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Minorities in cannabis, with Steven Philpott Jr.

Minorities in cannabis, with Steven Philpott Jr.

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In light of Black History Month, we feel it is important and relevant to talk about how minorities in the United States and around the world have been disproportionately affected by drug policy and the war on drugs. Part of our conversation today centers on how we can break down barriers and find ways to build cannabis companies that are minority-owned and uplift them.

Joining us for this discussion is Steven Philpott Jr., one of our science reviewers at The Cannigma and a cannabis trichome expert who is getting his master’s in Plant Sciences. Steve is also one of the co-founders of the Illinois Minority Growers Association and is heavily involved in social equity and minority issues within the cannabis space.

 As part of his master’s degree, Steve is currently using electron microscopes to take super close-up pictures of trichomes, tiny protrusions on cannabis plants. Tuning in, you’ll hear more about what these trichomes are and why they’re important. Steve sheds light on his experience in the military and how losing friends to opioid use led him to become interested in cannabis. We also discuss the disparity between what is taught at medical school and what science actually shows us. 

To hear more about Steven’s research, what he hopes it will lead to, his predictions for the future of cannabis, how he is helping those most harmed by the war on drugs, and how you can help too, tune in today!

This is The Cannabis Enigma, cutting through the smoke to have informed, serious conversations for regular people.

Elana Goldberg: Hi, I’m Elana Goldberg.

Codi Peterson: And I’m Dr. Codi Peterson.

EG: So, it is February, which means it’s Black History Month in the US right, Codi?

CP: It is. It’s a month-long celebration of just such an important part of American culture that for too long was shunned rather than highlighted. I love the fact that we’re really starting to lean into this more because I think it’s a topic that deserves attention.

EG: Yeah, super important and also really relevant in the cannabis space, specifically, if you look at how minorities in general, I suppose in the United States and around the world have been disproportionately affected by drug policy and the war on drugs.

CP: It’s irrefutable. If you look back historically, these populations have been overly affected by the stance on cannabis, the war on drugs in general. But cannabis has been used as a tool to manipulate that. So, I think it’s really time that we find a way to break down barriers and find ways to get these cannabis companies that are minority-owned, small business-driven, and find a way to uplift them and encourage their entry and success in the market.

EG: Right. Definitely, and we’re looking to do a bunch of that. Look, we’re always looking to do that really at Cannigma, it’s a kind of really connects with our values, but this month, specifically and coming up –

CP: It’s a celebration.

EG: Exactly, it’s celebration, and like, you know, just turning the volume up a little bit this month. So, we’re going to put a link in the show notes. We’ve got a really interesting webinar coming up later this month on February 24. We do a monthly product showcase. Well, now we do a monthly product showcase because our first monthly, very well last month, so we’ve decided it’s for now.

CP: The second monthly installment.

EG: Exactly. Now, it’s going to be the second one, so we can call it a monthly. And we’re going to be focusing on Black-owned and social equity-focused brands on that webinar, so be sure to sign up and tune in. We’ll put the registration link in the show notes, like I said, and of course, the reason I’m bringing this up is not only because it’s February, but because our guest on this episode is heavily involved in social equity and minority issues within the cannabis space, right?

CP: Absolutely. Steven Philpott, among many other things, is one of the co-founders of the Illinois Minority Growers Association. So, this is an organization dedicated to empowering men and women of color to get their hands dirty, quite literally and start growing cannabis for themselves, for their health, for their community, and for their jobs. They’re really trying to empower individuals to get out there and grow. It goes so much deeper. Steven is involved in sort of this urban agriculture and this sort of rebirth. And he’s from the south side of Chicago, one of the toughest places in America for many, many decades really now, and he really wants to give back.

He’s brilliant. He’s a veteran of military service in the United States. He is a scientist getting his master’s degree, soon, his Ph.D. He’s taken super close-up pictures of trichomes and taking them with electron microscopes, the most powerful microscopes that we pretty much have in the world. And so, these are really weird, cool, science images, and he’s trying to build a compendium of them like an encyclopedia of trichomes.

EG: Super cool. So, we’re going to get some of those images and pop them in the show notes or on the article on The Cannigma for you all, so you can have a look at that as well. That is not something we can really describe on the podcast format. So, make sure you’ve got something to look at there as well. Steven is also one of our scientific advisors of The Cannigma. He helps out maintaining the veracity of all of our cultivation content so you probably see his name popping up on cultivation articles on The Cannigma as well.

CP: And we have some really good ones. So, if you’re interested in growing your own cannabis, whether it’s to make CBD hemp oil or whether it’s to burn one down after work, definitely check out our articles and you’ll learn something and maybe it’ll even be from Steven. So, with that, we should get into it, but don’t forget to check out our segment with Americans for Safe Access. We always have a nice little tidbit when we’re all about advocacy and access to cannabis for all.

EG: All right, so that’s going to be straight up to the interview. Let’s listen to Steven.

CP: Alright, another episode of The Cannabis Enigma podcast. So, I’m Dr. Codi Peterson, Chief Science Officer at The Cannigma. And today, I’m excited to be here with our guest, Steven Philpott Jr., a cannabis trichome expert, and he’s getting his master’s in Plant Sciences. Welcome, sir.

SP: Hey, thanks. I appreciate you taking time out to talk to me today. Hopefully, I got something interesting to say.

CP: I mean, I’ll find something interesting to talk about whether our listeners enjoy it or not. I can’t guarantee that, but I’m sure that we’ll find something to chat about. But no, thank you so much for your time today. Steve is one of our science advisors or science reviewers at The Cannigma. So, he’s helping us out with this content on the cultivation side. It’s been really nice working with you. So, it’s great to have you on the pod. Let’s just kind of jump right in and tell me what you’re doing exciting right now. What’s your bread and butter in cannabis right now? And then we’ll get into all the stuff that we want to talk about, like your history on cannabis.

SP: Yeah, so I guess right now, with my research, I am actually looking to create a catalog of trichomes.

CP: Catalog, like a magazine? 

