Curious About Cannabis: A Scientific Introduction to a Controversial Plant Meet the Author: Jason Wilson, MS
To start off, why not tell our readers a bit about this book, Curious About Cannabis and what they can expect? Well, the book was primarily written to be an introductory textbook about Cannabis and cannabinoid science. It covers a wide variety of topics. The beginning of the book explores topics like understanding colloquial terms commonly used to describe Cannabis and Cannabis products, how Cannabis varieties are categorized, how the plant is cultivated and propagated, environmental concerns related to Cannabis cultivation – that sort of thing.
Then the book goes on to explore the biochemistry of the plant, looking at the various cannabinoids, terpenoids, and other chemical constituents present in the plant before segueing to information about Cannabis extraction techniques and technologies. It also explores current clinical applications of Cannabis and cannabinoids while also diving into details about the endocannabinoid system. In this section, I also presented an overview of the health risks and common side effects associated with Cannabis and cannabinoids. In the next edition, I plan to also add information about the health risks and common side effects associated with the consumption of terpenoids - as I recognize that is an often overlooked topic and terpenes are a real hot topic in the Cannabis industry right now.
The last part of the book explores the world of Cannabis testing, how to evaluate Cannabis labs, how Cannabis labs determine how accurate they are, how to read a lab report, and how to handle disputing erroneous results with Cannabis labs – which I don’t think has ever been covered in a book about Cannabis. I explain how to convert Cannabis potency results so that anyone can understand how many milligrams of THC or CBD they may be consuming. Finally, the book closes with explaining to readers how to find Cannabis research articles, how to interpret technical research papers, and what the future of Cannabis research may hold for the next several years.
The book contains activities, quizzes, puzzles, and other interactive elements that I had used in some of my previous educational work, which I think is relatively unique to a book about Cannabis. I also feel that one of the most valuable parts about the book are all of the hundreds of citations and references contained throughout the book that help connect the reader with primary sources so that anyone can do their own research and come to their own conclusions about the data that is currently available about this plant.
Could you share with the readers a bit about your academic and professional background? Sure. I am originally from Mississippi. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Mississippi where I initially got a degree in Philosophy with a Psychology minor graduating as a member of the Classics honor society, Eta Sigma Phi. I remained at the University after graduating, working for the IT department. Through my IT work, I had the chance to interface with several of the natural products laboratories on campus, including the National Center for Natural Products Research and the NIDA Cannabis Research and Development Laboratory.
That’s the United States’ federal Cannabis lab? Correct.
What did you do at the Cannabis lab there? Mostly I helped the researchers there with technological issues related to their analytical instrumentation. Myself and a few other of my colleagues had become the primary go-to people that some of the researchers there would call when they had IT issues, so over time I ended up spending a lot of hours in that lab. One of the benefits of IT work is you spend a lot of time waiting for computers and machines to run various processes, so during those wait times, I would try to get to know the researchers, learn about what they were studying – that sort of thing. I learned quite a lot and it fed my early interest in natural products research.
Can you describe the Cannabis lab at the University of Mississippi? It was – is - located along the outskirts of campus. Funny enough, my first apartment was in a complex that was located right next to the outdoor Cannabis cultivation fields. There were, and I’m sure still are, little white guard towers along the perimeter of the outdoor cultivation area to monitor for trespassers. You can actually see one of these guard towers on the cover of the AHP's monograph on Cannabis inflorescence.
I remember that they had an interesting machine that they had developed to process harvested Cannabis. I don’t know if I remember it well enough to explain it in such a way as to do it justice, but it was an elaborate device that would automatically grind, sift, and sort large amounts of Cannabis material so that it was ready for whatever they would be using it for. It was impressive at the time, but that was nearly a decade ago.
When entering the facility, a very nice lady would typically greet you at the check-in window and make sure that you signed in properly before letting you into the facility. If I remember correctly, the facility was sort of a big ring of offices and labs that all sort of wrapped around these large storage vaults that were in the middle of the facility. I primarily spent my time in the R&D lab, there. Part of the facility was an indoor cultivation site as well, where they would grow different varieties of Cannabis for their research projects.
