Getting - and Giving - the Green Light
We Sit Down With Jeffrey Raber, Co-founder and CEO of The Werc Shop, Los Angeles, California, USA.
Where did your love of science begin?
I gravitated towards science inthird grade. And by fifth grade, I wanted to be a research scientist – working on cures for illnesses such as epilepsy. I was certainly curious – but I was quite often sick as a kid, so my interest in therapeutics probably has its roots in both of those things. Making medicines was an inherent calling; you can see the positive impact you’re making.
My brother was the “stepping stone.” In 2008, the construction company he was working for was asked to build a dispensary, and they were focusing on medical. I didn’t know there was a medical use for cannabis at that time. I studied everything I could get my hands on, and then volunteered in the dispensary for two weeks.
I saw the positive effects on patients, and could quickly recognize the problems in knowing the supply chain, understanding dosing and knowing how to breed for CBD. A turning point came in early 2009, when President Obama said he was going to go after drug trafficking organizations, not medical patients. I saw this as the medical–entrepreneurial “green light,” and my brother and I decided to set up The Werc Shop, an independent testing lab. After more than 12 months of research, we opened our doors in 2010, with three fundamental aims: to be sustainability based; to lead with science and good information; and always to have scientific integrity.
How did you feel about making the leap into this industry?
I felt both excited and apprehensive – not least what it might do to my career in the pharmaceutical world or fine chemical space. But when you're doing the right thing for the right reasons, logical and rational arguments hopefully win the day. I liked the idea of a wide-open research area, the chance to really put the scientific stake in the ground, the chance to learn about the plant’s complexity and to create low cost medicines. It was also an incredible opportunity as an entrepreneur. I knew that, if I went down that path, it would probably keep me busy for the rest of my life. So far, I haven’t been proven wrong!
What have you achieved since then?
We’ve continued to grow as an organization and now have a large number of employees providing back-end scientific support for many other entrepreneurs, whether it be license holders, brands or those who want to better understand the medicine. We recognize “the name game” – we were the first to say that although Indica, Sativa, and Hybrid may be great for morphological designations, they do not tell us consistently about causing medical effects. To move forward, we have to clarify this from a chemotype or chemical composition perspective. First and foremost, you need to do your job as a scientist, and I think everyone has high regard for our scientific integrity.
What is your priority right now?
Alerting everyone to the word “terpene” is a big one. In 2011, we started offering that test for free, because even though I assured people it was really important, some thought we were just trying to make more money. Today, people understand – they’re talking about the ensemble or entourage effects. It also became a defined term on the street, and that’s when we really started to make an impact. It’s also important to me to make everyone aware that there are other molecules present, which makes the whole composition much more interesting than just a single molecule.
What inspires you about the field?
People seem to have embraced cannabis as a “cure all” without understanding the compositions we’re talking about; it’s essential to know which medicines are helping whom and why. Does it have the same composition? Do we take the same dose each time? How many different ways can we consume it? It's very broad, diverse and complex – and that’s why it’s important to have people who are motivated to drill down scientifically. We still only talk about two cannabinoids, and there are over 100! There’s a whole iceberg here and we’re only scratching the tip. But that makes it more exciting intellectually.
How does it compare with other fields from an analytical point of view?
The analytical tools are the same as for any pharmaceutical or natural product, but it’s challenging from a complexity standpoint. Its consistency varies because it’s an agricultural product, too – so we need to consider how it is cultivated or produced. What’s interesting about cannabis is that it’s a confluence of agriculture, food, dietary supplement and hardcore pharmaceutical medicine. All of those may be at play depending on which final path you go down.
For example, pesticides can be like needles in the proverbial haystack. Failing a pesticide test could cost somebody their entire crop, livelihood or future. How do I make sure I’m right if someone’s license is on the line? We like to try and stay on the bleeding edge of technology, but we push those tools to the limits. It is not for the faint of heart in terms of complexity or intellectual challenge! Having said that, analytical technology is super sensitive and super capable – I don’t think there’s much that can be improved. It’s physical chemistry – the behavior of the molecules – that you’re battling.
What (more) would you like to achieve in your career?
I would like to open people’s minds to looking at plants and natural-based resources, so that we can use sustainable products. This plant is probably the first one – and it’s a huge one – but it shouldn’t be the last. If we can lead with science, we can encourage the right conversations and push this in the right direction. Once we recognize the wonderful utility that this plant has to offer, we can finally get access to it. If I could help broaden that conversation, I would feel exceptionally proud.
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