SP: Kind of more like a collection of – the easiest way to explain it is, so we’re imaging trichomes on different plants, and we’re comparing the images of those trichomes, the density, and the distribution of those trichomes. And we’re comparing that to the secondary metabolite profile that we get from testing that same plan. What we’re attempting to do is try to find these correlation –

CP: Hold on. Let’s help the listener out. Slow down. So, a trichome is what?

SP: Yeah, so trichomes, they’re epidermal growth that comes from specialized cells. They come and pretty much two main forms. You got glandular and non-glandular. Your non-glandular is kind of what you see on tomato, sunflowers. If you look right underneath the actual flower itself, you’ll see these long hairs look like short spikes. Those are non-glandular, but then, you have these glandular trichomes and that’s where all good stuff is. This entire industry that we’re talking about is funny because I kind of laugh as an environmental scientist. I’m really geeking out about the plant, but technically his whole industry is based off of these compounds that are produced inside these little tiny trichomes.

CP: These little resin sacks that protrude off of the plant and so yeah, these epidermal growths that you talked about, epidermal is the most outside layer of an organism, your skin or in the case the plant’s, I don’t know what the word is, I guess, skin.

SP: Yeah, I mean, they are essentially trying to protect the outer layer of the leaf, that photosynthetic layer. So, these epidermal growths are essentially these chemical or physical barriers. I kind of joke with people like if the photosynthetic delicate surface of the leaf is the castle, you got these spikes in these non-glandular trichomes. You got these warehouses that are producing chemicals in these glandular trichomes.

CP: Like a little artillery to defend the plant, almost, little spike. Okay, so fortified. Well, these cannabis plants are making these trichomes, they’re fortifying and you’re telling me that the hot stuff is made in this cannabis trichomes, the cannabinoids and the terpenes, or many of the terpenes anyway?

SP: Right. So, there’s actually a bunch of secondary metabolites that are produced in there, but the two most researched are, your cannabinoids and your terpenes. One of the things that kind of got me interested in this type of research was the majority of the products you find on the market are cannabinoids are in their decarboxylated form. And we kind of just skipped over the benefits of cannabinoids that are in their acidic form, which is how the plant is naturally producing it.

CP: Like their raw form. It would the unheated state as if you plucked it off the plant. So, this is hot news right now, cannabinoid acids. In fact, we just finished up an article to talk about this new study that came out, cannabinoid acids blocking the spike protein on the new Coronavirus. So, really interesting stuff that you were thinking about this before this study came out, it sounds like, Steve.

SP: Yeah, I tell people all the time, they’re like, man, some of the stuff you’re doing sounds amazing. And I’m like, I really just took a very humble beginning to learning this plant. I didn’t really care about the industry to be honest. I wanted to learn about the plant itself. And when I learned about the plant, and then when I started working in the industry, I was like, “Oh, you know what, I think people are blowing past some of the gold here. They’re so concerned about THC and they missed everything, the whole story behind the importance of this plant and its uniqueness.”

CP: The magic that’s being made in that trichome. I think that’s super interesting. And before we get too deep into trichomes and your research, maybe we’ll circle back. I really do want to kind of hear more about kind of what got you into cannabis. I know now you’re plant science, and now you’re studying cannabis. But usually, in my experience, people have a backstory, people have a relationship with this plant before they decide to dedicate their lives to studying it or telling other people about it. So, tell me what cannabis did for you my friend?

SP: Yeah, so it’s actually really funny. I guess, when the seed was planted, pun intended –

CP: There it is. So, many good puns in his industry.

SP: Yeah, so I guess you know, I’d known about cannabis a lot, to be honest. I grew up with a single-parent household, mom on the south side of Chicago. And my mom was just like, “Hey, it’s a no, no. There’s no question.” There are certain things you’re willing to test your parents on, this wasn’t one of those things. So, never took a toke in High School. I was honestly just terrified. Until I joined the military, actually, I was part of the longest deployment since World War Two, back in 2011, 2012. When I came back from the deployment, I told my doctor like, “Hey, I got cortisone shots and stuff. My ankles were really swollen.” He X-rayed my leg and was like, “You got new bone growth.” And I was like, “Hell yeah.” He’s like, “Nah, man, if you have new bone growth, you probably had a fracture or a break or something.”

CP: He’s like, “This is bad.” You’re like, “I thought I was getting another toe.”

SP: I was like, “Am I gross?” He’s like, “Nah, man, not that type of bone.” So, what happened was I ended up having two surgeries. One to actually remove a piece of my calf to reduce some of the pressure on the bone. What it was, was I had bone that had grown like in between two bones it wasn’t supposed to grow in between. So, I had two surgeries, kind of gnarly. One of them left me with the plate in my ankle. But the whole point of this is that during those surgeries, I was given opioids, and I had already lost one Marine that was in my unit from PTSD, opioids, and overdose. When I was prescribed these, almost looked at the bottle, the only thing I know about these is I know that guy who died taking these shots.

CP: Sure. You’re a little skeptical, to say the least.

SP: Terrified is probably the better word for me. I was like, “Man, this dude went to Afghanistan. He’s a hero, but opioids got him.” So, to me, when I got this bottle, I was just like, “Hey, I don’t know about it. Had a nerve block from my surgery, decided I was going to not take the opioids, woke up in the morning when the nerve block wore off, screaming. So, I started taking them. After a couple months, I started really reading the bottle, and it was like, take one, the first day, take two the next couple of days, take three as needed for pain. And I realized that that “as needed”, was very subjective, right? And after a while I was like, Is this as needed for pain? Is this as needed for sleep? Is this as needed just to be comfortable? And I realized how easy it was to just take a couple more to normalize your day-to-day existence, and leaving the military and having that experience at the same time were mentally, just not good for me. Really, really not good.

CP: And this is all care through the government, I would imagine if you’re a veteran, you’re getting care through the VA.

SP: So, there’s the Department of Veterans Affairs, getting these prescriptions for paying for my surgeries and stuff. And after a while, I just kept thinking about those buddies that I lost. And I was like, man, you know, some point in time, all they were doing was trying to self-medicate themselves. And at some point in time, it became more than that. At that point, I started understanding addiction and different things like that a little more, a little more thoughtful, instead of being so judgmental, like we are as a society.

