Science may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about cannabis, but Emma Chasen is helping make the case it should be. As the Director of Education at the Sativa Science Club in Portland, OR, Emma is an ambassador for a rigorous scientific approach to understanding cannabis and its effects (and a detractor of the indica-sativa binary you’re likely familiar with).
She’s also a pioneer in creating standards and educational programming to ensure cannabis industry professionals are equipped with the knowledge they need to provide responsible service to cannabis consumers. As a woman in cannabis, implementing a new vision for science and professionalism in the industry, Emma is consummately modern and unrelentingly impressive. We sat down with her to discuss the past, present, and future of cannabis, as she sees them.
What got you interested in the science of cannabis?
I’ve always been interested in alternative modalities of healing. But, in fact, I was extraordinarily substance-free my whole life until my first year of college. I even elected to live in substance-free dorms. I had quite a negative view of everything from alcohol to cannabis. Then I joined a Brown University-RISD a cappella group whose members included lots of artists and queer people, and I found a home with them. Especially with one woman who was a junior when I was a freshman. She was a neuroscience major, and she was fascinating and smoked a lot of weed. I wanted to impress her, so we started smoking together. She used cannabis to manage her anxiety and depression, and we conversed from a neurochemical standpoint about how the compounds in cannabis would interact and make us feel. At the same time, I was taking a course called The Botanical Roots of Modern Medicine, and that combination of experiences fortified my interest in wanting to know more about this particular medicinal plant.
You got a degree in Medicinal Plant Research and then did research in Clinical Oncology. Why and how did you end up at Sativa Science Club, and how does it better fulfill your personal mission?
I graduated from Brown in 2014 and instead of going the traditional M.D. route, I considered pursuing a naturopathic degree. I wanted to apply the art of medicinal plant healing in a structured and legitimate environment but wasn’t ready for another five years of schooling. I worked in a Brown research group to coordinate clinical trials nationwide.
It felt like that could have been a point of potential impact in terms of getting a cannabis trial pushed through. In fact, a professor at the time did come into the office to propose a cannabis trial, but my supervisor laughed him out of the office. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, especially having watched billion-dollar pharmaceutical trial after billion-dollar pharmaceutical trial fail.
I quit in May 2015. I knew I wanted to go out West. I’d never been out to Portland before. I hadn’t planned on joining the cannabis industry, but as luck would have it, adult-use cannabis was coming online right then [in Oregon], and dispensaries were hiring. I found my way to Farma without knowing anything about the dispensary or wanting to work in retail weed, but I needed a job.
I realized that Farma is committed to scientific integrity and to helping consumers reframe their relationships with cannabis by making it easier to understand how to make their cannabis experiences more predictable. I fell in love with that ethos and the desire to learn, interact with the community, and help people find the cannabis and medicine that works best for them. I stayed on and was actually named Portland’s Best Budtender in 2016, promoted to general manager, and ran the shop for a year.
After that year, I was really burnt out. Especially because management wasn’t my true passion. So I carved out a new role there called Director of Education, with the goal of addressing the vacuum of training for professionals in the cannabis industry. These are people who drive the consumer market and help people make healthcare decisions, and the lack of education for those roles was inexcusable.
I set to work on creating a comprehensive curriculum covering everything from the basics of botany to the endocannabinoid receptor system and empathetic patient care, all with an eye to compliance.
Around May 2017, I linked up with Mary, founder and CEO of the Sativa Science Club, who was also working on a similar curriculum that she wanted to give to the world but didn’t have the science background to do it alone. After collaborating on a successful soft launch, we decided in September to formalize the program and even provide certification. We’re in pre-registration for our core science certification program, and the official program launches in Portland and online January 22, 2018.
You favor “chemotypes” to describe different kinds of cannabis instead of the indica/sativa binary. Tell us more about that.
To understand chemotypes, it’s useful to understand a few other terms as well. First, there’s the genotype, which are the actual genetics inside the plant responsible for plant morphology. In other words how a plant will grow. Genotypes determine species differentiation, and indica and sativa are different species.
Cannabis sativa was classified by Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, who talked about the plant’s morphology and described it as tall with flowers and narrow leaf structure. At no point did he document consuming it and the effects he might have felt. About 30 years later, Lamarck traveled to India and saw a cannabis plant that was quite different than Linnaeus’ description, and he declared he’d discovered new species of cannabis. Because he was in India, he called it “indica.” Again, there’s no record of him consuming and talking about how it made him feel. So genotypes have nothing to do with the actual experience after consumption; they only refer to the morphological distinctions of the plant.
Phenotypes refer to physical characteristics of the plant as well but beyond morphology. They describe things like different colors that can express in leaves. The phenotype is derived from the genetic info combined with the environment.
Let’s take the example of purple cannabis. The plant must be genetically coded to be predisposed to purple, but the plant also has to be exposed to a cold front so the purple compound can express itself. In other words, there’s nothing to support the claim that purple flowers cause a sleepy effect. It’s nonsensical.
Lastly, we have chemotypes, which refer to the chemical compound found inside an organism. When we talk about cannabis, these are the compounds you actually consume for their effect, a combination of cannabinoids and terpenes. I like to use the analogy of a car engine. The engine of the car is the cannabinoids. They are the driving force. But the terpenes influence which way the experience is going to go. Terpenes are found in almost all plants (they give them their smell), so we have a lot of research about terpenes. They also correlate to specific effects when consumed and ingested, so they are the compounds that most accurately map to how a cannabis experience will play out.
What challenges and opportunities do you face right now as a person involved in studying cannabis?
Lack of research. Jeff Sessions’ decision to reverse the Cole Memo did scare investors, who are now afraid to invest in research for fear it will get shut down mid-project. But we need reputable scientific information. When we talk about cannabinoids and terpenes, we’re talking about such a fraction of the compounds in cannabis. We simply don’t have the research yet to tell us what else is there.
It’s also important to know how hard it is to “make it” in the cannabis industry. There is still the mentality this is the green rush, and you can get rich quick, which is not the case at all. There are so many barriers to being profitable in this industry, and most businesses are not yet profitable. That makes it hard to convince businesses to invest in things like education and training for their staff, since it’s hard enough to cover day-to-day expenses.
What is your experience as a woman at the intersection of two heavily male-dominated fields (science and cannabis)?
I’ve been lucky to have been a part of a strong female community in the cannabis industry, with women supporting other women. In the rollercoaster ride that is this industry, you do need to form alliances to make it through.
That being said, within the primary industry — dispensaries, grows, companies that make edibles — it does still feel male-dominated. Frequently, they are the type that I lovingly call the “stoner bros.” That has been difficult, especially when I’m not only a young woman but also claiming that “indica” and “sativa” don’t mean anything. That means that men often immediately dismiss me, which is obviously very frustrating.
Also, more than in most industries, there’s a lot of sexualization of women in the cannabis industry. The cannabis plant we love and consume is female, so this is an industry built on a female plant. There should be equitability in this industry (and in all industries).
We’ve talked about lots of serious and important topics. Next, for some fun stuff. What’s one thing you always have in your fridge?
Zucchini, I’m obsessed with zucchini. I could eat it any which way. It’s the thing I have to get at the grocery store every single time.
Do you have a spiralizer?
I do. I make my little zoodles. I love it.
What’s your favorite place to go in Portland on a day off?
One of the many amazing community spas that exist here. One of my favorite ones is called Everett House. You pay just $22 for an hour and enjoy a bunch of hot tubs, saunas, steam rooms. It’s not creepy in any way. It’s not like a bath house vibe. It’s so relaxing and lovely.