📷 Jason Verbeek
Journalist: Sarah Jafari
Sarah Jafari: Hello, and welcome to SciSection. My name is Sarah Jafari. I am a fourth year English major at York university. I'm also a volunteer journalist here at SciSection. Today, I'm here with Jason Verbeek, who is a scientist in the cannabis industry. And we'll be talking about himself, his career, and the cannabis plant in general. Jason, how are you today?
Jason Verbeek: Good, Sarah, how are you doing?
Sarah Jafari: I'm great. Thank you. So I want to start out this interview with a fun little game. Let's call it Burning Questions with Sarah. So if you could go back in time and claim any invention as your own, what would it be and why?
Jason Verbeek: Hmm. If I could claim any invention as my own, putting me, putting me on the spot here. Let's see. I think something that makes people happy. Maybe just music in general. If, if I can go wave back 10,000 years and just, just say it was me. Yeah. First one to, yeah. First one to hit a drum. First one to try to sing a song or something. Yeah, I think, I think that would be great.
Sarah Jafari: Love that. Absolutely.
Jason Verbeek: How much happiness does that bring to people?
Sarah Jafari: You would be the poster child for happiness.
Jason Verbeek: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
Sarah Jafari: So Jason, why don't you start off by telling us a little about your career and your role as someone who's involved in research and development in cannabis?
Jason Verbeek: For sure. So I work as a cultivation scientist for Aurora Cannabis which is a Canadian cannabis company. That's sort of an amalgamation of many different cannabis companies as the industry evolves. And what I do is I run research projects for the company to explore ways that we can improve the plant's growth. So it's a science-based position where I'm constantly running different research projects to explore what can we do and what can we change and how can we improve production and be more efficient. So it's essentially an agricultural sciences job with, with very heavy hints of, of just research everywhere. So it's been a very interesting position and, and there's always a lot to learn.
Sarah Jafari: And how long have you been in the field if you don't mind me asking?
Jason Verbeek: So I've been working there for almost two years now. So in the fall it will be two years for me. And right from the start I was thrown in and started running research projects on anything from growing climate to lighting to irrigation recipes and what goes into that? So nutrients and whatnot. So it's really pushed me to expand beyond what I had been researching previously and, and really use all of my skills in terms of researching and finding things out and just putting in a lot of work to find those things out.
Sarah Jafari: Interesting. So how did you get into this specific field and what intrigued you the most about it?
Jason Verbeek: I've always been fascinated by the natural world, like ever since I was pretty young just going out and, and being in nature and looking at plants and animals. And that led me to study biology at Queen's University where I, you know, got even more into, into studying biology. So I am a biologist that's, that's my trade. And, essentially I think where I started getting really into plants was I started as a summer job. I joined the lab of one of the professors at Queen's University, where I was studying and we were actually looking at evolution just in general and how different species might adapt in terms of climate change scenarios. And what we were doing was we were looking at how, how plants change over elevation. So we got up into the Rocky mountains and we're studying different plants all over the mountains and looking how they changed with the elevation.
And, and from there, I got more and more into studying plants and, and that led me to, to start my master's degree at the University of Toronto where I ended up studying plant biology, still more focused on invasive species. So I've, I was pretty deep into the academic research side of things. Obviously now I'm in industry, but graduating with my master's in plant biology in 2018 it seemed like the stars sort of just aligned in cer in terms of timing. It was obviously an emerging field, the cannabis industry in Canada. And they were looking for people who were ready to do research and, and ready to do a lot of work in those fields. But yeah, it was essentially a very young company Aurora Cannabis. And I imagine a lot of the other cannabis companies in Canada are just given, given the fresh industry.
So yeah, it was basically timing where I found out that I could pursue a career in terms of something that was plant science, and it was an opportunity to do something that was completely new. An there's so much to explore. Obviously the plant's been illegal for so long in Canada and most countries worldwide. So there's a lot of unknowns. We don't know a lot, which made it exciting for me. I could apply all of my academic research skills and try to work in the industry and create some positive change for the company there.
Sarah Jafari: What type of reaction do you get from people you tell them about your career?
Jason Verbeek: Yeah, that really depends on the person and, and depending on the personal I'll sort of frame it differently, but some people definitely just, just think it's sort of like a funny industry to, to be in. They have a bit of trouble seeing past sort of the stigma that's associated with, with cannabis, obviously being illegal for so long. And they're more focused on the fact that, okay, this is weed. We're talking about people that are smoking. It's more like, you know, the hippie culture that it was previously associated with. And on the complete other end of the spectrum, there's people who are really excited by the fact that it's research and there is something new and there are so few people in the world who have this sort of expertise. So that's really exciting for me when, when I get to tell people about my career and all of the exciting things we can do. And it's also exciting for Canada.