And then I left the Marines and went to school for kinesiology, human physiology, sports performance, and nutrition. Because I was interested in some of those chemical imbalances because you hear the same things in the military, anxiety, stress, PTSD, sustained excess cortisol levels, you hear the same thing and, really in athletes and sports performance and physical therapy and a lot of places where people are active a lot, and they’re stressed out all the time. So, that’s what led me to get my bachelor’s in kinesiology, human physiology, so I can understand just the inkling of what was going on. And you as a pharmacist know, I got like one percent and just jumped down the rabbit hole.

CP: Yeah, I mean, you start to open this book. I mean, look, there’s so much connected, right? So, if you talk about exercise and kinesiology, the first thing that comes to mind for me is, “Oh, exercise stimulates the endocannabinoid system.” We’re not taught that. They didn’t mention that to you in kinesiology school, nor to me in pharmacy school, but now we know and science continues to prove That’s what’s happening here. And so, I think it’s really intriguing to tie back what we’re studying what you’re working on, which is trichomes and these plant defense mechanisms, somehow ties back into human physiology and homeostasis, right? And that’s really what this endocannabinoid system is all about. And that’s really my jam, is I love talking about this incredibly complex system that keeps us on. So yeah, cortisol, stress, this all connects for me, Steve.

SP: Yeah. So, I’m legitimately, I’m a strength conditioning coach. A lot of people don’t know, I spent time in Northwestern University, Illinois, Chicago, coaching these athletes, and a lot of people get to see the cool part on television of these athletes playing but what they don’t realize is on the back end, if you’re a strength coach, a physical therapist and athletic trainer, you are trying to like keep these athletes together by duct tape almost. Because we talk about homeostasis. We talk about homeostasis arbitrarily in the sports performance world as if it’s just this – we try to keep them near homeostasis, and you’re like, what does that look like? From a cellular level, like what’s going on?

And then when you realize, these athletes are always dealing with some type of chronic inflammation from these injuries that they never healed with. They’re not eating right. They’re college athletes, or they’re not sleeping, their bodies aren’t recovering. When you kind of learn things like that. It’s like, well, how do we get them to this homeostasis? Well, I think what opened it up for me was, I always joked, we’re biohacking. When the term first got talked about. I was like, it’d be cool, if whatever rush you get, that runner’s high, that endorphin, I said, if you could get that and package it, and you could just take that on a regular basis as an athlete, wouldn’t that be amazing? And I kind of joked about it. Well, then I kept going down this rabbit hole, and it’s like, endorphins aren’t what’s causing the runner’s high. That’s not endorphins. And I’m like, “Well, what could it be?” And it’s like, endocannabinoids.

CP: This is everything that we get into that, like, “Oh, that’s really enjoyable. What’s that about?” I now think endocannabinoids, right? You ever been vibing and about to at a concert and you get like the chills or whatever? So, I think that’s endocannabinoids. I can’t prove it. I don’t know what’s going on. But I’m telling you, I think it’s endocannabinoids. And so, really cool stuff that you’re sharing and homeostasis, I think with these athletes has to be a challenge, grueling training. And like you said, I mean, these are still kids, right? I mean, still trying to live their life, they drink a lot of alcohol. It’s not like a professional athlete who’s really close to the time, nailed down, kind of what they care about. Adults just tend to be more regimented. So that’s really cool. Tell me about what you’re doing in Illinois now. So, you’re doing some research at the university, you’re teaching, getting your master’s degree and what university?

SP: Say that again.

CP: At what university? I don’t think I had you share that earlier.

SP: Yeah, so I’m actually getting my master’s in biological sciences specializing in environmental sciences at Chicago State University. And then I’m an adjunct professor in the urban agriculture department out of Harvey college. And they are one of seven schools in the state of Illinois that’s actually licensed through the Illinois Department of Agriculture to teach hands-on hemp operations on campus in the greenhouse.

CP: Cool. So, you’re working with plants hands-on, like at work and at home, and everywhere. Okay. So, you’re like me, your wife is like, “Alright, can we stop talking about cannabis? Everything is cannabis.”

SP: Yeah, she bought me a little THC molecule that I have. I realized at that point, she knew that I was pretty much switched over to the industry. And funny enough, my fiancé is in medical school. So, these are conversations that we have, again, I don’t know everything that she’s doing in medical school, but something will come up every now and then. And I’m like, “Oh, what are they teaching you all about the endocannabinoid system?” And she’s like, I mean, they taught that it’s the system – yeah, she said, essentially they said everybody’s talking about cannabis consumption now, so when people are consuming cannabis and being intoxicated, this is the system that’s taking part. That’s all they teach. This is the system is called intoxication –

CP: Yup. Under drugs of abuse, right?

SP: Yeah.

CP: It’s kind of crazy, but that’s how I got as well and it’s really inappropriate, frankly. If this system exists in almost every cell in your body, in every major organ system, is the most abundant receptor system in your entire brain exists in birds, reptiles, fish, and even in the – what’s the word I’m looking for, the thing that –

SP: Hydra?

CP: Yeah, thank you. The Hydra 600-million-year-old basic organism. I think we can say that we can talk about it in medical school. I know we don’t know exactly how it works because it’s exceptionally complex, but it’s safe to say we should mention it.

SP: Yeah, and I think that is part of my like, I realized the kind of all of the great scientists at some point, they crossed over from their level of interest to almost obsession. And I realized that I had crossed that threshold when I was like, there is a lot more to this that we don’t understand. But it’s because we’re building an industry based around one molecule instead of what the plant does itself. 

I think the most profound thing like you just said, I try to imagine a planet with no humans. Cannabis was already here. It had already experienced changes. When you look at the angiosperms showing up after the dinosaurs, and then cannabis, people thinking might be 20 million years old. It’s like if it’s been here that long, and then we popped up, and it is already producing molecules that can act within our body, this really abundant system, you have to start asking some bigger questions. The jig is up guys. I think we found the system, right?

