Unpredictability is one of the core challenges of shopping for cannabis. It’s incredibly rare to have a completely custom, controlled experience with weed, and even tougher to duplicate it. To people who don’t already enjoy the herb, these variables can seem too great to navigate, which is why marketing has tried to turn a bunch of cannabis plants into unique and innovative products promising to cut through the literal haze.
Many of these newer products are positioned as problem solvers for life’s typical woes, solving for lack of sleep, stimulating your appetite, or solving for general aches and pains. Since cannabis isn’t FDA regulated, manufacturers can’t promise any direct health benefits, but boy do some brands love to infer them.
Overly simplified marketing creates confusion for the consumer, driving myths of CBD can cure-all and THC as your key to a vault of creativity. While the intention is to help people get into and enjoy cannabis, it tends to categorize products into boxes that are too neat to contain all the unknowns of cannabis science as it stands today.
All discussions of weed and its effects are governed by an oft repeated, sometimes unspoken truth: research hasn’t yet caught up to the reality. A 2020 Science review found that two-thirds of the $1.56 billion devoted to cannabis research in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. was spent on quantifying misuse and negative effects. That leaves research into the benefits and potential other uses for cannabis woefully underfunded and battling with big (and often misleading) media headlines about the dangers of the drug. Meanwhile, people with a legit medical need have few options outside of DIY experimentation.
Filling in the gaps
In the absence of science, marketing stepped in to infer that missing piece, and the effects-driven product class was born. As the weed market has shifted away from the traditional tie-dye aesthetic into the slick, modern designs they now favor, the same principles that influence so many of your non-weed purchases are at work.
Considering photographer and author Jordana Wright has written an entire book on harnessing the high to make better art, it’s no wonder cannabis marketers have attempted to highlight its effect on your activities. Unfortunately, Wright told us via email, “cannabis isn’t like the typical pharmaceuticals we’re used to, where your results are fairly predictable.”
That doesn’t mean weed can’t make you feel more creatively energized, but a claim that a particular strain is “good for creativity” is mostly meaningless, since there is no predicting how a given person will react to it. “Ultimately all cannabis products have value,” Wright said, but “whether or not the effects described on the package match your body’s own response remains to be seen. But if there are cannabinoids in a product, it will have some sort of effect.”
Brands approach this type of single-focus marketing via a bit of reverse engineering, using stripped down cannabinoid distillates and added terpenes to create a composite concentrate that is then dropped into edibles, capsules, beverages, vape carts, and even rolled into joints. The theory here is that by employing pure isolates in precise amounts, the experience will be the same with each use.
True, you might notice similarities with each use of an engineered product, but your body will still act differently based on other factors like your body weight, food intake that day, and other medications you’re taking. It’s hardly a guarantee you’ll have the same experience twice in a row, let alone that an effect can be universalized across all users.
“During the research phase of writing Cannabis for Creatives, I spoke to experts in the fields of neuroscience and cannabis genetics, and they all agreed that while pot does make us feel certain effects, those effects vary too much based on other factors like body chemistry, dosage, and method of use to have a predictable and quantifiable result,” Wright noted. It all really depends what you’re looking for from the experience, and how specific the purported effects are, whether single strain or composite.
“We can convince ourselves that the marketing on [the] package will apply to us and create that sensation, but in that case, you’re looking at more of a placebo effect,” Wright said. “I might always feel energized if smoking Blue Dream, but that same strain might make another person feel subdued. It’s as much about our bodies as the strains themselves.”
Suggesting effects is the middle ground
Not all cultivators go all-in on Sarah Aziz, the founder of Sundazed, a California cannabis operator, makes gorgeously packaged and highly flavorful goodies that don’t tell you how to feel, but suggest how you might. Not every consumer gets excited about terpenes, or knows why they should, so using these flavorful and experience-influencing chemicals to map out what a consumer could experience is more helpful than taking a firm stance and picking one single word as the definitive effect.
“THC affects the brain’s areas that influence pleasure, thinking, movement, sensory/time perception amongst other things,” Aziz told Lifehacker. “The reason we use the term ‘effects’ is to communicate as clearly as possible to the consumer and help them align with the experience they are about to enjoy.”
For Sundazed, this means labeling a sativa-leaning strain with citrine terps “Glow Up,” and letting smokers know that the effects are suggested, saying you might feel motivated, uplifted, or energized, as people often report being ‘up’ from cultivars with citrus notes. “Our listed effects are terpene-based so it is based in science, but it is also a way to market the anticipated reaction to the product because a lot of consumers don’t want to get into the nitty gritty of terpenes,” Aziz said.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can use these suggestions to find the cultivars that will give you what you want, and there’s nothing wrong with preferring distillate-based cannabis products, provided you are always having a good time. But to find the strains or designer effects-based products that work for you, you have to actually try them. Some people find themselves generally amenable to the majority of strains, while those who are more sensitive will have to be pickier about what they procure.
Eventually, scientific research will find out more about what makes weed tick. It’s not unreasonable to think that this information will someday be available in the form of a test or profile that can help you find the bespoke weed experience you’re seeking. But for now—and you can thank the stigma of prohibition and the lack of enthusiasm for positive weed studies for this—trial-and-error is the industry standard.