Did you ever have a chance to sneak a peek inside the vaults? I did, actually – at least I got to see inside one of them. I cannot stress enough how nice everyone was that worked there. I think they were very pleased to have the opportunity to show someone else what they were doing, especially to someone that appreciated the science of it all. The vault that I had a chance to see contained a lot of boxes stacked along the walls to the ceiling that contained seized Cannabis materials sent to them from the DEA. They told me stories about how, in the early days of their work, the DEA would send them whatever they confiscated in the original containers, so they would literally receive briefcases of Cannabis confiscated from airports or whatever else they came across.
I remember that they showed me a metal tin full of a Cannabis extract, which was the very first time I had ever seen a Cannabis extract. I was told that it contained around 55% THC and that blew my mind. Little did I know that eventually I would come to Oregon and see extracts that were 70 or 80% THC or more.
So is that when you decided you wanted to work with Cannabis, professionally? No. I thought those experiences at the NIDA lab were very valuable and interesting, but I didn’t really have any notion at the time that I wanted to work with Cannabis, or even in a lab. At the time I was very focused on finding a way to work outside – somewhat of the antithesis to lab work. I had a friend in the USDA that I would speak with frequently that kept urging me to go on to get a PhD and pursue a line of work in the natural products industry. I took that recommendation very seriously, but I really had no clue what I wanted to do.
I ended up enrolling in the University again as a non-degree seeking student and began reaching out to upper level Biology and Chemistry professors to see if I could get enrolled in classes without being a Biology or Chemistry degree seeking student. I found that a lot of professors were very happy to accept me in their classes, just because of my enthusiasm to learn, so steadily I began piecing together the equivalent of a Biology degree so that I could apply to graduate programs in the natural sciences. That took a couple of years.
How did you make your way to the West Coast? During those years working in IT at Ole Miss, I began travelling in my free time. First myself and a group of friends took a road trip to California. At the time I was frustrated because we made it all the way to Eureka, California, but we didn’t have time to go any further north, and I really wanted to see Oregon. Because of that experience, a friend and I ended up making another trip out West, focusing on exploring Oregon and Washington. I fell in love with Southern Oregon the moment that we first came over the Siskiyou Pass and descended into the Rogue Valley.
Once I got back to Mississippi I began looking for ways to move to Oregon. It was also during that time that I started dating the woman who would later become my wife. We made a road trip to the West Coast so that I could show her California and Oregon, desperately hoping that she would also want to relocate. Lucky for me, she loved Oregon as much as I did and was on board to make the move, so we began getting plans in order to make it happen.
So, I applied to Southern Oregon University’s Environmental Education Master’s program, which is essentially a combined Biology and Education graduate program. Education and science have always been two of my passions, so finding a degree program that captured both of those things, let alone in an area that I desperately wanted to move to, was perfect.
While I was in grad school, I ended up working with the Bureau of Land Management as a botanist intern for a year, studying the immense native plant diversity in the region. I had the chance to participate in various native plant research and restoration projects and produced herbarium vouchers for the BLM, Oregon State University, and even the Smithsonian Herbarium in Washington, DC. I then worked as an outdoor science educator for a bit, teaching residential and day programs throughout Southern Oregon.
Eventually I ran across an advertisement for a natural products laboratory in the area called Kenevir Research that was doing Cannabis research and testing. That seemed very interesting to me, especially given my experiences at the University of Mississippi, so I reached out to the founder and Chief Science Officer, Dr. Anthony Smith, and we got along pretty much instantly.
I helped Dr. Smith build and expand his lab, initially working as a laboratory technologist, managing analytical instruments, performing experiments, performing chemical and microbiological testing on Cannabis products, and interfacing with customers to address their questions about the Cannabis plant. I later went on to serve as the Chief Quality Officer, developing the laboratory's quality system and ultimately helping the laboratory become one of the very first accredited Cannabis testing laboratories in Oregon. Eventually we joined forces with another company, EVIO Labs, and I had the opportunity to assist in the successful accreditation of several more laboratories throughout the state. I then went on to become the Director of Operations of EVIO for a short while, overseeing the operations of their laboratories and helping to standardize processes and procedures across their lab locations.
