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From Chromatography to Cannabis Extraction: A Relaxed Conversation with John MacKay

“I am the raffinate!” These four cosmic words have stuck with me ever since John MacKay, Ph.D., said them. The scene was Concentration 2019, and the topic was cannabis extraction.

I introduced John as our keynote speaker and created a “John Mosaic” out of images I found, one of which displayed the famous models.  John had brought his soap, shampoo, and conditioner from his hotel room, and he had them in a pile next to his molecular models.

The bath products were perplexing. I had no idea where we were headed, but having had the opportunity to hear John several times before, I was keen to go for the ride.

It was here that John began talking about taking a shower. He compared the process to cannabis extraction. The point of the shower is to extract the dirt and detritus to purify your body, leaving it behind as raffinate.

True teachers can be hard to find. These are people who relish the chance to share their knowledge with other eager minds hungry for education. Moreover, the very best ones often jazz up their dialogue with a host of analogies and unforgettable soundbites. John grabbed a bunch of stuff from his room to educate the audience in terms that anyone could understand, adding humor with a nod to the weird, making for a memorable and educational experience.

Recently, I spoke with John about his career trajectory that thrust him into the heart of Cannabis sativa.


JSL: You have spent your career working with natural products, right? How did you end up working within the cannabis industry?  Moreover, what have you found to be different about working with a budding industry where there is not as much early structure as traditional in other industries?

JM: I have spent my life developing tools for the companies that relied on qualitative and quantitative analysis of mixtures that could be separated using chromatography. In the 1980s, I focused on the initial development of photodiode array technology. In the 1990s, this included interfacing chromatography with mass spectrometry. In the 2000s, this involved smaller packing chromatographic columns and then the need for acquisition rates to keep up with the separation. In the last decade, this has been scaling the extraction and separation tools for the cannabis industry. In the early days of cannabis legalization, I helped to merge the scientists trained in the universities with the chemists trained by generations of practical knowledge. I believe both held the keys to enhancing the processes with the final product in mind.


JSL: What are the top three things you have learned about cannabis that you did not know before getting involved in the industry?

JM: Three out of hundreds of things I have learned before getting into the industry? Take the number of days from late 2012 to 2021, multiply by a minimum of three, and you will have a closer value that you are asking me to choose from.

  • My perception of the industry had a bias based on prejudice of who used the plant and for what reason.
  • My perception of the plant had a bias that was based on “it is just another natural product.”
  • My perception of the work that needed to be done to solve the challenges in front of me was based on the first two. Political, social, science, and economics.


JSL: What do you think is the most cutting-edge technology on the market right now for cannabis extraction? Are there techniques you have seen used in other industries that might work for cannabis but have not yet caught on?

JM: How long is a piece of string? The current technologies are based on what was done in obscure labs in basements or garages. We need to be careful not to limit technology to what it is today. As I pass processing plants for fuel, pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical facilities for medicine, universities with extensive research for natural products, and community colleges with the facilities to train the next generation of eager minds the science and chemical engineering of experimental processes, I see how to bring productivity and quality by design and new product formulations to the market.


JSL: What do you think is the biggest misconception in the cannabis extraction world?

JM: The plant grows, magic happens, and cannabis is on the shelf.  Somewhere in the miraculous middle, magic happens.  When humans are confronted with a phenomenon they do not understand, the mind makes up things to bridge the unknown.

Concentration is the concept. Concentration has two main processes: extraction (use of disparate solvent, solute interaction – e.g., ethanol, hydrocarbon, carbon dioxide) and separation (use of mechanical separation that does not involve the solubility differences – e.g., hash).


JSL: In my crystal ball, I see you looking into your crystal ball, gazing into the future of cannabis extraction and product purification techniques, do’s and don’ts, fads and mainstays. Can you describe the scene that you see? Where is this industry headed in 5 or 10 years?

JM: In the United States of America, the tipping point will come when the research is allowed to be accomplished in the universities. This will open the doors for the creative minds of our enthusiastic youth.  And then, the seasoned faculty will join the practitioners to provide all the phases of the process control to the market.

If this phase is not done correctly, there will be more political posturing with lobbyists, more media dramatics, and more confusion based on the marketing of the products and formulations.

If done correctly, the United States will have over-the-counter formulations for personalized medicines from more currently illegal compounds. Stores will have shelves of products in health and wellness sections for the educated consumer to choose from. There will be an understanding of the effects and precautions of interactions with other compounds.


JSL: How do you suggest that those new to the industry sift through marketing literature to establish a firm footing in scientific fact?

JM: The marketing should be like natural products. That is not easy with the full spectrum products because there are so many compounds that could or should be in them. Looking at products that have a full spectrum is difficult. More products will have consumer evaluations as it becomes more common for people to use them and add their opinions.


JSL: Looking back on your career and all of your experiences, what do you think the cannabis industry offers that may not have been previously attainable to you?

JM: I will give you three analogic (analogy and logic mix) viewpoints:

  • “Lewis and Clark” opportunity: President Lincoln funded the program to find the easy route to the Pacific Ocean. It was a time of a whole new world. They relied on the local experts to guide them. The expedition, combined with their “state of the art” documentation of what they saw, opened up the west to the industrial east coast and changed the world.


  • It reminds me of the second verse of Chris Stapleton’s song, “Starting Over.”

This might not be an easy time
There’s rivers to cross and hills to climb

Some days we might fall apart
And some nights might feel cold and dark

But nobody wins afraid of losing
And the hard roads are the ones worth choosing

Someday we’ll look back and smile
And know it was worth every mile

  • We are bringing pharmacognosy, ethnobotany, and personalized medicine with chemistry and chemical engineering challenges to the next generation.


About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.