BY BEN THOMAS | Photos courtesy of LEVEL
The past few years have seen an explosion of diversity in cannabis dosage forms. Beyond traditional flower and edibles, we can now choose from a dizzying variety of new products, from THC tablets and sublingual strips to CBD-infused mouthwash and toothpicks—not to mention the (in)famous cannajammas!
How’s a customer to separate science from snake oil in all this marketing? Just about every cannabis brand claims their products are “scientifically formulated” to deliver specific effects. But is any company in this industry really testing their formulations using a rigorous, data-driven methodology—or are folks just getting baked in a laboratory and calling it “science"?
To find out, we reached out to Chris Emerson, CEO of LEVEL. Emerson is a Ph.D. chemist—and his scientific background certainly shows in LEVEL’s line of products, which the company says are formulated to target hyper-specific effects like creativity, focus, or calm.
Here’s what Emerson had to say in answer to our questions on LEVEL’s scientific rigor.
EMBER: When developing a new formulation, do you start from a desired effect and work backwards to find the right cannabinoid doses—or do you experiment with different combinations to see what effects you get? (Or both?)
CHRIS EMERSON: It (almost) always begins with a targeted effect. LEVEL takes a three-pronged approach that focuses on three main areas: peer-reviewed publications, empirical evidence generated from 20+ years of a robust and mature California market, and our own extensive experience (5+ years) working and formulating with emergent cannabinoids.
We use data from these three areas to build a Venn diagram, which guides us on triangulating for the final formulation. This is done through a weighted system we designed based on each of the three spheres. We are constantly refining this model as we gain experience and collect more data, which really facilitates our ability to achieve these targeted effects.
What is it about tablets that makes them so effective at targeting really specific effects, like focus vs. creativity vs. energy?
For LEVEL, emergent cannabinoids are the key to modulating formulation in order to achieve targeted effects. However, it is also crucial to employ the proper delivery vehicle. This has to be done in concert in order to maintain fidelity to the effect or experience that is targeted.
To use just one example, LEVEL's formulation Hangover employs precise ratios of various cannabinoids, including acidic cannabinoids. Developing this specific product to be delivered through inhalation just wouldn't work. Currently, every commercial inhalation product uses heat to generate vapor which will lead to conversion of acidic cannabinoids to neutral cannabinoids, this seemingly small change would have significant impact on the actual effect that is experienced by the consumer. Therefore, the intended effect would not be experienced by the consumer. Maintaining fidelity to the cannabinoid composition is imperative in delivering effects based experience through cannabis.
Consistency, standard dosing, and reproducible experience is the foundation on which effects-based products must be built. Tablets are a solid vehicle to address those fundamental needs. Once there is confidence that the product will deliver the same experience each and every time, it really can become a bit of a playground with exploration through a genuinely heuristic approach. Tablets facilitate a mix-and-match approach to finding ideal combinations for achieving specific effects.
Is it just the balance of cannabinoids that makes the difference in effects, or are there other factors specific to each dosage form?
Each dosage form can also be used to achieve different effects. A couple of examples:
You can use orally ingested tablets to baseline an effect, then use a sublingual tablet to change the flow of that experience with precise dosing of different cannabinoids or by metering onset times for altering effect. This is possible because of the differences in onset and duration between the two different routes of administration of the standardized product, in this case, tablets.
Or more specifically, an individual might want to engage in some creative or productive process for an hour or so and then come out of that experience smoothly. In order to shape this experience they might consider taking a delta-8 THC tablet and then inhale some Sativa flower or a vape product. The fast onset and shorter duration of inhalation will provide that immediate entry into the Sativa space and as that flattens out over the next hour or so, the delta-8 THC will be plateauing for onset and promote that seamless transition to a lower energy and relaxing space.
Of course everyone's body chemistry is different, and will respond a little differently to the same dose (as with any medical product). Within those variations, though, how do you approach testing to ensure your customers are getting consistent results?
Great question. LEVEL employs a few different types of product/consumer testing depending on what data we want to collect. When exploring formulations that target a specific effect, especially one that may be outside most individual's concepts of what cannabis is normally associated with, LEVEL uses a single blinded approach utilizing participant reported outcomes. Other types of product development we use participation panels with experts who are able to differentiate small effect changes based on variations in cannabinoid composition. Both of these methods are less rigorous and much quicker than a more formalized peer-reviewed trial.
The rigorous endeavor of clinical evaluation is important. It will take the private companies operating in the cannabis space to facilitate a transition from the current embodiment that relies heavily on empirical data to one that is founded in peer-reviewed and defensible data. This does, however, come with a significant investment of time and resource on the investigating entity, but it is a crucial component in order for the advancement of cannabis and cannabis products. With this in mind, LEVEL is currently engaged in a double-blinded controlled randomized trial (RCT) looking at the impact that one of our formulations has on a specific indication for a specific population. There is a lot of very exciting stuff happening in the cannabis industry in regard to this.
Aside from personal trial-and-error, what can customers do to calculate the right dose for themselves—and avoid getting effects that are too intense or too mild?
First, having consistent and reproducible effects from a standardized product is critical to this paradigm. Second, but no less important, individuals should understand that cannabis is a journey. There is going to be exploration of products and formulations in order to identify what works best for the individual.
I think this is a pretty foreign concept for most of us today, as we live in such an on-demand and instantaneous feedback world. Cannabis is completely different than alcohol or tobacco, which both have a fairly singular endpoint no matter how you consume it. This should be understood by consumers as education is so vital to the process of our continued shifting around the cannabis paradigm.
No one wants to have an adverse event when using cannabis. So, avoiding the uncomfortable, yet typically short-lived experience of too much psychoactivity or being "too high," is the primary objective. To prevent this, LEVEL always encourages individuals to start low and go slow. Begin with lower dosage and slowly increase or titrate dosage until the desired end state is achieved. You can always take more if desired, but you cannot take it away once the effect has reached the "too much" threshold.
Consumers should also be aware that different routes of administration have different onset times and overall duration. Different consumption modes may also lead to variance in effect and experience that is dependent on body weight, sex, and/or what was eaten last and how long ago was that. A prime example is 5 mg of THC that is inhaled will feel differently than 5 mg that is taken sublingually which will feel differently than 5 mg that is ingested orally.
Cannabis is a plant medicine that offers an unparalleled spectrum of potential experiences and effects, all of which we are just beginning to explore and start to understand. Exploring the benefits of cannabis can be a pleasant experience.
Ben Thomas is a journalist and novelist who's lived in 40+ countries. He specializes in telling stories from the frontiers of science, history, culture and the cosmos—and the points where all these fields intersect.