When I first began working with Dr. Smith, we quickly recognized a need for reliable Cannabis science education in the developing Cannabis industry in Oregon and beyond, so we began hosting science seminars at SOU for several years in a row to have a chance to discuss Cannabis and health science topics with the public.
In my free time I went on to develop what would essentially be college-level Cannabis science education programs that I began teaching several times a year. It was at that point that I realized that there was not an adequate introductory Cannabis science textbook that I could use for my classes. There were pretty good intermediate and advanced textbooks available, but I just could not find a decent comprehensive introductory survey of Cannabis science topics.
So you wrote your own? So, I wrote my own. Exactly.
At the time, I didn’t really have a sense that what I was working on would turn into this three year project that would result in a published book. I just kept reading the available scientific research literature, writing what I needed and drawing from what resources I had that I trusted, and kept building this body of text that just kept growing and growing. Eventually I got very busy with work and let the book fall by the wayside for a bit.
In the late Summer/Fall of 2017, my grandfather passed away, which affected me profoundly and really shifted my priorities. I began focusing on self-care and re-evaluating what I wanted to do with my life. I decided to leave my job and spend some time focusing on what I wanted to do next.
It was at that point that I came back to my book idea and decided that I would regret it if I never finished it. So I began looking over all of my writing and began editing, expanding, and massaging it all into a cohesive book.
It took about six months to get it to a point that I felt comfortable sharing it with the public. And here we are. And even now, there is so much information coming out regularly about this topic that I am already recognizing things that I could better clarify or expand upon. Plus my own understanding about various Cannabis science topics is always evolving and improving. So I’m already preparing to work on a second edition based on the new research coming out, feedback I’m receiving from readers, and new and revised understandings that I’m gaining as I continue my own research.
What were your favorite topics to research and write about? One of the concepts that I was most passionate about communicating in the book was the distinction between statistical significance and clinical significance of research results, which is basically the difference between the mathematical limit at which someone can say an effect is not due to chance, versus an effect that has any therapeutic value or importance. I think this issue is hugely important in medical/health science education broadly. There is a deluge of claims out there about what effects different chemicals, herbs, medicines, what have you, have on the body – but some of these claims have not yet been shown to have therapeutic significance in humans, although they might have statistical significance in cell culture studies or animal research. This isn't just limited to herbal medicines, but also applies to pharmaceuticals as well. It is all too common for therapeutic claims to be exaggerated or presented in a misleading way, and that really bothers me.
Many – not all - of the functional claims made about things like minor cannabinoids, for instance, are based on inherently limited research which may or may not be scalable to the human physiological system. I really don’t like charts that match cannabinoids or terpenes to health effects. I feel like they are very misleading and are really contrary to the concept of the “entourage effect” which tells us that the effects compounds have when administered together often have unique effects compared to when they are administered as isolated components. In essence, the effects of a collection of chemicals are greater, or at least different, than the sum of the parts.
I feel that it is very important that we humble ourselves a bit when we talk about the potential effects of compounds, like cannabinoids and terpenes, and admit that we really don’t know as much as we would like. Like I said before, this is an issue that goes way beyond Cannabis. We, as humans, just still have a lot to learn about how pharmaceutical and natural products affect the body. And I don’t want to give anyone the impression that natural products are ineffective – because there are many that do seem to have powerful therapeutic effects with few adverse side effects, and Cannabis is one of them. But the issue is quite complicated and researchers have a responsibility to communicate these subtleties to the public and help people understand how to interpret the language used in research studies and the limitations of the results of these studies.
The second concept I was very passionate about addressing was the concept of Cannabis “strains” and indica/sativa labels. A question I get from people relatively frequently is “What strain is best for… x, y, or z”. It is important for people to realize that strain names are not reliable enough to predict a plant’s chemical profile – and it’s the chemical profile that is responsible for any therapeutic effects that a person may experience. Consumers really need to start focusing on what cannabinoids, terpenoids, and other active compounds are present in their Cannabis products, and in what ratio to each other they are present, rather than focusing on strain names or indica/sativa designations. Now I’m not saying that there aren’t chemical patterns among Cannabis varieties. Patterns are there, but they don’t necessarily fit the strain and indica/sativa models that the Cannabis industry has been using. Cannabis researcher Ethan Russo describes this issue really well in an interview that people can find freely available online entitled "The Indica Sativa Debate", or something to that effect, that I highly recommend reading.