Jason Verbeek: I think there aren't too many industries that Canada is the only one that's involved in and, and the cannabis industry is very focused in Canada, a little bit in Israel as well, but Canada's able to be a world leader in that.
Jason Verbeek: So yeah, it's a really cool opportunity and yeah, it's always interesting to have conversations with people about my career, because nobody really knows, right. It's such a new field.
Sarah Jafari: Right. And when you have these conversations, do you kind of try to go out of your way to break the stigmas?
Sometimes I think I let people just have their fun if they're trying to have fun, but yeah, I definitely do go out of my way to emphasize that, that it is very scientific. We do take our work very seriously in terms of trying to make advancements and be very efficient. If you look at most other agricultural fields, they have a 100 year head start in terms of when crop science really started to take off. If we're looking at the 1920s, 1930s, when big companies started to really get into that. So that's, yeah, it's a very interesting field to actually be working in.
Sarah Jafari: Right. And what kind of advice would you give to somebody who's kind of wanting to get into the field and into the study of cannabis? And do you think there are a particular set of skills someone has to have in order to be successful in the field?
Jason Verbeek: I don't think there's a specific set of skills that you would need, I guess, just being very driven and self-directed, and, and ready to learn in any career. I think you have to be constantly trying to learn to succeed and advance and make a change with your job. And in my experience, that's been particularly the case in the cannabis industry. There's a lot to learn. And like I mentioned earlier, it is a very young industry on average. So it's, it's a lot of people that are trying to figure things out. So yeah, it's just that motivation and drive to really be good at your job and make improvements there in terms of people who are interested in the field. I think there's a lot of opportunities, more so from my side, I'm exposed to the scientific aspect of it.
Jason Verbeek: So there's a lot of biologists like myself. I work more on the environmental side, what can we do in the growth and, and development of this plant to make it better? There's plenty of geneticists as well, that are completely on the other side of things who, who have a lot of work to do in terms of what cultivars of cannabis are going to be helping people medically, they all produce different levels of cannabinoids. So there's a lot to figure out there. And there's also opportunities for, for people who are in, in chemistry, I think on the more pharmaceutical side of the business. So yeah, I think there's, there's a lot of opportunities. And in terms of skill sets, I think just, just trying to get into the industry and moving around within the industry seems to be fairly easy. I think a lot of people are surprised by how quickly they're able to move forward into new positions as long as they approve they're driven.
Sarah Jafari: Right. Really good. So going back to what you said earlier, do you think the public's overall engagement with something like cannabis has evolved since its legalization in Canada?
I think legalization in Canada was a result of public opinion already. I think Canadians were very ready for that change when it did happen. It was very commonly used before and at least perceived by a fairly sizable chunk of the public as something that wasn't to be feared anymore. So I think, I think that's what drove the legalization of it in the first place. And then in terms of it being legal now, I think a lot of people who maybe would have been opposed earlier on are giving it a bit more of a chance and it it'll be very interesting to see what happens over the next few years, we're still very much in the infancy stages, but I think people will really open up to it, especially in terms of the, the medical aspects that we can cut into.
Sarah Jafari: So Jason, do you think you can explain some of the scientifically proven benefits and maybe harms to cannabis?
Jason Verbeek: I'm not too involved in the medical aspect of it, obviously as a plant scientist. That's not my field of expertise, but there are definitely certain benefits that have caused it to be used medicinally. It was actually illegal in Canada for quite a few years before it was legalized recreationally. And I think the major uses for medical work are for cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy with, with nausea and lack of appetite. There's certain cannabinoids in the product that can stimulate appetite and help with nausea and, and the side effects of the treatments that cancer patients go through. And that can actually be applied to many other patients who have certain pharmaceutical drugs that are giving them a lack of appetite. So I think that's, that's one chronic pain treatment is another major one.
Jason Verbeek: That's obviously that's the major medical benefit. And then there's also certain forms of epilepsy that are prevalent in children that CBD cannabidiol has been proven to reduce seizures and in certain forms of epilepsy in children. So those are sort of the major fields where we could see improvements. Like I said earlier, it is still a, it's an emerging field, and there's a lot to be discovered in terms of these benefits, but, those are the main fields where, where I can see treatments opening up a lot more in the future in terms of harms the harms should definitely not be ignored. Again, these have to have a lot more clinical studies until we can definitively make, make a conclusion on them. But we do know for a fact that smoking's not good whether it's cannabis or other products.