CP: This system is incredible. And there’s another article and piece we’re working on at The Cannigma, and it’s about whether we were designed to consume cannabis. And while I think cannabis is exceptional medicine, and I am stoked that it helped us discover the ECS and everything we can do with what the cannabis plant did to us now, the truth is, and this pharmacist’s opinion, we did not evolve to eat, consume or definitely not smoke cannabis, but there’s an assumption, there’s a vibe in the industry, that that’s where we’re at. And the truth is scientifically, evolutionarily, that doesn’t make sense.

But I will say, to counter myself here, Steve, I think our modern lifestyle has thrown our endocannabinoid system out of whack. And therefore, many of us who are reaching to cannabis to try and reach homeostasis because our diet’s trashed, our communities are not there anymore, spirituality isn’t being supported, we’re consumed with social media, and Lord knows what else. I don’t know. Throw some fuel on the fire, Steve, what do you got?

SP: Yeah, social media has pretty much – you had me there. Influences of social media, that kind of triggers the rest of the eating habits and the depression and all the other stuff. So again, to your point, I don’t think that this isn’t something we have evolved to do. I think we’re just returning to our roots, right? If you think about it, you know, people typically hunter, gatherers, we’re consuming a lot of plants. But I think that our diets don’t have a lot of plants in it. And I teach environmental agriculture as well, our soil lacks the capacity to actually produce the nutrients that we need, from the same fruit. They say it takes like eight oranges now to get the same vitamin C as an orange, 50 or 60 years ago.

CP: Wow. Is this true? This is scientifically validated?

SP: People don’t think about why this is this. This is from the nutrients of the soil. If the soil lacks the ability to – you can call these oranges, the same thing that you’ve been growing the last 20, 30 years. But if your soil is no longer fertile, how are you going to get these into compounds? We’re always focused on the end compound and we’re not thinking of what the synthesis of these compounds is.

CP: Like the THC for example. And then if we go back, we can now actually look at “Oh, the mycorrhiza and the microbiome of the soil, and the fungus communicating with the plant all makes this one miracle of homeostasis.” And then Earth, right? These things can grow, and this actually ties back to the endocannabinoid system as well, because we know that the microbiome in our gut can actually influence our endocannabinoid system. So, for the listener, that means that the bacteria in our gut can change our response to THC, essentially. I mean, it’s not going to be tangible in that way. But that’s the end effect, and it’s really intriguing.

SP: Yeah, for sure. I think that’s why it is so important. I was interested once I heard, “Hey, not just THC, is what people are shopping for.” Then CBD popped up in 2018 with the Farm Bill, right? Then after CBD, now people are like, “Oh, CBG. CBG is so amazing.” And again, as someone who works with the plant, I’m looking at the biosynthesis pathways, and I’m like, all this stuff has to come from CBG. CBA, right? So that’s kind of where I got into my research interested about let’s start imaging these trichomes as they’re going through these stages, and if we can find a correlation between the morphology, the structure, the distribution, the density of these trichomes, and we can find the correlation to the results we’re getting from GCMs and HPLC analysis of cannabinoids and terpenes. There may be something there which I personally believe there is, from reading other research. But this is the first time at least from what I know that anyone is compared fresh trichomes that essentially have been dipped in liquid nitrogen as soon as they’re harvested from the plant –

CP: Flash-frozen.

SP: Right. So, cryogenically frozen immediately so that we get the most structurally representative sample of what trichomes naturally look like. If you think about it, the majority of products on the market are dealing with decarboxylated cannabinoids, and most of the flour is dried and cured. So, technically those trichomes that we’re seeing, that profile that we’re getting is not representative of what that plant had naturally produced. You have no clue what type of setting that it was dried and cured in, that’s when we get into all these different isomers that people are freaking out about now, oxidation of these compounds, decarboxylation. I’m curious as to what the plants are producing, naturally, before humans get their paws on and start saying what it really is, I just want to image these trichomes and get also a snippet of what their cannabinoid terpene profiles are looking like, before we dry and cure them.

CP: I have so many things I want to talk about. But what do you think that your research could lead to? What is it that you’re interested in trying to – I mean, it’s really cool. We need to know, right? But what’s the next step? What’s the next evolution of the work that you’re doing?

SP: Yeah, if I could teleport it to the future and be right about something, that didn’t end up sounding really, really cool.

CP: Tell me that.

SP: Yeah. So again, when I heard the indicas and sativas, and I heard all these other nonsensical or nonsensical, just misguided conversations about things, I was like, “We are not good at even categorizing this plant that we’re trying to define to people.” We’re trying to tell people about hemp and marijuana, and all these terms are arbitrary, they’re man-made. And I like to think about it literally as if we were not here. How would you define this plant? If humans weren’t here? How would you define it without human use? Without decarboxylation? Without drying? Without curing? Maybe this plant that’s been around longer than us knows what the system needs, like maybe it really just knows, “Hey, I made this amount of terpenes, this amount of CBGa, this amount of CBDa, maybe those natural profiles are better for us than when we dry it, when we cure it. So, whether we can maximize the THC content, maybe that is a different type of profile than what’s naturally being produced.

So, I’m trying to again, preserve these trichomes in their natural state, and I’m hoping that there’s some type of correlation between the density and morphology of these trichomes and the chemotypes that we hear talked about often. Because there’s been research done already, that between stalked glandular trichomes, and sessile glandular trichomes, sessile glandular trichomes have a different number of secretory disks, and they have a different terpene profile than stock glandular trichome. So, the belief is that sessile glandular trichomes are the precursor to the ones that we’re used to seeing, those tall stalked ones where you have the glandular head on the stalk.

CP: Yeah, and then those are capitate stalk, right? So, stalk-like a plant stalk, and then capitate means head. And then the other one is sessile, just means like, not extended, right? It means like not –

SP: So, you have the glandular hair that is just sitting flat on the surface.

