Technology has changed the way we get high, forever

This post is part of our High-tech High series, which explores weed innovations, and our cultural relationship with cannabis, as legalization in several U.S. states, Canada, and Uruguay moves the market further out of the shadows.

If you want to imagine the future of marijuana in the 2020s, picture a 3-D printer. 

Maybe it’s in a kiosk at your local legal recreational dispensary; maybe, if you’re a particular fan of greenery, it’s in your home. Either way, it’s pre-loaded with concentrated liquid forms of all  cannabinoids, the different kinds of molecules that make up marijuana. 

The machine has CBD for healing, CBN for sleepiness, THC for the giddy, giggly high; plus a ton of essential oils called terpenes, which generally provide every other subtle effect you’ve ever noticed with weed.

But you don’t need to sort them yourself. Via the kiosk screen, or 3D-printing mobile app, you select the effects you want to induce. Calm or hyped up? Uplifted or mellowed out? Creative or couch-locked? Or somewhere in the middle? The printer starts work on a mix of ingredients, which is composited based on an ever-growing, ever-evolving database of feedback from users like you.

All that remains is to choose your mode of delivery: wax for high-temperature, high-intensity dabbing; a liquid concentrate vape pen with precise microdosing ability; an edible; a strip that goes under your tongue; a nasal spray for those who want a fast-acting, 15 to 90 minute high. 

Later, you’ll be asked to rate the result, which will help other users achieve the common goal: never having a negative or unexpected cannabis experience ever again.  

A print-your-own-weed machine may sound like stoner science fiction, but there are startups in America right now hard at work on each element of it. Indeed, with legalization sweeping the nation and venture capital following in its wake, we’re entering a golden age of weed delivery technology — not to mention biotech that is only just starting to figure out exactly what this most versatile of drugs actually does to us, and how we can tweak that. 

A company called Altopa plans to deliver the Oblend, a printer-like DIY “home dispensary” device, in 2019 for $949. Another called Verra Wellness has just started selling a “nasal mist” for what it calls “transmucosal delivery of cannabinoids” (translation: stick pot up your nose). Enthuses one user: “I was very clear headed; I took it for work to help me focus and problem-solve without feeling overwhelmed.” 

Peak Experience

This is a common thread in the golden age of weed tech. The industry is leaving all the clichés about Doritos and forgetfulness behind, and embracing the other possibilities of a drug that is way more varied in its effects than alcohol. 

Users have had enough of the high-THC, ditzy, paranoid high — or rather, they know where to find that already. As any popular dispensary will tell you, the race for strains that simply have the highest THC content is no longer the only game in town, or even the main game. The mainstream is here. Thousands of regular consumers in newly legal states (and Canada), some of whom may not have smoked for decades, want the effects to be more subtle, creative and functional: an office-friendly buzz. 

“I want cannabis to enhance, not dumb down,” says Roger Volodarsky, Los Angeles-based founder of high-concept vaporizer company Puffco. “Personally, I find it to be much closer to coffee than to alcohol.” 

“Weed tech” is now definitely a thing.

I’d never have known it, but Volodarsky admitted to having a few hits before our interview. He’d been using his product, the Puffco Peak — a sleek battery-powered “smart bong” that retails for $370. The Peak was one of the most anticipated weed tech products at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (where yeah, “weed tech” is now definitely a thing.)  

That’s because it takes dabbing out of the realm of power users, who stick cannabis wax to a nail and blast it with a torch, and brings it into the realm of people who would consider what one review called “the Keurig of cannabis,” and also “what Apple would design” if it was in the marijuana business. 

Dabbing, which produces a large blast of clouds, may sound terrifying to moderate tokers. Still, Volodarsky is on a mission to convert them all. The advantage, he says, is that the dabbing process vaporizes all the good stuff and none of the CBN — a sleepy, dissociative cannibanoid that is barely even known among casual users yet. (Hey, they’re only just caught up with the whole CBD thing.) 

“If you’re talking about zoning in, quieting the noise, finding what drives you — this is what does it,” Volodarsky boasts of the Peak experience. “I don’t work as hard on days I don’t dab.” 

Colorful varities of edible and drinkable marijuana on sale in a Las Vegas dispensary.

Colorful varities of edible and drinkable marijuana on sale in a Las Vegas dispensary.

Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Talking to startup folks like Volodarsky about what technology will do for weed, my first surprising conclusion was that strains are increasingly seen as an outdated way of talking about cannabis. In fact, the future is likely more about blending specific cannabinoid molecules like CBN than growing new cutesey-named strains like Gorilla Glue or Girl Scout Cookies. 

