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Scientists Devise Technique to Measure THC in Pot Brownies and Other Edibles

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jeffreyw via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

We’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is that you really can’t trust the drug content listed on the labels of edible marijuana products. The good news is that someday you will be able to. A team of scientists has come up with a new technique for measuring the drug content of pot brownies, cookies, and gummy bears. They presented their research yesterday, March 15, at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Right now, your breakfast cereal is probably subject to more rigorous inspection and standards than any pot you could buy at a retailer or dispensary. Legislators across the country are decriminalizing pot use before implementing guidelines or quality regulations. The responsibility for quality control has therefore fallen on the shoulders of growers and distributors. But even those who want to test their products are having a hard time getting consistent results.

“Producers of cannabis edibles complain that if they send off their product to three different labs for analysis, they get three different results,” researcher Melissa Wilcox said in a press statement.

The information is hard to come by. Marijuana has, until very recently, been very illegal—which meant that even getting samples to study was near-impossible. As a result, pot science has to run to catch up with America’s new landscape, and the results have been spotty. And without consistent quality control, things kind of fall apart.

Last year, chemists tested 75 edible products purchased from dispensaries in California and Washington State. Of those, only 17 percent were accurately labeled. A full 60 percent of the products were over-labeled, meaning that they claimed to contain more THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychoactive effects) than they really did. And 23 percent of the foods were under-labeled, meaning that they were more potent than advertised.

Both over- and under-labeling are serious problems, not just for consumers wanting to get their money’s worth, but also for users of medical marijuana, for whom accurate dosing is extremely important. Too little drug will not help with their symptoms; too much could do them harm.

Accurate measurement of dosing is especially important for edible products, which release the drug more slowly than other delivery methods.

“It’s a lot easier for an individual to control their dose when smoking,” Wilcox said. “The effects of edibles can take a while to happen. You eat them, and then wait to see how you feel in an hour or two. If you ingested too much, you could be in for an unexpectedly bad experience.”

Why is quantifying drug content in snacks so hard? The cannabis plant itself is easy enough to test, but when you add flour, sugar, and butter, things get complicated. Most labs use a machine called a high-performance liquid chromatograph (HPLC). But HPLCs were designed to handle refined chemicals, not baked goods.

“These machines were never designed for you to inject a cookie into them,” researcher Jahan Marcu explained in the press statement. “The sugars, starches, and fats will wreak havoc on HPLC equipment. They can really muck up the works and lead to inaccurate results.”

So Marcu, Wilcox, and their colleagues decided to find another way. They settled on a five-step protocol. Step one is placing a cannabis-infused edible in a cryo-mill with dry ice or liquid nitrogen and grinding it. Step two is adding diatomaceous earth (soil made from the fossilized remains of tiny organisms called diatoms). Step three is grinding the mixture into a powder. Step four is using a process called flash chromatography to separate the food’s chemicals and extract just the cannabinoids (THC and CBD). Finally, step five is running just the drugs through the HPLC.

It may be complicated, but it works—consistently. The researchers are currently investigating whether the process works for all pot-infused food and drinks. If it does, the next step will be implementation in commercial labs across the country. 

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Researchers Pinpoint the Genes Behind the Durian's Foul Stench
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iStock

Durian is a popular fruit in parts of southeast Asia. It's also known for having the most putrid, off-putting odor of any item sold in the produce section. Even fans of durian know why the fruit gets a bad rap, but what exactly causes its divisive scent is less obvious. Determined to find the answer, a team of researchers funded by "a group of anonymous durian lovers" mapped the fruit's genome, as reported by the BBC.

The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics [PDF], contains data from the first-ever complete genetic mapping of a durian fruit. It confirms that durian's excess stinkiness comes from sulfur, a chemical element whose scent is often compared to that of rotten eggs.

Analysis of the fruit's chemical makeup has been done in the past, so the idea that sulfur is a major contributor to its signature smell is nothing new. What is new is the identification of the specific class of sulfur-producing genes. These genes pump out sulfur at a "turbocharged" rate, which explains why the stench is powerful enough to have durian banned in some public areas. It may seem like the smell is a defense mechanism to ward off predators, but the study authors write that it's meant to have the opposite effect. According to the paper, "it is possible that linking odor and ripening may provide an evolutionary advantage for durian in facilitating fruit dispersal." In other words, the scent attracts hungry primates that help spread the seeds of ripe durian fruits by consuming them.

The revelation opens the door to genetically modified durian that are tweaked to produce less sulfur and therefore have a milder taste and smell. But such a product would likely inspire outrage from the food's passionate fans. While the flavor profile has been compared to rotten garbage and dead animal meat, it's also been praised for its "overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana, and egg custard" by those who appreciate its unique character.

[h/t BBC]

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Eye-Catching Videos Show the Beauty of Chemical Reactions
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BEAUTY OF SCIENCE, Vimeo

For those of us with only a passing high-school knowledge of chemistry, the scientific discipline can feel pretty abstract. But new online film series Envisioning Chemistry brings chemical reactions to life as works of art, visualizing chemistry in high resolution.

Created through a collaboration between the science visualization studio Beauty of Science and the Chinese Chemical Society, the series is a follow-up to Beautiful Chemistry, a 2014 project that included video of chemical reactions, animations, illustrations, and diagrams to visualize the history and practice of chemistry.

The images in Envisioning Chemistry were made using “high-resolution microscopes, infrared thermal imaging cameras, high-speed cameras, and 4K Ultra HD cameras, to reveal beauty of chemical reactions like never before,” according to the project’s website.

Envisioning Chemistry is designed as a teaching tool, so each of the films also has an associated worksheet so that teachers can use them in the classroom. There are 15 films total, and the creators hope to add more in the future.

The films explore chemistry topics like precipitation reactions, metal displacement, and electrodeposition, using elemental metals like copper, tin, lead, and zinc. “If you think you know what metals look like, well, think again!” as one video warns. By the end of the films, you may even know what words like electrodeposition mean.

Envisioning Chemistry Collection I: Beauty of Chemistry from Beauty of Science on Vimeo.

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