CP: Okay, yeah, not protruding from the plant, like you would see in those cool images. Very interesting stuff, for sure. I think it is intriguing to think about. We say cannabis is medicine. I totally agree. But with all this has been biased, all of the research on cannabis has been biased, for a lot of reasons, government prohibition and lots of things. But it all led to like, inability to effectively communicate, and what we got was a system that was entirely driven by THC research. We found THC interacts with CB one and CB two, it’s got this very unique structure. We studied it, we said, this is the endocannabinoid system, we developed everything around this molecule. And then as we learned more, and as we were able to study cannabinoids, more CBD and CBG and CBC, we see that this is much more complicated, that these molecules don’t just interact with CB one and CB two, but rather a very large intricate system of PPARs, TRPs, and many other GPRs and a bunch of stuff that’s really unimportant, just to know that it’s incredibly complex. And all of our view of this system, and this plant has been through the spectrum of the intoxicating molecule of THC instead of CBGa. The bass molecule of all of this. Perhaps that’s the molecule that should have defined the system. I don’t know. But I know that we were biased in our discoveries.

SP: Yeah, I mean, that is kind of my – I’ll never forget the first time I looked at the pathway and I was just like –

CP: The biosynthetic pathway.

SP: Yeah. So, I’m looking at this pathway of how you get from fatty acids to cannabinoids, and I’m just like, “Okay, cool. You got CBGa. CBGa comes before THC, before CBD, before CBC, before all these other compounds that we talked about.” And to your point, I was instantly just like, how do you dive into something without exploring?

CP: Yeah, we started on step four and where we got to like backtrack now and try to tease it apart. And what we see is very unique pharmacologic profiles of these cannabinoid acids, like activity against the new Coronavirus, which was just published in May, this media hailstorm. And so, I think it’s super intriguing that this is really your focus, you’re like, “Hold up, we need to back away from neutral cannabinoids, the cannabinoids that will be generated when we smoke. And let’s look at what the plant is doing, both what it’s producing, and what ratios, what percentages, and all of that.” I think it’s great, man. I think a lot of our information has been biased for sure.

SP: To your point, I want it to be the scientist that wasn’t focusing on what everybody else is focusing on. When there’s people trying to define impairment. They haven’t talked to people who understand the systems that can be impaired, right? To me, that’s super weird, as someone with the human physiology degree, so I was kind of like, you know, that conversation, I think A, it’s being had by some of the wrong people. They’re not considering people who understand these systems. But B, like I said, my thing was, while these groups are arguing, who really knows about the plant, like the plant itself? This plant, that’s it, just the plant?

When I teach at Paul Harvey, my students are always shocked. They’re like, the first six weeks of class, you didn’t talk about any drug, any sales, any human use, any, nothing. I literally teach them about plants and soil science and roots and photosynthesis, and I teach them how to apply some of the basic general concepts of biology and the environment to cannabis. And the process, there’s kind of this – I mean, I’ve seen people literally crying in class just explaining ruderalis. Just talking about ruderalis, just that there’s this auto-flowering plant. We have these plants that depend on the seasons to essentially guide them. We know the distribution of hours of light and darkness control when vegetation turns to flowering. But then when you see ruderalis at these really, really northern right parts of the globe –

CP: Like Russia.

SP: Right, it’s in Russia, it’s an auto flower, and it’s flowering pretty much on its own clock with no light, you have to really think about the deeper concepts there. This plant is not relying on the amount of daylight hours to tell it when to flower.

CP: Yeah, it’s evidence that this plant is adaptable. It found its way around the world well, before humans decided to plant it and grow it for its psychoactivity. It’s just that’s more evidence. But for those who are listening who don’t know, the traditional cannabis varieties that you consume or buy at your dispensary has to go through a very specific 12-hour light schedule in order to flower triggering sort of the end of the season, the end of summer and the start of fall. And so, to flower and turn into that. This ruderalis, this variety, still cannabis sativa, interestingly enough, is actually found in northern latitudes. It doesn’t care about the sun. It just makes flowers when it needs to, based on stressors probably in the environment. I don’t know, no one probably knows. But just it does it without working with the sun. So, it is non photo period sensitive.

This is great. This is the work that Steve and I are working together on the articles that we’re putting out. So, if you’re this growing stuff interests you, please you want to check out the work that Steven is doing with us there. And this is a good segue, Steve, into your more service-based project, right? So, we know what you’re studying. We know what you’re passionate about, the little protrusions from cannabis and plants to taking really close-up pictures of those hairs. Electron microscope you said, right?

SP: Correct. Yup, scanning electron microscopy.

CP: Man, you got to hold those flowers, extra still to take that picture.

SP: Yeah, they’re frozen and fixed to a brass block, because they get beamed with these electron beams from essentially heating up like tungsten steel. So, there’s no light in these images. These images are literally scanning electrons. That’s the least nerdy way I can explain it. You blast the sample with electrons, and you knock off some electrons in the process. And based on that, you get this image without using light. So yeah, it’s pretty intense. And there’s not a lot of images of it, which is why I want to create this catalog so that we can kind of know we’re talking about on a different level.

CP: I think it’d be really cool if we get one of those images and share it in the show notes or we put it on –

SP: For sure. I got you.

CP: Yeah, that would be really cool. But when you’re not doing super nerdy stuff, you’re also working in the community. So, tell me what you’re doing in Illinois, with the Minority Growers Association?

SP: Yeah. So, I am the co-founder and chief visionary officer of the Illinois Minority Growers Association. Here in Illinois, we have some of the largest cannabis companies in the United States that have headquartered here. Many people don’t know Cresco, Green Thumb Industries, Carmack and some of the largest companies in the US, are actually headquartered here in Chicago. And there’s this kind of – it’s not a difficult story to really talk about anymore. It’s something we all understand. Chicago has one of the highest gun crime rates in the world, not just in the United States. And a lot of people don’t – people say, “Why is that? What’s happening? This is a major city, it’s a beautiful city, what could be going on in these communities of color? Why so violent?”

And the truth of the matter is, like, when we hear about the war on drugs, it was targeted. Like they were communities that were specifically targeted, when as much as we’re benefiting now from cannabis. Those communities still have – they’re still dealing with fallout of the war.

CP: Those battle scars.

SP: Yeah. So, it’s not just economics of businesses being destroyed. It’s not just the, sociological, psychological part of taking Black men out of the community. That kind of lagged on through like school systems. People not wanting to put businesses in your communities. So, a lot of those places that people can look at on the news, and they say, it’s so violent, most of them are communities that were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. 

