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Edibles are always a gamble, but up-and-coming nanotechnology in the cannabis space may make popping a weed gummy a more predictable experience.
As someone who lives in a state where marijuana is recreationally legal and regularly consumes potent cannabis products, I like to think that I have a relatively high tolerance for weed. Edibles, though, are a wild card; it’s difficult to find a consistent happy medium between not feeling anything at all or getting too high and being too aware of my eyelids.
Weed-infused gummies, chocolates, and baked goods tend to be so unpredictable because THC absorption into your bloodstream can be delayed depending on how much of the edible you had, and how much you ate before downing the edible. Delayed absorption can make predicting onset — when you start to actually feel high — a challenge, which is how people can commonly fall into the trap of consuming more edibles and ending up absolutely zooted.
Typical onset for normal edibles can range from 45 minutes to two hours, depending on the consumer's metabolism and what they ate beforehand. This is why taking too much before feeling high is such a common mistake. Nano weed products aim to make that starting point, and the entire edible experience, less chaotic.
Cameron Clarke, the CEO of Sunderstorm, which manufactures Kanha nanotech gummies, explained the appeal of nanotech edibles is in its faster onset. Sunderstorm claims users will begin feeling the effects of Kanha nano gummies within 15 minutes, so they’re less likely to make the mistake of taking another dose or too much before the edible kicks in.
"So what that means is that these particles [THC and CBD] get into the blood very, very quickly, and they actually get into your cells very quickly," Clarke said. "And in the gut, they just pass directly through your digestive system, because they're already so small, your digestive system doesn't pay any attention, and then delivers it directly into the bloodstream."
Nano products also claim to be more stable — Select, another cannabis brand that makes nano emulsion gummies, emphasizes the consistency of their products.
"If people remember the early days of cannabis beverages (and still some current products) the cannabis oil would float to the top of the beverage or stick to the bottle, so the better content uniformity of good emulsions allows for consistent and accurate dosing," Select's SVP of product development Jessie Kater said in an email.
The Kanha gummies I tried had a consistently quick onset. One 5 mg lime-flavored gummy brought me to a euphoric, relaxed state within 20 minutes of taking it. A 10 mg grape-flavored gummy had me asleep within an hour. Consistency with edibles, even retail ones, is rare for me, but these nanotech gummies took about the same time to kick in with each dose. Select's gummies yielded a similarly intense high within half hour of taking only 5 mg.
Caliper, another company that employs nano emulsion methods to manufacture CBD powder and concentrate, commissioned a study with Colorado State University to prove that these emulsion methods yield more effective products. (Caliper funded the study but was not involved in collecting or interpreting the data.) The 2021 study, published in Pharmaceuticals, tested five oral CBD products on 15 participants and concluded that Caliper's water-soluble powder and liquid concentrates were absorbed more quickly than oil-based CBD tincture and CBD isolate, which are used in a majority of consumer CBD products.
That’s a lot to take in, so let’s break it down.
The basics of nano weed
Cannabinoids are the molecules in cannabis that interact with certain receptors in the body and have various effects, from euphoria to drowsiness to pain relief. THC, or example, induces that quintessential high feeling associated with marijuana. CBD, another cannabinoid, is the active ingredient in one FDA-approved drug to treat epilepsy. Some lesser-known cannabinoids are also on the rise, like CBN and CBG, however, more studies are needed to further clarify what all these cannabinoids can do consistently.
For you to feel any of these effects in the first place, though, the cannabinoids must be bioavailable, which means they can be absorbed by the body. The more bioavailable a product is, the less you’ll need of that product to experience the desired effects.
Cannabinoids in nanotech products are made smaller through a process called emulsification, which involves mixing two liquids that typically can't be mixed, like oil and water, into a stable compound. If you whisk oil and water very quickly, they'll appear to dissolve into each other, but after a certain amount of time, the two substances will separate. A third ingredient called a surfactant can bind to the two otherwise immiscible liquids, and make it appear as if the oil and water are perfectly mixed. Mayonnaise, for example, is made through emulsification. Its core ingredients, oil, vinegar, and lemon juice, will be at odds with each other, so mayonnaise is made with egg yolk, which glues the oil, vinegar, and lemon juice together.