Why? First of all, the content of various plant strains seem to vary from one grower to the next; there’s no standardization. Secondly, thanks to all that drug war-era experimentation, most strains are hybrids of some sort, even the ones that claim to be all indica (generally thought of as the body high) or all sativa (the head high stuff). Cast those concepts from your mind, because cannabis experts are increasingly calling for an end to the simplistic indica/sativa division. But molecules don’t vary. 

“We’re bringing a lot more consistency to this,” says Tristan Watkins, Chief Science Officer of a Denver company called LucidMood. “We can control what goes in, instead of you having to hope that your Super Lemon Haze is what it says it is, and doesn’t have some terpene that makes you groggy.”

LucidMood makes a variety of vape pens that are named for their desired effect: Energy, Chill, Party, Bliss, Relax, Calm, Relief, Focus, Sleep and Lift. The only thing they all have in common: they all contain 40 percent THC, 40 percent CBD and 20 percent terpenes.

The 1:1 ratio of THC and CBD is becoming more popular in the cannabis business, since it’s thought of as an ideal mix that allows casual users to be in control of their experience. You can’t dilute vape pen concentrate (or if you did, you’d be using the kind of chemical thinning agents you really don’t want to vaporize). 

“We make it newbie-proof,” says Watkins. “A normal vape pen is super strong. I’d never hand it to my mom.” 

Watkins has a Ph.D in neurology, for which he studied the effect of cannabis and its many compounds on the brain. What became clear to him: “We’re just scratching the surface” in terms of our understanding of the plant. 

We know THC increases blood flow to the brain and acts on the dopamine system, which is what makes everything seem important. We know it usually quietens the pre-frontal cortex, which makes it easier to do new things or let creative ideas bubble up without what Watkins calls “the helicopter mom in your head telling you to move on.” But beyond that, we’re only just beginning to learn how it acts on the biological system (known as the endocannabinoid system) that regulates appetite, mood, and memory. 

So how does LucidMood decide on the names of those 1:1 vape pens? Mainly by playing around with the terpene oils, where there’s a larger body of science telling us about their effects on humans. The company then does a placebo-controlled study (in the sense that one group of participants gets a regular 1:1 vape pen, making it probably the only placebo study in which everyone really gets high). 

Watkins catalogs the effects most users describe from the terpene-loaded pen, and if it matches up with what LucidMood expected, the pen is good to go. Science in action!

Just to make sure the newbies don’t overdo it, LucidMood pens automatically shut off after 5 seconds. That puts them in the same category as the Pax Era, the popular vape pen from the company that used to make the Juul e-cigarette. 

As of this summer, you’re able to “sip” your Pax in a “microdose“; you have to wait a couple of minutes before it’ll let you vape again. Microdosing is so popular with its customers that the company told me it’s looking into applying the technology to its larger Pax 3 vaporizer, which uses actual plant matter. A startup called Potbiotics may have beaten Pax to the punch with the Ryah, which it claims is the world’s first dose-measuring flower vaporizer. 

On the other hand, much of this technology could be ephemeral, as is the case in any fast-moving startup space, but perhaps more so in one where there are still many distractions. Potbiotics first offered to send me a test Ryah back in August; as of November, it has yet to materialize. 

Take a tour of my inbox and you’ll discover hundreds of weed-related pitches from companies that could either be the future or gone tomorrow. There’s an edible that dissolves in your mouth leaving no residue, called QuickStrip; Annabis, a line of high-end handbags that hide the smell of weed; cannabis marshmallows called Mellows; a tiny, powerful 4-inch disposable vape pen called The Little Chicken; an early stage startup called Form Factory with a patented “micro-encapsulation” technique that helps make edibles more consistent. 

When a thousand high-tech flowers are blooming like this, it can be hard to draw conclusions about the consumer needs they’re trying to fill, or whether they’re more interested in differentiating themselves through marketing. There’s an argument to be made that most startups are not being innovative enough; too many are simply putting new skins on the same old vape pen technology. 

“I’ve been underwhelmed by innovation in the cannabis space,” says Puffco’s Roger Volodarsky. “Everyone’s just trying to make the same herbal vaporizer. The only impressive new gadget I’ve seen lately is an electric grinder.” 

Still, some signals can be discerned in all this noise: We want weed to be discreet. We want it to be a delicious experience, whether in edible or vape form. And we want to customize it in endless configurations to match our desired mood and level of productivity — even if we can’t 3-D print it at home just yet. 

The high-tech marijuana age is underway, and it’s taking us in directions we can only imagine. The only place the industry isn’t going is backwards, to a world of smoking inconsistent strains where you don’t know what effect you’re going to get. 

from Mashable!