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Intoxication: the business of wine and weed


As Australia edges toward relaxing its laws around medicinal marijuana, Philip White finds some links between wine and cannabis.

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On October 2, 1729, Benjamin Franklin and a mate bought The Pennsylvania Gazette and set about building it into the equivalent of the New York Times of its day. Their first issue devoted most of its front page to the promotion of hemp, “by naturalists call’d Cannabis … ”

They explain the plant’s physiology, its cycle, its uses and its preparation. They report its efficacy in treating venereal disease, jaundice, burns and deafness, but warn against mixing its extract with “any ordinary liquor”, an admixture which “is said to turn those who drink thereof, stupid”.

The much-lauded 2000 National Geographic herbal guide, Nature’s Medicine – Plants That Heal, gives a good example of conservative western attitudes to marijuana at that stage: In all its plush, 400 full-colour pages, it affords the plant just a few hundred guarded and begrudging words to eventually conclude: “When smoked or eaten, marijuana relieves nausea, moderates chronic pain, increases appetite and reduces muscle spasms”.

But what was cool, then wasn’t, suddenly, unequivocally, once more IS: Jump to June 2015, and the same publisher devoted nearly half of its monthly National Geographic magazine to an honest and informative essay by historian Hampton Sides, promoted all over its front cover as “WEED – THE NEW SCIENCE OF MARIJUANA”.

The National Geographic? Kiddies, learn from this magazine!

“Ganja is simply around us more,” Sides writes, “its unmistakable but increasingly unremarkable smell hanging in the air … smoking it may lead to temporary laughing sickness, intense shoe-gazing, amnesia about what happened two seconds ago, and a ravenous yearning for Cheez Doodles. Though there’s never been a death reported from an overdose, marijuana – especially today’s stout iterations – is also a powerful and in some circumstances harmful drug.”

So within a century, we see the failure of USA prohibition in killing two great satans: first, alcohol; now pot. We’re back to 1729. But finally, after all that up and down and on and off, we have some science happening as the new marijuana boom draws research millions from many unlikely quarters.

As this unfolds, we see this new intoxication industry showing the wine world a thing or two about marketing. Wine has long had ‘flavour wheels’, simple hand-held circular calculators designed to help the ignorant or the forgetful consider its various aspects. At the same time, we see constant hysterical claims about compounds in wine that are good for humans.

Resveratrol’s the usual favourite, but I’ve never seen it on a flavour wheel.

A fortnight ago the website Leafly – “the world’s largest cannabis information resource” – released a flavour wheel. But with smarts typical of the sassy-brash, suddenly-legit practitioners in the pot business, this is first and foremost a terpene wheel. Terpenes are organic compounds: essential oils which many plants and flowers produce. Much of the aroma of your glass of wine is the smell of its terpenes, which ideally came naturally from the vine’s fragrant oils and survived ferment and bottling.

Leafly‘s wheel lists six terpenes common in cannabis which coincidentally are also found in wine. It lists their boiling points and describes their typical aromas and their neurological and physiological effects. It also names other plants which produce these terpenes, and then summarises their medical benefits.

For each terpene, the wheel lists five strains of currently available cannabis.

Take linalool. It smells floral, and of citrus and spice. It also occurs in lavendar, laurel, citrus, birch and rosewood. It boils at 198 degrees Celcius, so is most efficacious if ingested well below that destructive temperature point. It has a sedating and calming effect and is prescribed for insomnia, stress, depression, anxiety, pain and convulsions.

Linguistically soft science, maybe, but it sure beats “drink with fish or chicken.”

In many parts of the USA one can go for a straight cannabis strain or have the supplier mix a blend depending on the aroma or effect one seeks.

“When choosing a strain based on its terpenes content,” says Leafly‘s disclaimer, “keep in mind that different harvests may demonstrate dramatically different terpenoid profiles due to variances in growing and curing techniques. Lab-tested products are the only sure-fire way of knowing a strain’s terpene potency – without it, you’ll have to rely on your nose.”

Blinking like a waking kid, Australia is following the USA into the world of decriminalisation and legitimisation of cannabis as a medicine, but not as a recreational herb.

It’s when we hit this difference between “getting stoned” and “getting better” that logic falls apart. Millions are being spent on attempting to remove the bits of pot that “recreational” users enjoy from those that offer only “medical” relief to the officially sick.

How sick is that?

Low alcohol wine comes to mind. Wine is not wine without that critical intoxicant, ethanol. Take the intoxicant out and it’s no longer wine: it loses nearly all of its gastronomic allure.

Similarly, wine ceases to be attractive if it’s too strong: our exporters are struggling to learn this after they bruised and butchered several key international markets by sending jammy overstrength gloop that may have been fashionable here for a few minutes about 15 years ago but is not what many civilised people elsewhere want to have with their lunch.

In Australia, we can’t even select our wine on its alcoholic strength: the quoted number of alcohols can vary 1.5% either way from what is stated. So a wine claiming to be 14.5% alcohol, which most of them do, can actually be 16%, which many of them are without breaking the law.

Typically bureaucracies and politicians are susceptible to the extreme power of the liquor and pharmaceutical lobbies. Whether it’s Big Booze or Big Pharma, they want to get the increasingly popular cannabis into circulation as a proprietory prescription medicine which offers no competition to their psychotropic drugs businesses. It can’t be seen to be a pleasurable recreational drug, like ethanol, especially when its effects are nowhere near as mentally or physically destructive as that deadly depressant.

The Leafly terpene wheel lists five strains of cannabis that are rich in caryophyllene, which is also found in pepper, cloves, hops, basil and oregano. This antioxidant is good for relaxing muscle spasms and easing inflammation and it’ll send you to sleep, but it’s hardly a tripper’s delight. That lot would be better off with a myrcene-rich strain. Myrcene occurs in mango, thyme, citrus, lemongrass and bay leaf. It’s an antiseptic, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory fungicide that enhances the psychoactivity of the tetra-hydra-cannabinol (THC) that makes you stoned.

Most Australian commercial pot is hydroponically-grown, industrial “indoor” manipulated to be full of THC but low in cannabidiol (CBD), the bit that fascinates Big Pharma. These illicit strains that turn your brain to dung are never the favourite of the connoisseur: they’re the weeder’s equivalent of Shiraz at 18.5% alcohol, or rum’n’Red Bull. They’re way out of balance. And they’re untested.

These governments that flounder around ensuring we’re never certain of how much ethanol we drink in their favourite buzzy product are well behind the booming USA pot industry’s capacity to permit people their own choice of intoxicant and its level, along with all those other things that fix you up thanks largely to the terpenes.

We’re grown-ups. We smoke pot. Let us have the choice to legitimately buy it and pay GST in exchange for some reliable standards and access to efficient and quick laboratory analysis of the multiplying strains. Let us grow our own herb in the healthy sunshine, like grapes, the way we like it.

Government must eventually realise that getting nicely stoned can offer as much of a cure as the fungicide in myrcene and it’s a helluva lot safer than too much ethanol or a whole stack of popularly-prescribed Big Pharma brainbenders.

Bacchus knows, we could even make a sensible industry of all this AND the hemp beloved by Benjamin Franklin for thread, fabric and paper-making.

It may help balance the status quo, where for purposes of ethanol intoxication we devote about 1 million hectares of the state to barley and 72,000 hectares to grapes, many of which waste heaps of water to make a loss, year-in, year-out.

The economically-beleaguered Weatherill government must look longingly at the Colorado numbers. Total monthly marijuana taxes, licenses and fees incoming there hit US$67,545,340 in May.

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