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Ganja Grows Up 

The evolution of craft cannabis, one year after pot sales went legit

Photos by Douglas Bowser, Cascade Center of Photography.

Photos by Douglas Bowser, Cascade Center of Photography.

Nutty notes of chestnut and coffee. Flowery violet and honey.

If you thought that was in reference to a wine someone's drinking, you'd be wrong...kind of. These days, descriptions like that are almost as likely to be thrown around while shopping for marijuana as they would be when buying a fine wine.

October 1, 2016 marks the one-year anniversary of recreational marijuana sales at dispensaries in the state of Oregon. Pot became officially legal for people over 21 to possess and grow as of July 1, 2015—but it wasn't until October 1 that dispensaries could open their doors to the non-medical user.

If you walked into a dispensary on that date a year ago, chances are you heard people making vague requests for "something that will help me sleep," or "something tasty." One year later, educated consumers are walking into dispensaries with requests that rival those of the most cultured wine connoisseur. (Insert the nutty, spicy, berry, flowery language here...)

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In one year, recreational cannabis has become a booming industry, adding big bucks to the economy. Since January, Oregon has sold roughly $102 million in recreational cannabis—which will add an estimated $43 million in tax revenue to Oregon state coffers.

Legalization of pot for the recreational user has fueled a new generation of legitimate business owners who have their sights set on educating and elevating the consumer experience—to the point that people don't think just about high levels of THC, but also about flavor profiles and quality. In other words, local businesses are striving to bring the "craft" element to pot, as Oregonians have long done with wine, beer, and food.

The Craft Cannabis Industry: It's an Oregon Thing

"When it first unfolded, a lot of dispensaries were advertising their test results and THC percentages," says Aviv Hadar, co-founder of Oregrown in Bend. "So what was happening was it was turning into malt liquor, right out of the gate. It was 'what's the highest percentage I can get for the cheapest price'—and nobody shops for wine like that."

Instead of focusing on that "malt liquor" element, Hadar and his colleagues set out to cater their selection based on the quality of the growing process and the terpene profiles that give cannabis flowers—or in other words, the buds—their distinct flavors and scents.

Along with the growth of recreational pot sales in Oregon, Washington and Colorado (and now Alaska) came the rise of cannabis-focused sites such as Leafly, which offers extensive information on its website about consuming, growing and harvesting pot. Leafly describes terpenes on its website: "Secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpenes are the pungent oils that color cannabis varieties with distinctive flavors like citrus, berry, mint, and pine." The site goes on to explain how terpenes were developed to "repel predators and lure pollinators"—not to mention turning human consumers onto a certain strain over another. That distinction is one that Hadar and his colleagues strive to educate consumers about.

"You can have one strain that's a lower THC percentage, but the terpene profile will get you more stoned or more euphoric than something with a higher THC percent," says Hadar. "So the THC percent is just kind of an arbitrary number. It shows potency. But flavor profile and terpene profile is what directly charges your endocannabinoid system."

In terms of consumer education and proliferation of the industry, Oregrown's founders have stood at the forefront of much of the movement. Hadar was the first person in Oregon history to testify in front of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) on Measure 91, which legalized recreational pot. The company is also a sponsor of the Bend Chamber of Commerce's Young Professionals program, and two of its founders sat on the OLCC's rules advisory committee.

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Learning from the Wine Industry

With the talk about flavor profiles and craft growing and production processes, it's easy to draw the line between what's happening in the weed industry and the growth of the wine industry in the Northwest decades ago. Cannabis companies clearly take cues from wine in terms of production, distribution and the proliferation of their industry.

So what can we learn from wine? "Look at what they're allowed to do," Hadar reflects. "They're allowed to grow grapes, process them into alcohol, and ship hundreds of barrels all over the world and to each other. And in terms of an industry, it's something to aspire to be."

To that end, Oregrown's founders have lobbied numerous times in Washington, D.C., where they say they've had a mixed reception. In Oregon and a growing number of states (Arizona, California, Missouri and Maine are set to vote on legalizing recreational pot this November), enthusiasts and entrepreneurs aren't backing down on the effort to change federal policy.