Kanha gummies are manufactured using an emulsification process that essentially blends cannabis oil in an extremely high pressure blender. In a very basic explanation of Sunderstorm’s nanotechnology, Clarke said that the process breaks down cannabis material into "small chunks" and then reassembles it into particles called liposomes, which are minuscule spheres of a substance surrounded by a layer of fat.
Liposomes can be dissolved in both fat and water in your body, which is why liposomal delivery methods have been used in certain medications like morphine for decades. Cannabis companies are just now using this technology perfected by the pharmaceutical industry as well.
By wrapping the cannabinoid in a layer of molecules that can dissolve in both water and in fat, it easier for the body to absorb said substance, whether it’s a medication, a nutrient, or a cannabinoid, and protects the inner substance from being degraded by digestion.
"The technology, it’s essentially breaking it down the same way your stomach breaks down food particles into smaller particles," Clarke added. "It’s just doing what your body normally does, but it’s doing it before it actually gets into your body."
So why use nanotech in the first place?
By making the THC and CBD molecules smaller through emulsification, in theory, you’d need less of a nanotech weed product to achieve the same effect as a larger quantity of a non-nanotech weed product.
Jahan Marcu, the editor in chief of the American Journal of Endocannabinoid Medicine and cofounder of the cannabis consulting company Marcu&Arora, received his Ph.D. in cell biology researching cannabinoid receptors.
Marcu likens cannabinoids to ice.
"So when we talk about nano weed, or nano THC, what we mean is...by decreasing the size of a particle you can increase the dissolution rate," Marcu said. "If you have a big ball of ice versus crushed ice, the crushed ice dissolves away more quickly. In a conceptual framework, it helps reduce variability because all the little pieces are getting this all together."
Remember bioavailability? The crushed ice is more bioavailable because it dissolves faster, like how a nutrient or medication is absorbed by the body faster through certain delivery methods.
Bioavailability varies depending on the delivery method; CBD-only edibles tend to be less bioavailabile than THC edibles because CBD breaks down in the liver and becomes less potent. When THC enters the liver, it becomes a more potent psychoactive molecule, which is why 10 mg of THC will have much more noticeable effects than 10 mg of CBD when ingested.
CBD products are often marketed as overall wellness products, but many studies conclude that to experience its benefits via edibles, users need to take very high doses.
A 2009 study published in Chemistry & Biodiversity concluded that CBD bioavailability is somewhere between 4 and 20 percent. If you were to take 100 mg in gummies, you’d only get about 4 to 20 mg in your bloodstream, and considering most consumer CBD products are anywhere between 5 and 25 mg per serving, the chances of getting enough in your bloodstream to experience any effect are slim.
On the downside, nano emulsified edibles tend to taste worse than their non-emulsified counterparts. Keith Woelfel, Caliper's Director of Research and Development, said CBD is naturally bitter, and smaller emulsions increase surface area to volume ratio, which can "impact how the taste receptors on the tongue can perceive bitterness."
"Smaller emulsions tend to impart better stability, keeping the emulsion homogenous and physically stable over time," Woelfel said in an email. "The downside to smaller emulsions [is] taste, as bitterness and off flavor become more pronounced."
Kater, from Select, noted that it's rarely the emulsion components that are bitter, it's the cannabinoids themselves. In typical edibles, consumers don't taste the cannabinoids as intensely because they aren't absorbed by the membranes in your mouth. (Traditional edibles may still taste funky because of the chlorophyll and terpenes, the compounds that give plants a scent, but you're less likely to taste the acute bitterness that nano emulsion edibles have.)
"You are tasting the full bitter notes of the cannabinoids," Kater added. "This being said not all nano emulsions work the same way and some will be more bitter than others."
From nanotech gummies to nanotech water, nano edibles are all the rage in the cannabis industry because hypothetically, you could consume less cannabis and achieve the same effect of high doses that haven't been emulsified. Marcu worries not only that these claims aren't backed by enough scientific research, but also that the rush to market nanotech-infused products without thorough testing has unintended consequences.
