The science behind the high

Educator and consultant Emma Chasen talks consumption, vaping scares and the therapeutic effects of cannabis

Emma Chasen sees beyond the buds and educates consumers on how cannabis affects their minds and their bodies.

Emma Chasen sees beyond the buds and educates consumers on how cannabis affects their minds and their bodies.

Photo courtesy of Outer Elements Photography

Follow Emma Chasen on Instagram @echasen.

Emma Chasen, a cannabis educator and consultant, has been described as an overachiever, a label she proudly owns. After she graduated from Brown University in 2014, she worked at Brown’s Cancer Research Center on Food and Drug Administration pharmaceutical trials until the day her supervisor rejected a cannabis study.

“That,” she said, “is when I realized I wasn't where I wanted to be.”

So Chasen moved to Portland and landed at Farma, a local dispensary, during the peak of legal adult use. Soon, she discovered that her background in science helped her effectively explain cannabis' effects and benefits to patients and consumers. “I ended up falling in love with it,” she said.

She eventually stepped down as Farma's general manager to pursue her own work in cannabis education and now runs Portland-based Eminent Consulting with her business partner Matt Taylor. Together, they cover buyer and budtender education and business development. She has been featured in Newsweek and Forbes.

SN&R spoke with Chasen about the science behind cannabis consumption, the safety and health concerns that surround vaping and whether or not indica and sativa labels are accurate.

Until all facts are gathered, should consumers avoid vaping altogether?

Most of the health issues that have been reported in the media come from cartridges bought on the illicit market. There seems to be a lot of correlation with tocopherol acetate, which is vitamin E oil, but really it's just any oil that's in there [that could be problematic]. Our lungs aren't meant to remove those kinds of toxins. So what happens when you vaporize oil, is that the oil becomes vapor and then re-coagulates in your alveoli and prevents the exchange of gases. And that's where you get these awful respiratory symptoms.

But there are other additives [even in some legal vape cartridges] like propylene glycol and even artificial terpenes that can turn into really awful substances when inhaled. So if you're a person who avoids smoking because of lung issues, I would recommend using a dry vaporizer with flower instead.

If you do want to vaporize concentrate, then you need to conduct a fairly vigorous investigation of the company you're going with. And if you don't have access to the regulated market, then I would suggest staying away from vape pens entirely.

How can consumers research vape companies?

Reach out to the company—call them, email them. Don't be afraid to ask questions. If they're proud of the way they're producing, they won't hide the information.

What is the endocannabinoid system and how does it work in our bodies?

The whole goal of the ECS is to achieve homeostasis or balance. I like to use the analogy of the oil to the Tin Man, where our body is a complex machine with so many different parts, running constantly. So, it's gonna encounter some rusty kinks that make it gum up from time to time. There's no organ associated with the ECS, but it acts as the oil to our body's Tin Man. Essentially, it allows us to keep the engine of the body running smoothly.

Does the ECS regulate things like sleep and appetite?

Yes. It's also linked to our endocrine system which in turn regulates circadian rhythms, stress, anxiety, depression—helping to modulate many different physiological processes.

How does cannabis affect the ECS?

Cannabis' primary compounds we call phytocannabinoids—meaning cannabinoids derived from a plant—THC and CBD, being the most well-known of those.

Our body does make endogenous cannabinoids. However, there is a theory that says everyone may be operating at a deficit level of endogenous cannabinoids. And so, by supplementing with phytocannabinoids, we can influence things like inflammation and the healing response.

If the indica/sativa classifications are breaking down, why do budtenders and dispensaries still use these terms?

Ultimately, it's just a product of prohibition. The lack of education and information sharing throughout prohibition has led to this co-opting of language and this development of a prevalent culture in the cannabis community. And it's hard to let that go. I don't think it will fully be shed until we do adopt more widespread education that allows us to talk about these things in a more nuanced way.

My primary concern is the fact that budtenders are using indica/sativa dichotomies to predict an experience, and that doesn't serve consumers and patients. So what I try to find out is how people are determining that something is an “indica.” Are they looking at Leafly, or are they considering the chemical matrix of the flower?

The only way to predict experience with a certain degree of scientific legitimacy is to look at the chemical compounds in the matrix—the major and minor cannabinoids, as well as terpenes. So, if someone is coming in and saying, “I want a heavy indica,” then the budtender should be asking, “What kind of experience are you looking for?”

What questions should we be asking budtenders?

The bottom line to me is to investigate the quality of a company's practices. If you're buying flower, ask about the farm. Seek out what's grown in living soil.

If you're looking at extracts or edibles, ask about their extraction methodology. Are they using full spectrum or isolate?

Beyond product information, ask them about dosing and titration of the dose. Ask what the side effects are, if any. Ask about storage conditions. Really, ask them anything you can think of that will give you the best possible consumption experience.

Why do people feel a certain way one day when consuming cannabis and a different way the next, whether it’s the same product and dose?

This takes us into the zone of botanical medicine and the necessity to reframe how we think about health and wellness and medical intervention … Let's say you're taking ibuprofen, it's gonna deliver pretty much the same experience each time, even if you take it on a different day, or if you eat something different, etc.

But with any medicinal plant, there's such high variability because we have to look at the constantly changing physiological states. Your experience is dependent not only on the compounds in the matrix of what you're consuming—the cannabinoid and terpene profile—but also how much you've eaten that day, whether you've consumed fat, how much water you've had, if you're stressed, if you had a fight with your partner, if you had a really good day at work. Your mental/emotional/physical state will influence your overall experience. And if you're consuming with people you know in a really cozy space, or with people you're not comfortable with … that will all have influence.

What do people ask you about the most?

People ask a lot about hemp vs. cannabis. They don't understand that hemp is just a subspecies of cannabis, that it's an arbitrary distinction about THC levels that distinguishes it as far as the government is concerned.

I also get a lot of questions about whether CBD alone is effective, or whether THC needs to be present. My philosophy is based around the entourage effect, which says that the more compounds you can get in there, the more likely you'll experience the therapeutic effect.