So, my nonprofit is focused on using education, equity and empowerment, to essentially give those communities the opportunity to have their stake in the industry. But I’m doing it a different way. You’ll hear a ton of nonprofits, and this isn’t me dissing any nonprofits. I just wanted to do something different. A lot of nonprofits are focused on dealing with the state. So, trying to get licenses for dispensaries, trying to get licensed for fusions, transportation, things of that nature.

CP: So, facilitating business.

SP: Yeah, my focus was how do you get into business legally, without having to stand in line and wait for a license from the government? If people don’t know here, it’s been two years since we started legal cannabis use, there’s zero social equity licenses, business holders that have started.

CP: Okay, so two years ago, Chicago passed social equity measures to incorporate it into the recreate adult use cannabis market and no movement.

SP: And in two years –

CP: But the adult use market is up and running. Let’s be clear, it’s not like nothing’s up. It’s just this minority.

SP: So, here in Illinois, there’s been $2.6 billion made in two years, just two years from January 2020 to January 2022. We have already in the first-year topped alcohol tax revenue, which is huge, because that really tells you where Americans are leaning. People self-medicate how they choose, but people are leaning away from alcohol and leaning towards cannabis.

So long story short, the reason I created this nonprofit with my partner was because we wanted to see what ancillary businesses there were? What type of businesses can support the industry? Who are the people that have jobs, or they have career skillsets already, or they can jump into the industry in a way that doesn’t require a license from the state? Like myself as a researcher, I left corporate sports after, eight years of working my way through the NCAA, through corporate sports. I wanted to go back to school because I knew that I could pave my own path through my master’s research.

But that took me knowing that I had a skill set already that no job could offer me, no license could offer me. I had to learn to empower myself essentially like, “Hey, this is a plant.” And if you learn about the basics, the foundations of this plant, take it your own way and write your own ticket. So, my nonprofit is focused on creating those opportunities from the people in these communities that were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. We actually just partner with the Harrington Institute. You’re getting like first news, drop it here fresh.

CP: You heard it here. Wait, what are we – Harrington Institute.

SP: So, my nonprofit partners with the Cleveland School of Cannabis, they are one of the only two state-accredited cannabis education platforms in the United States.

CP: Yup. I know who they are.

SP: And they actually are the kind of educational partner for the Harrington Institute, which is Al Harrington, the CEO and owner of Viola, former NBA player Al Harrington, the Harrington Institute, that is his school. So, we are partnering with the Harrington Institute to provide two different cohorts here in Chicago, program we have going on. 

One cohort is specializing in essentially a reentry program. People who do have convictions and have records and maybe can’t get into school, they can’t get jobs. We want to teach them that hands-on experience. We want to teach them this plant, separate from products, marketing sales, we want to teach them to plant so that they can really kind of develop their own path into the industry, whether it be working for someone else growing, trimming cultivation, or whether it be starting their own plant nursery, whatever it may be.

In our other cohort is recent STEM graduates from communities that were disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. So, people who have biotechnology degrees, organic chemistry degrees, environmental science degrees, agriculture, we want to take those people, teach them about cannabis, and when those people become empowered, and they become employed, and they make money from these disproportionately impacted communities, those are the people who come back to the communities and build a community of open businesses and give back. 

I really just wanted to prove like, I’m not an anomaly. You can be a Black here from the south side, and really kind of write your own path. Education legitimately is the key. And I think that’s not just in my community, that’s across the entire United States in the world.

CP: Absolutely. It’s not just really available to everyone. Certainly, the dedicated can generally find their path, but there’s a lot of potholes along the way, and to get a good education. You’ve got financial barriers, testing barriers, all of these attendance records, because of other circumstances. When you grow up in the Southside of Chicago, you find yourself in some shitty circumstances sometimes, and then you find yourself missing out. So, I think it’s great. And really those initiatives sound so, I don’t want to say simple, but like feasible.

SP: They are, they have to be, because sometimes we we shoot for the stars, and again, I have a lot of people that contact me and they say, “I’m interested in getting one of those dispensary licenses.” And I’m like, “Isn’t it like two mil just to be able to sit at the table, get the application.”

CP: And then you got to play the retail rat race, I think is the problem. And so, I guess to cite, one of the people I follow on the internet that I really liked is Gary Vaynerchuk. And what he says, the advice he gives to young folks who are looking to figure out what they want to do. What do you like? Okay, great. Go do that. Find a way to go do that. Take whatever you’re good at, and apply it in the thing that you’d like the most, and you’ll find success. I think that, it sounds like, in some ways, that’s what you’ve done and what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to ignite this interest in cannabis, because I mean, it’s fascinating in young men or in women of color, it sounds like in particular, and then facilitate them using the skills they already have in this industry, we really need help.

SP: Yeah, it’s interesting to teach people about something that tore up their community, when you know, people— Like I have a student today, it was the first day of class, and he was like, he did not introduce yourself. And what he was trying to say was that he’d been arrested, but he’ embarrassed to like, say, “I’ve been arrested for this plant.” When you realize that there’s people who – the way that they apply for housing, the way that they apply for jobs, the way that they apply for school, and federally, it will never be the same because they have a conviction. And then you see $2.6 billion being made in the same state that arrested you, we have to help people out like.

As a Marine, that’s the one thing I realized, it’s not about our personal opinions, it’s really about, if you can’t help people, at least don’t hurt them. That’s my thing. When people are seeing something like, “Hey, that’s the same drug that I went to jail for, now it’s being taught, people are making money off of it.” That is how our communities start falling behind. We have to go back and get those group of people and be like, “Hey, they were wrong. This was targeted. You should not have been targeted. This was the law. This is what happened. This is where you fell in line.” But let’s empower those people to then – America loves comeback stories. We love it in sports. We love it in the damn Avengers. We love it in everything, right? But we don’t apply those comeback stories to our communities. Let’s go get the people who are harmed the most by the war on drugs and let’s put them at the front of this industry, so they tell their stories. And so, we don’t make these mistakes going forward again.

