The sad story of Purple Urkle

Testing and labeling should give legal cannabis a big safety advantage. But the science has to be done first.

I’ve been in Olympia this week working on the Washington State regulation project. (Also hoping to meet with Athena and Aphrodite, but can’t get through to their schedulers. I ran into Apollo, but he just said I should have my demigods call his demigods so we could do ambrosia.)

The Liquor Board staff arranged some visits to producers and retailers in the quasi-semi-legal “medical” market. Very impressive folks, with some serious craft knowledge, in some cases with major data to back it up. The pharmacology still hasn’t caught up with the chemistry; some packages come labeled with THC, CBD, CBG, and CBN (to four implausible significant digits) but there seems to be no agreement on what combinations of chemicals have what effects and how that varies by user. The terpenoids and flavonoids that carry the flavor and aroma either are or aren’t important modulators of psychoactivity; if they are, no one knows precisely how. But consumers now insist on testing and labeling (more for flowers and concentrates than for edibles).

Which leads to the sad story. It appears that one local grower developed a strain sold under the “Purple Urkle” label. It was widely held, by producers and consumers alike, to be truly righteous weed, and it flew off the shelves.

Then the fashion for chemical testing came in. Purple Urkle tested at a mere 7% THC – perhaps twice the THC content of what was called “marijuana” when I was in college, but well below the 12-18% that current products claim (more accurately in some cases than in others). Result: even the consumers who had already experienced and enjoyed Purple Urkle, and had been asking for it by name, wouldn’t touch it. They were so used to the idea that quality is defined by THC content that they didn’t want to smoke what they now “knew” to be weak weed. So the brand more or less died.

In principle, a legal cannabis market could improve consumer satisfaction and safety by delivering products of known chemical composition. But if the heavy users who dominate the market in terms of volume have a prejudice in favor of maximum THC content, the practical outcome could fall well short of the promise.

It would be useful if regulators had a solid scientific basis on which they could tell consumers about the likely impacts on them of using various quantities of various products through various routes of administration. But that scientific basis does not now exist, and it’s not especially “interesting” science in terms of fundability or publication prospects; it’s more like the work that gets done at Pillsbury than it is like the work that gets done at NIH. And of course you couldn’t even think about doing it in this country; even if some IRB would approve it, the monopoly producer of research cannabis at the University of Mississippi couldn’t deliver nearly the quality or variety of material available in any California or Washington State dispensary. [Apparently the First Circuit Court of Appeals can’t be made to understand that “marijuana” is not a homogeneous commodity.]

So if the work is going to be done, it’s going to have to be done in Israel or the UK or the Netherlands or maybe Canada, and it’s going to have to be financed by cannabis advocates rather than health-research agencies. Still seems to me like a high-return investment.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

28 thoughts on “The sad story of Purple Urkle”

  1. Not being at all knowledgeable in these matters, I have questions:

    Does high THC content mean more punch for a given amount of smoking? If so, does that in any meaningful way reduce the health hazards created by just inhaling smoke? Are “low-tar” (high-THC) joints on the way?

    1. Somewhat. But the best way to reduce lung damage is to replace combustion with vaporization, and that seems to be the direction the market is moving.

        1. or specially designed heaters that bring the MJ to the right temperature, and blow the smoke into a bag.

  2. Result: even the consumers who had already experienced and enjoyed Purple Urkle, and had been asking for it by name, wouldn’t touch it. They were so used to the idea that quality is defined by THC content that they didn’t want to smoke what they now “knew” to be weak weed. So the brand more or less died.

    Ah… the wisdom of the marketplace.

    1. Wisdom of the marketplace my butt. I’m not switching from Basil Hayden’s to Old Forester just for the extra alcohol. And I sure don’t plan to switch to some Walmart store-brand coffee to get more caffeine in each cup.

      It’s a marketplace in its infancy. Let’s give it some time for consumer preferences and vendor reputation to mature before we jump to conclusions about market preferences.

  3. A very real possibility – the “bang for your buck” crowd will obviously dominate the creation of open (i.e., non-schedule one) markets. Unlike alcohol, however, because of the already developed aesthetic sensibilities of a very large percentage of cannabis users, demand for immediacy of effect will wane (or at least not command 80-90% of the market) while a parallel to the explosion in craft/micro brewed beers will emerge as a very real player in what is going to be a huge, huge cannabis revenue stream. Institutional resistance to legalization will enhance this effect, as marketing won’t be able to maximize unfettered short term gains in the face of political intransigence. This will allow a more “organic,” natural evolution of supply/demand of a highly desired but troublesome product. Maybe conservatives have a point after all.

    1. The “explosion” of craft beers still make up a small part of the total beer market.

      According to this recent NPR piece, craft beers make up only 6% of the US market. (I think this is by volume. The fraction of total sales dollars would be higher. A few years ago it was only about three percent. But it’s still pretty small.

      Ninety percent of US beer comes from two giants, MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev.

      I imagine that a legalized cannabis market will see a similar market consolidation.

      1. Most Americans don’t like the taste of beer, thus the success of miller lite etc. they are alcohol delivery vehicles.

      2. call me a best coast elite snob. whatever floats yr inflatable. but that 6% is probably concentrated in places like western washington and underrepresented in oh say dallas, philly, jersey, if you get my slur on the common man. and his sorry taste buds. well help him someday. but charity must start here at home. local ,small lots, variety …..whats there that left right cruncy green or lib fat cats can not agree is superior all for personal beliefs reasons. my story best ever strongweed? brown dull no fuzzy things. matchead hit me like the 1/2 oz iced labware hits we did ib college.

