Cannabis: The Industry Turns Professional

Cannabis is legal for medical use in 26 states (“Legality of cannabis by U.S. jurisdiction” ), but nearly all producers are very small operations, usually comprising only one or two individuals supplying not only their own patients, but also local clinical dispensaries. This is a fundamentally different business model than the pharmaceutical industry, which many see as a good thing, but it has isolated cannabis production from professional chemists whose knowledge and expertise could help assure purity and quality of product.

Ezra Pryor is a professional chemist who leads a private California-based company, EZ-Chem Consulting, which offers consulting services to the cannabis industry, and has been the principal organizer and chair of the Cannabis Chemistry Committee of the American Chemical Society, the national organization of professional and industrial chemists. (We interviewed Pryor in May when he was in Providence at the New England Cannabis Convention.) A vote will take place in a few weeks to elevate the committee to the status of a full subdivision of the Health and Safety Division of the society, and the vote is “expected to go well,” said Erika Oltermann, a Texas chemistry student who handles media relations for the committee.

“We help bridge the gap from the industry to the academic side,” Oltermann said. “People who know how to do things” from experience often lack the academic training in chemistry that could improve their processes. There is also a public health and education role for the group, she said, following the model of the alcoholic beverages industry after the end of Prohibition in 1933: “Drink responsibly, ingest responsibly, smoke responsibly.” As medical cannabis expands its reach, many users need to be informed about its basic characteristics, she said, citing the example of elderly patients with no previous cannabis experience who need to know that the effects of edibles can take some time to be noticeable, otherwise they may unwisely take an additional dose because they feel nothing happening for a while.

One of the main goals of the committee is industry support, providing what Oltermann called “a great networking opportunity” among people seeking a role in the emerging business of cannabis growing, refining and producing. Falling into something of a no-man’s-land between the two, cannabis needs to be grown and cultivated as an agricultural product, but also refined and extracted as a pharmaceutical to achieve maximum benefits, opening a place for chemists in aspects as diverse as pest control and hash oil extraction.

Mainstream acceptance of cannabis has, in addition to medical legalization in slightly more than half the states, begun a process of recreational legalization that so far reached four states but is poised to expand quickly within the next two years, especially in New England (“Opinion: Will Rhode Island Surrender Yet Another Industry?”  Jun 4, 2015) where ballot initiatives are expected to pass in Massachusetts and Maine in November 2016, likely bringing neighboring states, including Rhode Island, under enormous pressure to legalize as well. Colorado is already reporting monthly tax revenues of $10 million directly attributable to legalization of recreational use of cannabis in that state, an amount generally assumed to indicate underlying indirect economic growth, including employment and construction, an order of magnitude greater, having created a billion-dollar industry from scratch. Legalizing recreational use could be expected to trigger rapid expansion from business interests “with deep pockets needing to know whom to hire,” Oltermann said, and the committee aims to draw from credentialed chemists and chemistry students to organize a “network of professionals who keep up to date” on their knowledge and learning. Of the cannabis industry within the next 15 to 20 years, she said, “I do expect it to be huge.”

The committee maintains a Twitter feed @Cannabis_Chem with updates on their progress to approval as an ACS subdivision and an official e-mail address for contacting them.

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