So, that keeps me going, that and again, having lost buddies to opioids. That’s where I line with you so much and I appreciate you so much, because I’m not a pharmacist and having a fiancé and both of her parents, being doctors, I’m not interested in being a doctor. I respect it so much. But I do appreciate the fact that I see a lot of people push back, they’re like, “Well, doctors been given us these pills all these years and it’s a very complex system that a lot of people don’t understand.” People don’t understand a single compound drugs versus these diverse plants. I joke with people like the FDA doesn’t say that they approve blueberries, but we know blueberries have antioxidants and all these other compounds in them right. So yeah, I think it’s all coming together. I don’t want us to all get hung up on dispensaries and licenses. I want us to realize there’s a one of the largest industries ever being built around the planet based on a plant. You boil it down to that, that’s what you really see what it is.

CP: Yeah, like my passion is keeping cannabis from going full CPG, consumer packaged goods and keeping medical. But let’s zoom out and look at really what this plant can do because it is so genetically diverse, which I’m sure you can talk about at length on our next episode together. But one thing that we know is you know from fiber, insulation, food, there’s so much to this plant. Not to mention, we could use it to help in fighting climate change. We’ve got a problem with monoculture and soy and corn, there’s so much that this plant has to offer us and so I’m so happy to be see scientists like yourself, joining the fight, so to speak. And then even more so, it’s amazing what you’re doing with the Minority Growers Association of Illinois and bringing in those mentorships essentially and building up the next generation of Black and brown scientists in America. We need more.

So, what do you see in the future for cannabis? Give me something cool, something sci fi. Is cannabis going to go to Mars? What do we got fun? I know you’re an imaginative guy. What’s up?

SP: I’d say on a basic level, I think the quickest change I kind of want to see, live resin products. The desire for live resin.

CP: Live resin. So, frozen product and then extracted for its cannabinoids and terpenes?

SP: Yeah, so where the traditional method would be you’re harvesting your plant, you chop it at the base, hang it upside down, dry it, curing it, decarboxylating. You’re decarboxylating these cannabinoids, your volatiles like these terpenes are essentially evaporating. So, if you look at most flower on the market, the terpene levels are really, really low. So, I’m hoping that the consumer demand for terpene-based products for a lot of resin products, I’m hoping the demand for that will go up.

My futuristic sci-fi, kind of on the other end of the spectrum, it’s very interesting seeing how long it took cannabis to get the green thumb, I guess. But it’s interesting to see how quickly you have things like psilocybin, two steps behind it. I kind of joke, if cannabis just made it one step inside the door, it seems like psilocybin has its foot inside the door already kind of waiting to see where to bring that second foot. So, my thing is, kind of where I’m interested in my Ph.D. is some of these interactions between [inaudible 00:47:06] these fungi that exists in almost all plants that exist outdoors. I’m interested in some of these connections between hemp as a kind of ideal model for carbon sequestration, but also what’s going on with the connection between hemp and these fungal networks that are able to communicate and kind of balance out the distribution of these chemicals.

It’s kind of mind-blowing. It’s very futuristic, but it’s also the stuff that Carl Sagan was talking about a long time ago. I think we just missed out on it. And this is a chance I believe that this kind of mental health and environmental health thing is happening at the same time. And we’re learning about plants like hemp that exist, and cannabis that exists on both sides of the coin, to kind of maybe heal our minds, but also heal our planet simultaneously. So, that’s kind of my futuristic idea to where the medicine that we’re growing and simultaneously healing our planet at the same time. And we can communicate with the planet using those fundamentals, rising networks.

CP: Yeah, it sounds like we’re going to need at least one more fungus. They went on mentioned, I guess, not mention. But yeah, I think understanding the symbiosis between the plants that we’re talking about, the interconnectedness that exists between all of us and the endocannabinoid system, and this primordial soup of life. There’s a lot to be said, about how harmony is really important on this planet. And frankly, how humans have gotten and F that up, and how much work we’re going to need to do to get it back. So, I can’t wait. Next time, maybe we’ll deviate from trichomes and talk a little bit bigger picture stuff. But Steve Philpott Jr. Thank you so much. Is there any way that the listeners should go to find and hear more of your work? Or where should they connect with you? 

SP: I appreciate you having me and you can always find me on LinkedIn. Again, my name is Steven Philpott Jr. The nonprofit link is ilmga. That’s going to be ilmga.org. That is the website for the Nonprofit Illinois Minority Growers Association. We will be having an event in March 31, I believe, where we’ll be kind of doing our big coming out party and talking about fundraising for our members and our students. So yeah, that’s where you can find me and thanks, Cody for taking out the time to kind of chop it up and give me the platform.

CP: Yeah, well, I love the work that you’re doing and really appreciate your help. And this is obviously not the last time we’re going to be chatting so look forward to the next one. 

SP: Appreciate it.

CP: Alright, Steve, be well.


CP: Hello Cannabis Enigma listeners. It’s Dr. Codi Peterson here with our regularly scheduled segment with Americans for Safe Access. I’m here with Heather Despres. How are you?

HD: Good, how are you?

CP: I’m great. I’m so glad to see you join us again for this little short. I really want to dive into cannabinoid testing and what’s going on in labs today and help patients understand a little bit more why it matters, what their laboratory report says on the cannabinoid profile. Talk of the town, high THC. How high is too high for the plant to make? I’ve seen 38 percent. Is that real?

HD: I would call that questionable. The plant is really only capable of producing so many cannabinoids and we may possibly be overlooking the benefit of some of the other cannabinoids by generating plants that are these high cannabinoid producers. I think the other thing to look at is, there is a variability in here. There is something known as measurement uncertainty, and that is that plus or minus percentage that in the cannabis world, we don’t list on our test reports. But as far as the FDA is concerned, is required for a lot of other drugs to be produced.

That Tylenol that you’re getting, that’s 500 milligrams plus or minus 15 percent. I think that really kind of educating the cannabis industry, consumers and producers alike in what that reality looks like, is a key step forward. So, understanding the math and the science behind where those cannabinoid numbers come from, and that natural variability that may take place either within the plant itself, as well as within the testing regime itself. Because we know that the plant produces a varying amount of cannabinoids from top to bottom. And so, one of the key things with potency testing is to really ensure that you have a representative sample of that batch.