  4. To replace the THC dogma, all it will take is a few public & publicized blind A/B cannabis testing competitions, once a few strains have become standardized and widespread, to nudge out the public perception of THC content as the salient metric.

    Somewhat crudely like the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, which, the news tells me, just debuted in Denver this year.

  5. You didn’t check in with Dionysios, the patron of psychoactive excess? Apollonians like you and King Pyrrus should beware of meeting maenads in the old-growth forest.

  6. I think this situation is largely a factor of illegality and the associated relatively high pricing and limited availability of the black market. Most consumers currently do not have more than one or two suppliers. They also are forced to pay prices well above the realistic cost of production and distribution. Set aside those and the popularity of more modestly endowed marijuana will rise.

    However, if the intent is to keep pricing high, because some believe that is good policy to prevent “abuse” (it won’t, but that’s a different discussion) it will aggravate the effect of people seeking out high THC numbers. People see high percentages of THC as “most bang for the buck,” even though that is objectively not true. Giving people a choice of varieties and costs lower than the black market will also lessen the inherent attraction of high THC strains and encourage a more sophisticated consumer.

    1. Mark’s anecdote takes place in a dispensary state, where consumers have a lot of choices.

      1. True, the anecdote was. However, that’s medical only market and a state that is still embedded in a national black market, which continues to have a far more substantive effect on it than proposed regulations does. What choices exist are certainly better than where I live — 🙁 — but far from what they could be.

        It’s also a reminder that efforts to keep prices high to maximize revenue and discourage use can/will backfire. It you want to pursue that road, guess what? Then, yes, the thing that people will look for is that high THC %. They will be maximizing their return on cost. That’s another reason why I feel Mark’s emphasizing discouraging consumption by keeping prices and taxes high is not going to produce the effect he thinks will occur.

        In fact, while we’re talking high taxes, you really can’t apply that to THC or any other number that can be deduced from lab testing. It’s a subjective and subtle combination unique to a growing being. I sure hope no one is going to propose a tax along those lines, i.e. higher the THC, the higher the tax, as it just won’t stack up to the numbers that I can see with the current state of the art.

        And any tax on recreational weed SHOULD be less than beer, for the reason we can predictably state a certain amount of beer will result in a fairly predictable outcome of tragedy and social cost. Again, it’s hard to quantify how much better off society would be by substituting weed for beer — I’m sure Mark would agree that’s a complex question — and I wouldn’t want to force that choice on any individuals — but I feel pretty safe in saying we’d be better off if weed+, beer- and I like my beer. If I had to choose one, it’d be weed, hands down.

        In an earlier era when my choice was wider, I tended to prefer different smoke for different time of day or work, often as not something lighter and more sativa-ish earlier in the day and more indica-ish later on. Now, with the need to treat things medically, that would be different, bring in the indica earlier. I think most consumers want access to a variety of effects and it’s silly to think that the maximal buzz-seeking behavior is all there is to it for heads; my experience is that it is a minority, the Purple Erkle not being quit the right example to draw data from IMO for the reasons above and more. Yep, a vocal minority are that way, I’ve smoked with some, but the casual smoker most likely to smoke more with legalization is probably among those who want diversity in their stash and not something that feels like a club up against your reality.

    1. not in yankeeland. do south young man uruguay not paraquatway i believe. state stores to sell whatever you want to furnish to market. market determines prices that it will pay. market determines winning and loosing growers. real fing simple. but we have ….wslcb for starters…and the end of that line stretches the imagination.

  7. Bang for the buck doesn’t seem to ring right with me. I have consumed 180 proof alcohol and was never drawn ro repeat the experience. My concerns are usually taste and pleasure over time. Clearly this is a question of individual physiology. Some dope that I have consumed while extremely powerful gave me the heebiejeebies, but my reaction to it was personal. Others who tried it had no such effect. Of course this is anecdotal stuff, but to reduce my individual sensibilities to some kind of spurious statistical spreadsheet in the name of “science” is little more than a red herring. No one has done the research that Mark recommends on individual responses to alcohol. What’s the point? Individuals will find what they want or will be led by the nose by PR. No one can tell me that there is a scientific reason for people drinking Bod other than marketing factors.

  8. CA NORML and MAP did a DPF funded study on mode of administration for psychoactive availability and presence of tars and other undesirable substances. Vaporization is recommended, water pipes were not particularly effective at reducing tars.

    DPF is now DPA, but I suspect they would fund some THC level preference research via UCSF school of medicine studies on medical marijuana. Mark, do you and Dale get along professionally? Giving him a call to schedule a brain storming session could be very productive to get some science done.

  9. A tangent, but perhaps relevant to West Coast sensibilities among a certain jaded demographic.

    This weekend, for a friend’s birthday, we took a brewery tour around Sonoma County. Lots of wonderful beers, but every one’s ABV percentage is prominently noted on the board along with brand name and style. I like a strong beer now and then — but for me that high number is a big warning sign. For most of the rest of the crowd, I got the distinct impression it was the point, even though the places attracted a somewhat higher class of lush.

  10. I am starting to like this guy more and more all the time. He gets it.

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