Jason Verbeek: So that's, that's the major issue that, that I can see as a concern with cannabis exploratory issues. There are other forms of, of taking cannabis in terms of the pharmaceutical industry. There's pills being developed recreationally there's, there's a lot more fun things that are supposed to be rolling out soon mints edibles other things that don't require you to actually smoke something. And I think a lot of people do prefer to not smoke anyway, if they're taking cannabis. And then another harm. I think that that is really brought to the forefront for current researchers is impaired cognition. So especially in adolescent users and children, it is associated with a bit of a slowed neurodevelopment. Yeah, that's obviously up for research still. It's not conclusive whether it's people with preexisting conditions who are more likely to use cannabis or if it is actually causing that. So that's one thing that is a really big focus of research right now is how it affects neurological development. It is, it is a psychoactive drug. So that's, that's what we need to be focused on and ensuring that if we are using this as a treatment that we're ensuring we're not having these negative side effects as well.
Sarah Jafari: Thank you for clearing that up.
Jason Verbeek: Yeah, yeah, no problem.
Sarah Jafari: Do you think the cannabis industry and community has done a good job at breaking stereotypes and actually informing and teaching the public about cannabis use and if not, what types of shifts and changes with the industry need to make in order to distance themselves from, from being seen as taboo?
Jason Verbeek: Oh, this is a tough one. Let's see. I think they've done a fairly good job in terms of trying to be professional and, and ensuring that people are taking it seriously. There's, there's a lot of benefits to being seen as a viable industry that can produce a beneficial medical or recreational experience. So I think the industry is working hard to do that. I'm not quite sure they're there yet. I think yeah, a lot more work needs to be done in terms of what we know about the product before we can, before we can make claims about cannabis is affects, but in terms of being seen as taboo, I think, I think that's something that will happen eventually as more people get exposed to it. And it is, it is interesting to talk to people who may have seen it as taboo a few years ago, who are very open to using it now. And, and seeing other countries following Canada's lead, I think as it becomes more prevalent worldwide, I think that change will sort of naturally occur over time.
Sarah Jafari: I only asked because I was in high school during the time that Canada was about to legalize marijuana recreationally, and they never really explained to us about any benefits to marijuana. It was always the harms and “stay away”. But then like only, just recently have we learned that, you know, just like you said, it treats cancer patients, it treats just even pain, depression, anxiety, all that sort of stuff. So I think it's just interesting to see things that are being kind of censored even within like our own education system.
Jason Verbeek: Absolutely. Yeah. I think that's really important to consider. And if, if we're comparing it to other recreational substances, like, like alcohol has been legalized in Canada for quite some time, it obviously serves sort of a dual purpose, right. It can be very beneficial. People use it in social circumstances and it's seen as, as quite acceptable when it also does have negative side effects as well. There's obviously the same issues that come along with addiction and dependency and negative effects on the brain and everything. So I think it's, it's obviously has to be taken with moderation and people, people I think are understanding that it's sort of on that same level of understanding as, as how we treat alcohol, we need to, we need to make sure we're aware of the risks, but responsible use is not necessarily as taboo as was once thought.
Sarah Jafari: So Jason, in your opinion, why do you think a plant like marijuana that has so many benefits, like we just went over, was criminalized in our country for so long?
Jason Verbeek: I'm not too sure about the legal status of it. We did learn very briefly when I started my job about some of the history in terms of making cannabis illegal back when that happened and sort of how it was portrayed as this very, very difficult substance to have any benefits, it was portrayed as sort of an evil, very bad thing for society. It is, it is very interesting. Some people also do pose that maybe it had to do somewhat with the lumber industry in North America because hemp and cannabis actually do have a lot of other uses. At one point in the United States, it was actually required for all farmers to grow hemp. This was used a lot for rope and sales and things obviously quite a long time ago. So at some point, I guess, I guess it was lobbied against and maybe illegal. I'm not sure exactly why, but yeah, I think people with more freedom of information available online and communication between people, I think we are seeing a societal shift where people are putting pressure on governments to legalize. What, what they already think is something suitable for society.
Sarah Jafari: Jason, where do you see the future of the cannabis industry heading in the next half century? And do you think cannabis will become even more integrated into our lives?
Jason Verbeek: I think it'll become a lot more integrated into our lives, especially once we start to learn more about its effects and, and monitor those and ensure we are using it as a, as a medicine responsibly. Yeah. I think it will become a lot more common in terms of medical treatments. There's still so much to learn that those will definitely be coming a lot more to the forefront. And in terms of integration into our lives, I think there is a bit more use for cannabis in terms of just the crop itself. Hemp can be used for a number of functions. Yeah. I, I think it will become very important for society just as something like alcohol has its distinct role to be used in, in certain recreational circumstances. But yeah, I think, I think it is still a very minor part of our lives and I don't see it becoming too huge in the future.
Sarah Jafari: Perfect. Well, Jason, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It was really great, really interesting learning about your field, what you do and just cannabis itself. Thank you so much.
Jason Verbeek: For having me it's really much appreciated.
Sarah Jafari: Yeah, of course. So that's it for this week. Everyone make sure you check out our Instagram @Scisection. I'm Sarah Jafari. Thank you so much for listening. Bye now and stay safe.