And on another side of the issue, Cannabis testing labs need to really focus on improving methods and enhancing standards for Cannabis testing so that people can rely on the data that is being generated about Cannabis products. I am currently not confident that much of the data for Cannabis products that labs are generating are reliable or even comparable between labs, and part of that is just due to the nature of how young the Cannabis testing industry is. Even though Cannabis testing is not very different than other forms of natural products testing, it will take years for labs to optimize analytical methods for all the different types of Cannabis products being produced and the various chemical compounds present in those products.
What were your least favorite topics to research and write about? The section about Cannabis cultivation is one – simply because there are already so many good books out there about the topic by people with so much more experience growing Cannabis than I will ever have. I really tried to just present information that I didn’t often see in other Cannabis cultivation texts and let readers know about the great books that have been on the market for years about those topics. I did my best to leave the cultivation piece to the many experts that have been in the industry for decades.
In addition, I found it challenging to write about Cannabis genetics. This is for much of the same reason. There are already a couple of great books that dive into Cannabis genetics pretty thoroughly, like “The Handbook of Cannabis” and “Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany”. In addition, genetics in general is a complicated topic to cover in an introductory science text without getting lost in the weeds, so to speak. I am primarily a biologist and technologist, not a geneticist. So once again, in this chapter I focused on connecting readers with some basic information and leaving some of the details to other experts in the field. I hope to really expand the genetics chapter in the next edition of the book, hopefully with the help of some of my friends and colleagues that have been doing genetic research for the past several years and are more qualified than I am to elaborate on the complexities of Cannabis genetics.
What are you working on currently, professionally and in your free time? I am currently giving much of my time to a company that, among other things, is striving to develop clinically formulated natural products. I work with a really great team of scientists consisting of a medical doctor, a traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic herbal medicine expert and practitioner, an internationally renowned plant chemist and natural products expert, and an herbal extraction expert. All in all we make a really well-rounded team and we have some big ambitions.
We are working to not only formulate effective plant and fungi-based medicines, but to also carry these products through controlled clinical trials to examine their efficacy. We're working with international partners to accomplish some of these goals, given that it is still a bit difficult to do the type of work that we would like to do with Cannabis and cannabinoids in the United States – though we hope that changes soon. We are also all extremely passionate about honest, responsible science education, so we also hope to leverage our team’s expertise to provide unparalleled educational opportunities about Cannabis and other natural products to health care professionals, researchers, Cannabis industry participants, and consumers.
In my free time I’m serving as a voluntary board member for the Oregon Cannabis Education and Resource Center, an educational non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation that is really just getting started. I’m helping them develop science-driven educational materials and educational events to promote Cannabis and cannabinoid science education throughout the state of Oregon. I also occasionally work with a non-profit group called ICANNA - the International Institute for Cannabinoids, which is a research and education group based out of Slovenia.
I’m also always writing, in some form or another. I have several short books that I am finishing up and a few other projects that I’m just starting. As you can probably tell, I'm pretty good at keeping myself busy and I look forward to seeing what the future holds.
Do you have any final remarks you would like to share? I really hope that everyone finds Curious About Cannabis to be a valuable resource and I want to extend extreme gratitude and thanks to all of the scientists that have been responsible for generating all of the primary scientific data that we currently have available about Cannabis, cannabinoids, and the endocannabinoid system. Obviously there'd be no book without those researchers and I made every attempt to give credit where credit was due throughout the book so that readers may feel compelled to further explore the available research literature and learn more about the work that has been done to understand this fascinating plant.
And a huge thanks to everyone that has already purchased the book and shared feedback with me. I've been thrilled with how the book has been received so far. I look forward to working on the second edition over the next several years and look forward to receiving feedback about this first edition to help guide the next iteration.