So, when producers are able to send their own samples to the lab, we tend to see that they are selecting their very, very best samples to send in – and not necessarily really combining that with middle and bottom fractions of the plant that would give you a more representative picture. I’ve also seen some pretty sketchy things in the lab world, people sprinkling Keef on top of their buds to try and get an inflated potency.

CP: Just taking a little in on you, Heather.

HD: So, really trying to like pull the wool over on the labs, and I think on the lab end, a bit of that comes down to the quality of materials that you’re starting with. So, if your reference standards that you’re producing, you either made in house, which I had to, nine years ago, make my own CBDs and standard because it wasn’t actually available on the market.

CP: Okay, so to identify that was CBD was in the product, Heather, you had to actually – a reference standard for the listener is actually what the laboratory uses to identify what’s in your cannabis sample. So, you essentially have to have a pure version of CBD to know how much or if CBD is in that cannabis sample, depending on what method you’re using, I believe. So, you used to have to make your own. We were in such a state of prohibition that you couldn’t get any?

HD: Well, the manufacturers at that point only had a THC standard available, and you could buy it in a one milligram ampule because that was the highest amount that the DEA would let them send out.

CP: One milligram, by the way, to the listener is a fleck. It’s a couple trichomes nicked off the end of your cannabis bud, certainly not enough to even light on fire and smoke. So very, very small.

HD: But yeah, so now you have more manufacturers making reference standards. And so, laboratories should be able to find accredited reference standard manufacturers. But we have found that it’s sometimes a laboratories calibration curves can be affected by the quality of those standards. And your calibration curve is the backbone for how you quantify all of the cannabinoids that are in that plant that you’ve just extracted and is a very critical component to actually measuring and testing cannabinoids.

I think one of the other things we see is like, “Oh, I sent my flower to three different laboratories and I got three different results.” Well, the flower, I mean, depending on how close statistically those are, I would have people say, “Oh, well, you tested it at 18.1 percent and this lab got it at 9 percent. Well, mathematically, it’s basically the same result because that falls within your measurement uncertainty.” Every time you touch something, a measurement uncertainty factor comes in. So sampling, how did your sample get collected? If the person collecting the sample didn’t correct a representative sample that can affect your measurement uncertainty, then you get it to the lab. The lab uses the balance. That balance should be calibrated, but that calibration has a very minor amount of measurement uncertainty. So, when you calibrate that balance, for example, if you’ve got a one-gram weight on there, that one-gram weight needs to fall within a certain specification to be considered valid. But there is that specification range.

CP: Right. So, it compiles on top of itself, like over and over. A little bit of error at the beginning step leads to a much larger chance of error and variability.

HD: Yeah. So, we’re seeing this now, like it was a big thing for hemp, the USDA is requiring measurement uncertainty to be reported and have testing results so that they have that plus or minus value so that they can calculate whether a sample is passing or not. That hasn’t really translated into the cannabis world. But you’re 18 percent at plus or minus one and a half percent measurement uncertainty, which is a pretty conservative, not horrible uncertainty. But that still gives you that plus or minus range that people don’t really understand. They want to see the exact same number on each test report, which isn’t really realistic. But a number that’s statistically significant and close enough to it is going to be essentially the same result.

CP: Sure. And really, one thing that’s interesting is a lot of – especially for those who are looking to sell their product, they know that THC drives the consumers pocketbook right now. We could have a whole episode on how and why that shouldn’t be the case. But when it comes to THC levels, tell me a little bit more about the incentive structure that might be broken, and how that can impact the reliability of these tests?

HD: Sure. I mean, we’ve all seen those studies that get published, “Oh, my god, I just tested all this stuff and it didn’t test the same.” Part of that comes when states don’t require third-party sampling. So, some states just say, “Oh, labs have to go in and take the samples.” Some states will allow a third-party group that’s been approved as a sampler, like the USDA actually has its own sampling program, that based on statistics will tell you where to sample from a crop. And these standards aren’t necessarily applied to cannabis sampling. And so, when we’re sampling these flowers, we may have producers who are cherry-picking the best to send to the laboratories. So, if they’re not sending that representative sample, then those results could tend to be a little skewed.

CP: Essentially, patients are being overcharged thinking that they’re getting a different quality or different concentration of cannabis than they could or worse, or I guess not worse, but his patients are not aware of what dose they’re taking, because they made assumptions based on the representative number when they made their edibles calculation.

HD: Sure, and edibles realistically should have a much tighter variance there because the product should be more consistent. We know the plant itself, the flowers have a high variability in it. But once you’ve got that extract, that extract should be homogenous, and that edible should be homogenous. And you should be able to test that product and get a much tighter window between multiple laboratories testing that product. I think one of the challenges that we have right now is that, I’ll throw out another big sciency word, proficiency testing is really the only thing that we have right now to judge for labs. And proficiency testing right now, because of the DEA is very limited in what can get sent out. Again, that whole issue of the DEA won’t let you send anything more than one milligram in the mail.

So, proficiency testing right now is really just testing whether or not your calibration curve is accurate. It’s not really testing whether your extraction method that you’re using to extract the cannabinoids, from your samples to analyze is accurate. Whereas if we could start getting some real-world products sent out there, or having an organization be able to send them out and not violate DEA restrictions would allow these types of samples to be sent out versus just a little ampule of a standard that you have to measure on your machine. Those tests also have like, “Oh, you’ve got to be within like 30% of the actual value. Okay, cool.”

CP: That’s a big window, for sure. And the takeaway ends up being the same thing, is reliable numbers, especially patients who were paying taxes on their cannabis or paying for accurate testing for cannabinoids and pesticides, which we’ll hope to get into in our next segment here with you. But I do want to thank the listeners for listening and I want to thank you Heather, for joining us and have a great day.

HD: Great. Thank you for being here.

EG: I’m Elana Goldberg. This episode of The Cannabis Enigma podcast is executive produced by myself with production assistance from Dr. Codi Peterson and Ed Weissman and edited by our friends at WeEditPodcasts.

If you enjoyed the episode, feel free to like, rate, and share. It helps other people find the podcast and it’s really nice for us as well.

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