The promise of the plant

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Portrait of scientist with mask, glasses and gloves checking hemp plants in a greenhouse. Concept of herbal alternative medicine, cbd oil, pharmaceptical industry
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CBD, CBG, CBN, THCV, delta-8 THC, delta-11 THC, the list goes on.

“I think it’s going to just be a foot race to see who can identify these things and patent them,” Keith Villa says.

And it’s a foot race Villa is watching closely. The company he and his wife Jodi run, CERIA Brewing Co., specializes in THC-infused non-alcoholic beer. Currently, they have two drinkables on dispensary shelves: Grainwave Belgian-style White Ale, infused with 5 mg of THC, and Indiewave IPA, infused with 10 mg of THC and CBD.

It’s a good place to start, but with a little more research, who knows what other cannabinoids Villa could use in his brews.

“I mean, there are over 100 cannabinoids in the plant that have been identified but not thoroughly studied and researched, so people don’t really know what a lot of these things do,” he explains. “They know THC leads to intoxication and inebriation . . . CBD can help you sleep or reduce pain . . . There are some people who have done preliminary research, and they’ve shown, or they think they know, that some of the cannabinoids lead to anti-inflammatory activity in the body.”

Villa points to THCV (tetrahydrocannabivarin)—“the skinny cannabinoid”—which minimizes hunger and makes a person feel full and satiated. CBG (cannabigerol) and CBN (cannabinol): “Both leave you really tired and allow you to fall asleep readily,” Villa says. “But there are other cannabinoids that are believed to act like caffeine and give you energy … Others, they say, act like Viagra and can help older guys with erectile dysfunction.”

As Villa says, “There’s so much promise with the plant.”

But cannabis is still a schedule 1 drug and federally illegal.

“So there’s been no research really at the university level,” Villa says.

Both Villa and Jodi graduated from CU-Boulder, and they’re counting down the days until CU can put its vast resources and minds to unlocking the promise of cannabis.

“They may discover that certain cannabinoids have anti-cancer activities,” Villa says. “They could patent that and make a fortune for the university.

“It’s going to be a race,” he continues. “Private industry, as well as universities, are going to just have a race to see who can identify these things, patent them and get them into circulation to help humanity.”

Villa assumes that a large part of the prohibition surrounding marijuana studies stems from other countries following the U.S.’s lead in outlawing cannabis. And Villa hopes that the other countries will continue to follow the U.S.’s lead when it becomes federally legal.

“It’s going to be very fast and furious, and I think universities will start to identify so much about the plant that we just never knew existed,” Villa says. “It will turn out it is a helpful plant.”

Fermented cannabis?

Speaking of studies at the university level, back in 2019, the University of California, Berkeley found a brewer’s yeast strain capable of fermenting THC.

“Feeding only on sugar, the yeast are an easy and cheap way to produce pure cannabinoids that today are costly to extract from the buds of the marijuana plant, Cannabis sativa,” Berkeley News writes.

Jay Keasling, a UC-Berkeley professor of chemical and biomolecule engineering, adds that the process is both “high-quality” and “low-cost.”

“It is a safer, more environmentally friendly way to produce cannabinoids,” Keasling says in the article.

In this week’s Beer column, we talk to Rob Kevwitch of Isolate Labs about terpenes—a compound found in both cannabis and hops—and a form of hop extraction that isn’t just a modern take on hop utilization in beer but a potentially greener approach to brewing. Is it possible that fermenting cannabinoids might also be a greener approach to cultivating intoxicants?

“Cannabis cultivation is a prime example of an energy-intensive and environmentally-destructive industry,” Berkeley News continues. “Farms in northwest California have polluted streams with pesticide and fertilizer runoff and helped drain watersheds because marijuana plants are water-hungry. Illegal grows have resulted in clear-cutting and erosion.”

And that’s to say nothing of the carbon footprint of indoor cultivation.

“One study estimated that California’s cannabis industry accounted for 3 percent of the state’s electricity usage,” Berkeley News continues. “Indoor grows have caused blackouts in some cities, and energy consumption can add more than $1,000 to the price of a pound of weed.”