Creating a consistent product that invokes the same effect with the same dosage is the goal for every pharmaceutical company, not just cannabis companies. The added buzz around newly legal weed adds pressure to fly through testing to be the first on the market with a sparkly new product like nanotech-produced cannabis drinks.
"These companies that are playing chemists...don't know what they're doing," Marcu said.
That's not to say that all nanotech cannabis brands are faking it.
The added buzz around newly legal weed adds pressure to fly through testing to be the first on the market with a sparkly new product.
Marcu added that just because a nano emulsion checks all the boxes when it's in a lab, doesn't mean it'll stay in a stable state when it's packaged, sitting on a shelf for months, and consumed. If you were to mix chocolate milk in a lab, he said, it would behave differently in a container than it would once it gets to a highly acidic environment like the human stomach.
Big Pharma, which has seemingly endless funding and resources for research, hasn't figured out how to perfect products like infused drinks yet. Cannabinoids are "not that special," Marcu said, in that they're one of countless non-water soluble substances. A small cannabis lab's research and development team, with a fraction of the resources that giant pharmaceutical companies have, can but probably won't beat them to it.
"This isn't Independence Day, where we're just going to be like, 'Oh my god, I have an idea of how to take down the aliens.'"
"This isn't Independence Day, where we're just going to be like, 'Oh my god, I have an idea of how to take down the aliens. Thank god they're Macintosh compatible,'" Marcu said. "If there was some big breakthrough in the bioavailability of orally water soluble compounds like cannabinoids, pharma would be using it for all their difficult poorly water soluble products."
And if a cannabis company could create a product that's consistent and stable, they'd also have to face the larger question: Does it work?
Orally consumed CBD, for example, has been found to be an effective treatment for anxiety, when taken at high doses. A 2015 study by New York University concluded that CBD could be used to treat patients with anxiety disorders, but the dosages ranged from 300 to 600 mg. In another study performed by the University of São Paulo in 2017, subjects were less anxious with public speaking after a 300 mg dose of orally administered CBD, but not after a dose of 100 mg. Theoretically, a nano emulsion CBD product could effectively treat anxiety at a much lower dose, but Marcu advises consumers not to hold their breath.
"If mainstream medicine hasn't yet, I would say that cannabis companies that are doing absolutely no clinical research, it seems extremely unlikely that they will make that breakthrough," Marcu said.
Then there's the supply chain issue. Even if a company adheres to strict testing standards, its suppliers may not. Woelfel added that Caliper sources raw materials to "tight specifications," but has seen challenges in its supply chain because the cannabis industry is so unregulated.
While the Food and Drug Administration has disciplined companies for making unsubstantiated claims about using CBD to treat ADHD, autism, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's, it's been slow to regulate manufacturing and distribution of products made with hemp-derived CBD. Even if a company keeps its own manufacturing process to food-grade specifications, their suppliers may be more lax about it with little regulation from the FDA.
How do you choose what to buy?
If you are curious about trying out nanotech edibles, Marcu has some advice.
For one, any company that brags it's the only or first company to manufacture nano emulsion weed products should probably raise red flags. If they claim to do what giant pharmaceutical labs can't, it's unlikely that it's real. Buyers should be skeptical of CBD-infused water, for example, because, in general, researchers haven't figured out how to make it shelf-stable. Second, Marcu advises looking for products that have consistent results and formulas; a chunky-looking "infused" drink is gross, but it's also likely unstable. And if an oral product employs processes designed for non-oral delivery methods, it's probably time to "have your antennas up in your BS detector." Cannabis production isn't one size fits all, and the processes that are used to make topical patches or vapes, for example, may not work for making edibles.
Is nanotech weed bullshit? Absolutely not. But like any novel development in the world of weed tech, you should be skeptical of anyone making grandiose claims about their product.
"Nano technology is real technology. It is something that will be increasingly important as the cannabis market matures, especially as the minor cannabinoids become more readily available," Marcu said. "I really hope that companies, as they develop more interest in research, will drive more innovations into creating products that give people what they want while keeping them safe."
There's no right or wrong way to consume cannabis, and with such novel technology, you'll have to be your own guinea pig. When starting out with nano edibles, follow the old adage: Start low, and go slow. And whatever you take, nanotech or not, don't make the mistake of eating another dose before the first one hits.
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