"The way the wine industry has lobbied to allow their limits and barrel production, it's just phenomenal," says Hadar. "It's something to look forward to in terms of breaking down state lines and being able to distribute across different states."

As for the connection to other craft industries, Abigail Craig, manager of the High Grade Organics dispensary in Bend, concurs.

"It's really similar to beer in Oregon and wine in Washington. It's really going to be a connoisseur's market and that it is evolving," says Craig. "In those different terpenes and profiles it's getting very advanced the more that it's above ground—and we're excited about that—to continue to watch it grow." When consumers are looking for the "gold standard" of cannabis, Craig recommends looking for the Clean Green Certified label, indicating the grower—and the seller—value clean, organic products. Without federal regulation, third-party certifications are the only vetting programs available, says Craig.

"Drunk" on Pot

Still, it's not just people's palates that have seen change over the past year. At Bend's St. Charles Medical Center, the number of cannabis-related visits to the emergency room sat at less than 200 per month from July 2014 through October 2015. In December '15, that number went up to 438. In August it was 674. Seventeen of those August visits were children.

St. Charles ER physician Dr. David Rosenberg attributes many of those visits to people ingesting too much edible marijuana—which became available for recreational users to purchase as of June 2, 2016. When it comes to ingesting edibles, the numbers indicate that plenty of people haven't entirely transitioned into being educated consumers.

"When you're consuming marijuana orally the absorption to psychoactive effects can be quite a long time," Rosenberg says. "It can be 30 minutes 45 minutes or more, and if people don't have a response in a relatively soon timeframe they may, they often do take more and more and more and they end up consuming quite a bit until finally that drug does start to have its effect."

Dr. Rosenberg admits that the risks with marijuana use are far less than alcohol and some other drugs—but that's not to say a trip to the ER isn't warranted for some.

"People can get so confused or anxious that friends and family have no choice but to bring them to the ER," says Rosenberg. When it comes to handling edibles, Rosenberg advises people to take it slow and know your dosages.

Aaron Morris, CEO of cannabis edibles company Wyld, agrees. "Never take more of one of anything," Morris advises. "Right now, one of anything from X,Y,Z supplier could be very different." Morris also points out that with the upcoming changes to the rules around edibles, each and every single dose you buy in an Oregon dispensary will contain a relatively-low 5mg dose. Still, Morris urges caution—especially for tourists and pot newbies.

"If you've never consumed cannabis and you show up in Oregon and you're like 'woo!'—you should probably start with one, knowing what it is. 5mg shouldn't hospitalize you," Morris says. To help educate consumers, Morris says his company relies on clearly identified packaging, product consistency and quality testing and working with dispensaries to portray the right message.

Meanwhile, Dr. Rosenberg says there's a growing body of information about cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome—a problem seen among frequent users that includes ongoing abdominal pain and episodes of frequent vomiting. While not much is known about the syndrome, doctors are watching out for it.

"The numbers show big uptick in the number of marijuana-related emergencies and at least some of them—a portion of the cases—are related to this syndrome," Rosenberg says.

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The OLCC Steps In

Next up in the evolution of the industry in Oregon: A change in the governing body from the Oregon Health Authority to the OLCC. It might be a small detail to the average consumer, but to growers, labs and retailers, it's a significant change. By October 1, all pot-related packaging labeling has to be OLCC-approved, and all products must be tested for pesticides, potency and other elements. Since pot shops can't sell pot that's not tested, at the front of the line for approval are the marijuana testing labs, which have to jump through two hoops: the Oregon Environmental Laboratory Accreditation, as well as an OLCC approval—a process that can take months. As of the date of this publication, two labs in Deschutes County had earned accreditation, including Juniper Analytics and EVIO Labs.

By December 31, businesses in all points of the supply chain must have an OLCC license to operate. The OLCC is processing applications on a first-come, first-served basis, working on "producers and laboratories first," according to the OLCC website.

For Hadar and his colleagues, stringent regulations are just one more testament to the commitment to craft that Oregon is known for.

"By every standard of measurement, people use Oregon cannabis products as the top end," says Hadar. "If it stands up to Oregon products, it's a good type thing."

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