ve touched on the endocannabinoid system in previous episodes, but there’s nothing like hearing it from someone with Nick’s expertise. As Nick explains, the endocannabinoid system is a major receptor system in the body. The sets of receptors are located on various cell types throughout the body including brain cells, immune cells, skin cells, and others. The system is also made up of enzymes and compounds that act on those receptors.

Nick goes on to say that endocannabinoids are compounds naturally present in our bodies that activate or interact with endocannabinoid receptors. He says the critical function the endocannabinoid serves is to maintain homeostasis – the concept that your body is trying to keep things (including neurons firing in the brain) at a certain level. When we consume cannabis, the cannabinoids (THC and CBD) interact with and activate the receptors in this system, resulting in a range of effects.

“The endocannabinoid system is critical for maintaining that balance. That’s why cannabis can influence so many things in terms of behaviour and potential health outcomes.”

As we know, everyone’s endocannabinoid system is unique, and therefore maintaining this level of homeostasis is influenced by a number of factors for each individual.

“The effects of cannabis are really not one-size-fits-all.”


Strain classification: where we are today.

From inside the body to the chemical makeup of the plant itself, we switch gears to discuss the way strains are currently classified. Right now the Leafly brand along with many retailers are built around the indica, sativa, hybrid system. Most people associate sativa strains with being energizing, and indica strains with being relaxing. In Nick’s view, this system was the result of prohibition, where all we could rely on was “word of mouth and direct anecdotal experience.”

Nick indicates that because there are obvious physical and aromatic differences between indica and sativa strains, people thought these differences correlated with how these strains make them feel. Nick and Leafly have been aiming to find out whether that’s actually true.


Two big questions.

Nick notes that until now, we haven’t been able to conduct the kind of scientific research “that a plant like this deserves.” To discover the best way to group different strains according to their chemical composition, Nick says it starts with two questions:

  1. Are there strains that are significantly chemically different such that it’s plausible that those types of differences are actually out there?
  2. If those chemical differences exist, do they actually map on to the categories we’ve been using in the industry?

Nick says that these questions need to be answered at both levels. And that’s exactly what he’s been working on at Leafly.


The answer goes beyond indica and sativa.

Leafly has millions of users providing them with anecdotal data, and now they also have data from cannabis testing labs in legal markets. Looking at the cannabinoid and terpene profiles from this data and comparing them across indica and sativa flower samples, Nick says that they did not find clear differences.

“There is by and large not obvious differences between the cannabinoid and terpene profiles that we see in commercial cannabis between flower products as they’re labeled indica or sativa.”

Nick understands that uprooting the current indica/sativa classification that everyone knows will certainly take some getting used to. But he is excited for the potential to provide people with a classification system that is backed by this new scientific data.

“One thing that cannabis consumers and the cannabis industry are going to have to be prepared for is that many of the things we thought we knew in the past might not hold up in the future.”


Strain classification: where it’s heading.

So what does the future strain classification system look like? Nick says Leafly is working on a new system of organization that factors in the distinct ratios of THC to CBD based on the genetics of the strain. On a high level, there are THC dominant strains, CBD dominant strains, and balanced strains. Nick believes this is a great start because “strains in each of those groups will have very different effects.” However, he says consumers need more precise information such as cannabinoid and terpene profiles to communicate some of the “more nuanced effects” that a strain might have.

Leafly’s new visual system aims to make it very easy for people to understand the chemical differences of different strains at a glance. The new intuitive system will feature high order classes and subclasses. As Nick says, “you don’t need to be a scientist” to understand it. Beyond making consumer’s lives easier, Nick hopes the new system will fundamentally change consumer behaviour.


The importance of accurate data.

To map out the strains in this new classification system, Nick and Leafly are relying on reliable data from cannabis testing labs. One issue the industry faces, according to Nick, is the inconsistencies between lab results. He indicates that some labs are encouraged to perform “quick and sloppy work and incentivized to report certain results.”

Nick believes the root of this lies in consumer purchasing patterns. Many consumers want to get the most THC for their buck and this puts pressure on growers and retailers to grow and sell high THC strains. In turn, this encourages some labs to produce favorable results.

“We have to figure out how to change consumer purchasing patterns in a way that doesn’t incentivize bad behaviour.”

At Valens Labs, we take testing and reporting very seriously. Backed by Thermo Fisher Scientific, our globally recognized standards and methodologies ensure you’re getting accurate data you can trust.


CBD myths and facts.

To conclude the episode, we get into an in-depth discussion with Nick about CBD. First a quick refresher on CBD and how it interacts with the body. Nick mentions that “CBD affects the body in a very different way than THC does.” He elaborates that while THC activates the CB1 receptor, CBD interacts with the CB1 receptor. “If you take a balanced product with THC and CBD for example,” Nick explains, “some of that CBD is going to stick to the CB1 receptor and it’s going to make it much more difficult for THC to stick to that receptor and activate it.”

“(CBD) affects many different receptor systems in the brain and body and that’s probably why it seems to have this wide range of potential applications.”

Nick reiterates what we know about CBD so far, which is that evidence has shown it can be beneficial for things like childhood epilepsy and treating anxiety at the right doses. Nick is quick to note though that the clinical studies that support this evidence “are all using pure CBD and at extremely high doses.” Nick says clinical trials can use hundreds, if not thousands, of milligrams of pure CBD – a stark contrast to a 10mg CBD gummy bear. What’s more, Nick says many products don’t have the levels of CBD that they’re advertising, which again connects back to the issue of reliable lab verification.

“The amount of CBD that people are consuming when they purchase legal cannabis or CBD-containing products is probably nowhere near the levels that they’re using in those clinical trials.”

With the recent $9 million donation to Harvard and MIT for cannabis research, Nick weighs in on how he hopes those research funds are put to use. First and foremost, he hopes any clinical trials involve more realistic doses.

“I want to see more research being done using cannabis products that more closely resemble what people are actually using out in the real world.”


The path to cognitive liberty.

Throughout the entire first season of Extracted, we asked every guest what cannabis means to them on a personal level. As you can imagine, we heard an array of inspiring and enlightening answers. So what does it represent for Nick, someone deeply rooted in cannabis and the way it impacts the mind? Nick says the most fundamental thing it means to him is around the idea of “cognitive liberty,” and the “freedom to perturb your own experience.” Cannabis for Nick, as it has been for all our guests this season, is more than it seems on the surface. We can’t wait to hear more illuminating answers if Season 2 becomes a reality. Stay tuned.

“Everyone has the right to alter their own conscious experience. And cannabis and plant medicines have an amazing ability to do that.”


To get the full story, listen to the full episode.