Jay Denniston, director of science at Dixie Elixirs and Edibles in Denver, Colorado, is an analytical chemist and food scientist, so it makes sense that he is driven by a need for precision, accuracy, and repeatable results.

“When Colorado first legalized cannabis, all of the dosing information was anecdotal,”  says Denniston, who holds a degree in biochemistry from University of Texas at Austin. “Cannabis was often labeled ‘low,’ ‘medium,’  and ‘high’ dose. I spoke with people who worked at dispensaries and found out that the labeling was based purely on what their customers reported.”

For medical and adult-use cannabis consumers alike, a lack of standardized data produces myriad problems. “High,” ”low,” and “medium” are relative terms. What is a “high” dose for one person may be a low for another. This is especially problematic for medical patients.

“It’s much more beneficial, for the patient as well as the adult-use consumer, to have actual lab-tested data,” Denniston says. “Instead of really basic categories relative to strength, we now can look at a specimen and say, for example, ‘This plant has X percent THC and Y percent CBD,’ and that’s important.” Such accuracy also is beneficial to adult-use consumers, who can be clearly informed of their products’ potency.

Denniston entered the cannabis industry after holding numerous positions in the biomedical space, including work in the environmental sector and as a forensic toxicologist.  “Being a scientist, I knew that there was an option there to try to help the industry in the analytical world,” he says.

After many years working in applied science in different industries, Denniston says he became more and more interested in the growing cannabis industry, where he saw a real need for both his talent and his passion. Denniston began working at Full Spectrum Labs, Colorado’s first marijuana testing facility, in 2011. In 2015 took his current position at Dixie.

“All of the experience I’ve had as a biochemist and analytical chemist comes into play at Dixie,” he says. Denniston and his colleagues apply the same sort of rigorous testing to cannabis that one would expect any food or drug to go through. In fact, Denniston is also a certified food scientist.  

“In addition to testing the active ingredients, we also are testing for heavy metals, microbes, fungi, and everything else you would expect to be tested on something that is going into your body,” he says.

Denniston also is excited about the growing scientific evidence showing cannabis’ medical efficacy. “We’re learning so much, and learning more every day, about just how complex this plant is,” he says. “We’re learning more and more about different cannabinoids, not just THC, and how they work.”

While THC is the cannabinoid most responsible for cannabis’s psychoactive and therapeutic effects, there are numerous additional cannabinoids, such as THCV, CBD, and CBN, that work in concert to produce a complex biochemical reaction often called the “entourage effect.” Medical scientists and researchers are learning that, especially for medical therapy, it is the combination of these agents, rather than any one on its own, that is responsible for cannabis’ effects.

“We’ve learned a lot, but we still have a way to go, and the way cannabis is scheduled certainly hampers progress,” Denniston says.

Denniston, like many, laments that the DEA has not rescheduled cannabis, despite its clear medical benefits. “Rescheduling cannabis would make an enormous difference for research,” he says. “We’ve learned so much and come such a long way. Imagine how much more we could learn with federal blessing.”

Denniston hopes that as more and more hard evidence for the efficacy and safety of cannabis becomes available, the tide will inevitably turn.

“We have to be responsible and serious, and we have to show the government and the public that we are responsible and serious,” Denniston says. “The more that we as an industry show this, the more we demonstrate that we’re not stoners playing with plants. We’re scientists, researchers, business owners. We’re serious people doing serious work.”