For Jeffrey Raber, PhD, the road from chemist to one of California’s most prominent cannabis scientists began with his first purchase at a collective.
The year was 2009 and the state’s medical-cannabis boom was in full swing. Hoping to find relief for an intestinal disorder that would also increase his appetite, he paid a collective a visit. As a first-time customer, he got a free gram. But the scientist in him was appalled when the employee licked his free joint. It got him thinking of what else might be in that cannabis.
“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want that. I don’t know that guy and what kind of communicable things might come from that,’” Raber recalled. “It was a really eye-opening; cross-contamination, unsafe sterile practices and whatever else might be going on here.”
“. . . this is an amazing medicine. It has an efficacy versus toxicity profile that’s like almost no other substance we know. The potential to help so many people with so many different ailments seems to exist with this plant.”
“You don’t know who is the producer of these products. You don’t know if they’ve ever been tested before,” Raber said.
Raber would go on to found The Werc Shop, one of the first labs dedicated to analyzing cannabis. His team would develop groundbreaking methods of analysis and conduct research on edibles that shocked not only the cannabis industry but mainstream scientists as well. And if he ruffled some feathers along the way—particularly among the cannabis growers and edible makers—then so be it.
“If a patient says, ‘I think I’m getting 10mg(of THC) and they get 30mg and they have a bad experience, they may not go back to cannabis again when it is the most effective medicine they can find. If they thought they’re getting the 30mg and they actually had 10mg and the next time they go for 30mg and it really is 30mg they’re definitely going to have a bad experience.”
Born for chemistry
In fifth grade, growing up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, young Jeffrey’s class filled out a questionnaire about what he wanted to be when he grew up. Seven years later, as seniors, students were asked the same question. His answer was the same: To become a scientist to help the sick of the world.
“I always wanted to help people and making pharmaceuticals or drug products is what I was always told was the best thing,” said Raber, 40. He moved to California in 1997 to pursue his PhD in organic chemistry.
He spent a few years after college working as a chemist for several start-up companies, some successful, others less so. But in 2008 his brother told him about a construction project he was working on, building a collective.
“What’s a dispensary?” he asked. The reply, “A place where they can sell marijuana.”
“The plant is known to make 400 different molecules, up to 500. We have a pretty decent understanding of maybe 50, or 100 at best.”
Like many young men, even those from a prohibition state like Pennsylvania, he was acquainted with cannabis. He spent a couple of weeks at the collective, talking with patients, trying it himself for his own condition, and was convinced.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is an amazing medicine. It has an efficacy versus toxicity profile that’s like almost no other substance we know. The potential to help so many people with so many different ailments seems to exist with this plant,’” he said.
After the aforementioned licked joint episode, he decided it was time to apply his science to cannabis industry. After newly elected President Obama indicated the feds wouldn’t go after medical marijuana users, he took that as a green light to launch his laboratory, which he did in 2010.
Keeping them honest
In those early days, visiting dispensaries or grow operations, he got the question a lot.
“You can test cannabis?” “Yes you can,” he would reply. And when available testing methods proved inadequate, he tried new ones. He says he was the first to apply high performance liquid chromatography to the science of cannabis. In 2011, his lab became the first to profile different strains of cannabis for their terpenes, which are the different flavors and aromas of the plants. The effort was to determine if strains being sold at dispensaries are what they claimed to be.
It turns out in many cases they weren’t. His team studied common strains like Train Wreck, OG Kush, Sour Diesel and Blue Dream from across California. They learned that these terpene profiles varied widely on samples of the supposedly same strain. For example, 30 percent of the Jack Herer they analyzed was definitely not Jack Herer.
Some of the problem may be human error, people misnaming strains. Another is the fickleness of the cannabis plant. In one study, two clones from the same mother went in very different directions, likely because of subtle environmental differences. Much of what The Werc Shop does is help cultivators understand what they’re growing.
“The goal is, how do I get a better label to put inside dispensaries to better inform the providers of that medicine and for the patients to make their selections?,” Raber asked.
The edibles problem
For commercial cannabis scientist to wind up in the prestigious pages of the Journal of The American Medical Association is a pretty big deal. But the results of a 2015 study conducted by Raber and experts from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine were that shocking.
Analyzing edibles from three dispensaries each in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the scientists found that only 13 percent of products were accurately labeled for THC content. Nearly one in four had more THC than advertised.
“That is so important to make sure that is correct, dosing in edible products, and to make sure your medical product is homogeneous and can be reproduced time and time again, not just making something that tastes good,” he said. “That was an eye opening experience to see how bad it was. We knew it wasn’t good but we didn’t know how bad it would be. When 87 percent of the products aren’t even close, that’s pretty alarming.”
The Werc Shop has opened a facility in Washington, where edible testing regulations are in place. As for California, where testing is voluntary, Raber hopes the state will adopt regulations soon. He has talked to officials in six different states as they grapple with the issue of cannabis testing. It’s not always easy for a chemist to talk about such things in a way non-scientists can understand, but Raber sees educating regulators as a key part of his mission.
As for the plant itself, Raber’s curiosity is nowhere near to being sated.
“Even today we’re just scratching the surface. We don’t know much about this plant at all or what it can really be useful for, how to handle it and develop it in the best ways,” he said. “The plant is known to make 400 different molecules, up to 500. We have a pretty decent understanding of maybe 50, or 100 at best.”