Myron Ronay of BelCosta Labs Discusses THC Potency Obsessions and Need for Better Consumer Product Education

Cannabis research remains incredibly limited thanks to its still-federally-illegal status, but several industry operators have taken this matter into their own hands, providing cannabis testing that allows for safety and credibility throughout the legal market.

Based in California, BelCosta Labs provides cannabis lab testing from an agricultural, educational, and technology-driven approach. Utilizing state-of-the-art technology to ensure only high-quality cannabis products enter the legal marketplace, BelCosta labs provides both operators and consumers peace of mind when it comes to all things cannabis.

Leafwire sat down with BelCosta Labs CEO Myron Ronay to discuss consumer trends, product assessment and evaluation, the importance of terpene-to-potency ratio, and more. 

Leafwire: How did the THC potency percentage become a fixation for consumers and growers?

Mryon Ronay: The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly accelerated the high-potency THC trend for cannabis flower. Historically, consumers could interact with cannabis flower before purchasing by smelling or examining the product closely. This model encouraged consumers to discover new cultivars by following their noses to the tastiest-smelling terpenes. But post-pandemic, opportunities for consumers to interact with the flower pre-purchase were reduced and often eliminated altogether due to health concerns.

With interactivity limited, the only readily understood measure budtenders could base sales strategy on became potency. While this trend did take hold in cannabis concentrate products, high-test THC cannabis flower has become the most noticeable way consumers discern the increase. This is because while high-THC concentrates may spike THC levels in your blood, they don’t get you noticeably higher. Meanwhile, flower potency standards for growers and dispensaries have been creeping from a goal of 20 percent THC a decade ago to cultivars today soaring past 30 percent THC. The ramifications of this trend are numerous and damaging to the industry and consumers.

LW: Does the THC potency percentage impact the price stores sell a cannabis product for?

MR: Dispensaries can sell higher-potency THC flower for a premium price. This creates an economic incentive to falsify testing, mismatch medical cannabis patients with non-beneficial products, and generally mislead customers into thinking they are receiving a higher-quality product.

LW: How is the THC percentage misleading to consumers about the cannabis experience?

MR: You wouldn’t walk into a winery in Napa Valley and ask for the highest ABV wine. Taking the THC percentage of a cannabis product and considering only that when purchasing flower or concentrates is not the best way to look at the quality of the cannabis product. Like wine from craft winemakers, seeking a top-shelf cannabis product that is chemically balanced and delicious is imperative for taste and experience. 

Our studies found that higher THC potency did not equate to a better consumer experience. Consumers often mistakenly believe they will use less product or experience more euphoric effects from a high THC testing cannabis product. Considering just the THC percentage means you’re ignoring other components like terpenes, which contribute significantly to flavor and effects.

The same generalization holds true for cannabis flower: as THC potency increases, that crucial terpene content tends to decrease.  Some concentrate vape cartridges use real cannabis-derived terpenes when making a product and other cartridges use botanically derived terpene not from cannabis. These are aspects a consumer should consider when purchasing a product.

LW: If the indica/hybrid/sativa classifications and THC potency percentage are misleading, how can consumers evaluate the quality of a product?

MR: Identifying a true indica or sativa has become nearly impossible for consumers, partly because almost every cultivar is now a hybrid. Sativa strains in particular have been crossed with fast-harvest genetics to enable quicker growth cycles that match an agricultural production schedule. Discard outdated strain classifications and look to the composition identified on the label or the product’s website by certified cannabis testing laboratories.

While the THC potency percentage can be misleading when taken alone, it can be helpful when considered part of a consumer product analysis toolkit. Begin by asking your budtender which companies also report terpene and secondary cannabinoid composition on the container or their site. Seek out flower that contains a minimum of two percent terpenes (remember: the more terpenes, the more flavorful your experience), and ensure concentrates purchased are high-terpene and full-spectrum, such as the product commonly called “sauce.” 

Regardless of your chosen product, ensure it isn’t purely a high-THC product, but instead a terpene and cannabinoid composition balanced for the most enjoyable, quality consumption experience possible.

LW: What sort of cannabis education is absolutely vital for consumers to understand?

