With recreational marijuana already legalized in 10 states plus the District of Columbia and more states expected to legalize in 2019, research into safe and effective marijuana products is becoming increasingly important. The cannabis R&D space is rapidly growing, and organizations throughout the country are already investigating the proper dosages, mixtures and forms of cannabis that can be safely ingested to achieve a specific health or recreational goal.
One of the labs that has led the way in this space since its inception four-plus years ago is Cannabistry Labs. At their R&D lab, a team of scientists, engineers and regulatory specialists are producing and testing a variety of cannabis-infused edibles, drops, oils and other products.
Shehzad Hoosein, the executive vice president of R&D at Cannabistry Labs recently spoke to R&D Magazine about the emerging R&D focus in the cannabis sector. Hoosein joined Cannabistry in 2015 after more than 15 years in R&D at Diageo, an international spirit company well known for several brands including Johnny Walker, Crown Royal, Captain Morgan’s and Smirnoff.
Since coming on board, Hoosein has spearheaded the creation of the R&D team to bring numerous products and technologies to the forefront of the cannabis product market, ultimately creating and reimaging a wide range of cannabis categories by unlocking and optimizing specific chemicals found in the plant. In his interview with R&D Magazine, Hoosein discussed a variety of topics about the cannabis business, including some of the challenges and what he advice he would give to young people looking to break into the field.
R&D Magazine: How did this business get started?
Hoosein: One of our founders has previous experience in R&D in food and beverage and he recognized the opportunity to bring thorough R&D to this space. It was pretty apparent that there was a large gap in sophistication and a lack of genuinely good products coming to market. He decided to take that vision to create the first of its kind R&D company in this space focused solely on developing technology and creating better products for consumers. That was the conception of the idea and he went out and put a business plan together, raised some money and then started hiring his management team. He essentially pooled people from various disciplines—people who had done R&D in various capacities in food and beverage before. I was the third or fourth employee at the time that was focused on building this world-class R&D organization. We hired food scientists, chemical engineers, biochemists, and other people with those types of skillsets. We brought them all together and said here is an opportunity to give consumers something that is currently not being provided on the market.
If we put our heads together we can create better products, more applications, that are safer and more viable, more consistent, and easy to use. Very early on we recognized the need to have a place to do all this work, so we created a one-of-its kind research and development lab where all we do in that space is constantly create new products, improving on them. We don’t produce anything for the market, we are just producing R&D there.
R&D Magazine: Is one of the biggest challenges navigating 50 different regulations in 50 different states?
Hoosein: That is a huge source of challenge for us. It’s like every time you launch a product in a different state you have to rework all the regulations, navigate through a whole new set of rules and in some cases you have to redesign the product and the packaging to be compliant in that state. What makes it more complicated is those states are constantly changing regulations, so right when you think you’ve locked it in in Washington and here I’m moving on to California, Washington will change their regulations and now you have to go back and redo what you did there.
It’s easy for companies to basically spend the whole time just chasing their own tail when that kind of dynamic exists and you have to dedicate a lot of resources as you expand from state to state because essentially you are starting over. I had that experience when I worked at Diageo and we tried to launch let’s say Captain Morgan in Latin America in the 27 countries, each of which has their own regulations on alcoholic beverages. Captain Morgan tastes the same anywhere you go in Latin America; it is just formulated slightly differently in each country so that it meets the regulations in each country.
I take pride in how we approach things. Initially we would get turned around every time a regulation changed and say ‘oh god we got to go back and fix this.’ What we realized is that we don’t need to be chasing our tails, we just need to be setting our own standards. So let’s set our standards above where all the regulations are. Even if those regulations change, we already know we are well above what those standards are.
For example, when it comes to child-resistant packaging, some states need child-resistant packaging at a certain part, but we decided that was the right thing to do, that was the responsible thing to do, even on topicals. We went ahead and designed our own child-resistant packaging and put it on the market before the regulators came around and said everything had to be child-resistant. Low and behold a year later the regulations changed and now they are requiring child-resistant packaging. For us, that’s fine, we already did it. We take the same approach when it comes to our formulations and our product lines. We adhere to very strict (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) FDA guidelines. Even though the FDA is not regulating this industry, we pretend that they are when we are creating our products; we assume that they will be some day. Our bar is to be FDA compliant. When we design our products we always insure that we are taking the highest standard in food safety, using ingredients that are generally regarded as safe and usage rates.