MR: If you are saying, “Wait, wait, but I know I love sativas. There must be something to the classification system,” it’s likely the terpenes you genuinely enjoy – not the strain type. For example, many true indicas contain the terpene myrcene, which is notable for its sedative properties. In combination with the other cannabinoid content of the individual cultivar, myrcene is responsible for the traditional association of “In-da-couch” indicas. Likewise, many cultivars labeled as sativa have terpinolene terpenes associated with cerebral, relaxing effects and limonene terpenes associated with increased energy and mood elevation.

THC content alone will never be a good indicator of the expected experience. Instead, terpenes are a “true north” of quality cannabis. Learn which terpenes you enjoy best by taking note of terpene lab testing results included on the product’s label and learning about balanced terpene-to-potency ratios.

LW: What are terpene-to-potency ratios, and what do they tell consumers about their cannabis?

MR: Simply put, a terpene-to-potency ratio tells consumers the relative volume of terpene and THC composition in a product. Remember what we said before: as THC potency increases, that crucial terpene content decreases. The terpene-to-potency ratio is a quick read of how enjoyable and effective your experience will likely be.

LW: What is a good terpene-to-potency ratio? What value will/should top-shelf flower show?

MR: The higher the terpenes, the more favorable the ratio. For example, a 25 percent THC cultivar with a 2.5 percent terpene composition will have a (very nice) 10:1 ratio. Contrarily, a high-THC but low-terpene composition could look like 35 percent THC and one percent terpenes for a rough 35:1 ratio. Cultivars with less THC have the most balanced ratios and display lower numbers, while the larger ratios are standard in higher potency products.

LW: How can brands utilize terpene-to-potency ratios? 

MR: BelCosta Labs arranged and organized a focus group to understand consumer decision-making based on product composition. We found that high THC or terpene content alone did not lead to the perception of a high-quality strain. The highest-rated strain had the most balanced (lowest) THC-to-terpene ratio. Brands stand to gain loyal, consistent and informed customers by selling better-balanced products with easy-to-understand metrics like the terpene-to-policy ratio.

Cannabis testing labs like BelCosta are making information available to consumers by offering brands QR report cards and easy-to-read COAs. Consumers want to know what their products contain, and a report card showing terpenes, ratios, potency reports and more will help them make the most informed decisions possible.

Additionally, training needs to take place at the point of sale. We provide budtender training to help dispel confusion around ideal terpene and potency combinations. Salespeople must try to match consumers with the best experiences possible to continue building trust in the cannabis customer base.

LW: Should regulators also eventually switch THC potency percentage with terpene-to-potency ratios? Will that help with consumer preferences?

MR: Regulators are still learning and adjusting to the cannabis industry’s trends and movements. The increase in cannabis potency has changed the way cultivators and manufacturers work, and regulators must react in real-time and with a vision for the future. More than any indicator, testing accuracy needs to be considered paramount to consumer safety standards.

Pennsylvania, for example, recently required two separate labs to test cannabis products at two different stages of the cannabis product lifecycle to help mitigate potency discrepancies and increase consumer safety for metal, pesticide testing, etc.

The practices of lab shopping, THC inflation, results fabrication and altering contamination data should concern regulatory agencies more than the potency labeling standards, with some states finding their labs fail to meet even basic standards

LW: How significant will the THC potency percentage be to consumers and the market in a few years?

MR: Already, low-THC cultivars that are old legacy market favorites are dying out because they aren’t high-test. So much of the cannabis market’s origins as craft growers will be lost or placed back into the hands of the unregulated cultivation market if the modern legal consumer isn’t given a way to access delicious, balanced strains. If we teach consumers to judge a product by THC potency, the flavors, unique combinations and perhaps even bioavailability of cannabis will be forever diminished.

THC potency will likely always remain present in much the same way ABV is denoted on a finished alcohol product. While there will always be some drinkers that go straight for the highest-proof alcohol, most consumers find balanced happiness between the effects, flavor and other beneficial components of their beverage, such as tannins. Likewise, there will always be cannabis consumers seeking the highest-potency product. By educating consumers, brands and budtenders about how to evaluate and consume cannabis most efficaciously and enjoyably, we can ensure THC potency alone is not driving market progress.

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