R&D Magazine: How do you obtain the cannabis that you use for testing products?
Hoosein: We have a license to produce products that are legal and our lab is in a state where that is legal, so we have a partnership with somebody who does grow it. Then what we do is we take that, we extract it, and we create the products that we develop. Because we are in a legal state we can then test it with consumers. We can go out and recruit say 50 people and say, “hey we’re testing out a beverage line. Here is some products, try it out and give us some feedback and tell us how it is working for you.”
R&D Magazine: Who is your target customer?
Hoosein: Our first product that we launched is called “The Root Of It All.” This is an all-natural edible that you drop under your tongue that is basically blended with ayurvedics, herbs and spices that drive a certain efficacy. We have one called “Go” that picks you up, gives you a little energy. It is mixed with THC. We have “Slow” that calms you down. That one has orange, basil, fennel and some combination of THC and CBD. Then there is one called “Stop” that helps you fall asleep with THC and CBD in a certain ratio and valerian root, chamomile and lavender. That entire product line is a more sophisticated consumer, with a little bit more disposable income, probably a little bit older. Your yoga moms, your baby boomers are probably in that line. That is not your 21-year-old kid on a Saturday night in a club.
We have other products in our line and they all will be specifically targeted to different markets. You have essentially three overarching categories that are emerging in this industry. You have basically health and wellness as a category and these are the products I just described. These are things you take to alleviate a chronic symptom or just improve the quality of your life, but it is not a prescription. Then you have more of medical group of people. These are folks that have a tough situation and are trying to deal with it. We typically don’t play in that category. There are a lot of clinical trials happening in this field, but we may get involved in a few. The third area is a pure recreational market. Here you are not trying to solve any ailments you have, you just want to consume the product and enjoy yourself and have a good time.
So, there are three overarching categories, but within that you can target different markets and demographics with the type of product you are putting out there.
R&D Magazine: What does the future hold for Cannabistry Labs?
Hoosein: We do believe that we are at the forefront of the development of product in this industry. I think you are going to see a lot of changing dynamics on the consumer end. Everything has to start with the consumer. Where is the consumer going? That’s the question. If you think about it and look at what’s out in the market today, the consumer doesn’t really have too many great choices. They don’t have products that are consistent. With safety, it is a bit sketchy right now. I don’t truly believe that everyone is being as transparent as they should be. Dosing, consistency of dosing, bioavailability, there are all these issues out there.
What we are working on is to solve these problems and a big focus for us is understanding bioavailability. There are two parts to it, one being how fast can I get THC to work in my body. If I take an edible right now, it could take an hour and a half to kick in. If you are someone with acute or chronic pain, you are not going to wait an hour and a half. We are trying to crack that problem and trying to find other systems where the THC can enter the body. Part B to that is if I took five milligrams, how do I ensure that five milligrams will enter my bloodstream. There is a whole science to trying to figure out how to make it bioavailable.
The third area we are really focused on is on extraction technology. We truly believe philosophically that the flower expresses itself in a certain way and every time you touch that flower and try to extract it you are actually just ruining it a little bit on each step. How do you extract the things you want in the flower, but still maintain the essence of the flower? That requires extraction technology that comes from making the ratios of all the cannabinoids and the ratio that the flower expresses itself. When you do that, you’ll see that the flavor is fantastic.
The fourth is really around creating opportunities for people to microdose. Right now we don’t really know when you smoke a vape pen, for example, how many milligrams are you actually getting. A lot of people are afraid to go into this space where they don’t quite know what the dosing is. Some companies have tried to do it but their technology is not real. We are trying to figure out true microdosing through nanotechnology.
R&D Magazine: What advice would you give to young people trying to get involved in this field?
Hoosein: I think the first thing I’d tell them is do it because you think you can help people, not because there is a lot of money to be made here. Your motivation for coming into this industry has to be right because at the end of the day it is a very topsy, turvy industry. It’s new, it’s really just getting started. Anyone who is coming in here expecting systems to be set up and professionals who’ve got it all figured out, you are in for a wild ride. Your motivation for coming in is really important because if you have the right attitude then what you are doing at the end of the day is trying to help people, which is how I feel about it, you’ll be able to navigate all of the stormy waters.
This interview was edited for length and clarity