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The US Race to Catch Up on Cannabis Research

You may have already seen this month’s issue of Time Magazine; it features a lab rat smoking a joint. Ten years ago, if someone had told me that this would be the cover of a fairly conservative magazine aimed at middle-age readers, I would have laughed. However, the feature article is actually a very fair and unbiased look at the global state of cannabis research. This is thanks in part to Bruce Barcott, the article’s principal co-writer and author of the book, “Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America”. As a journalist Barcott has an incredible degree of familiarity with cannabis and seems to take a mostly positive stance. The TIME article echoed this sentiment by suggesting that cannabis does indeed help, and has the potential to help many but is also not harmless and may cause serious damage if used during pregnancy or by adolescents. This is not far from Cornerstone’s stance.

To be fair, lately TIME seems to be trading legitimacy for readers in the race to stay relevant against newer media. For instance, making Kanye West the cover of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People” – I’m a Yeezy fan, but if he’s really the most influential person in the world (or even top 100), then we’re all in serious trouble. However, other well-respected publications have published similar articles, such as this month’s National Geographic article, “Science Seeks to Unlock Marijuana’s Secrets”, and CNN’s 2013 Chief Medical Correspondent feature “Why I Changed My Mind on Weed”. Both of these are carefully researched and worth watching or reading for any cannabis consumer.

The basic plot put forth in both the TIME and National Geographic articles is a story of blind adversity to cannabis. Despite indications of cannabis and hemp use dating back to before recorded time, the U.S. had managed to outlaw cannabis by the time serious molecular research could take place. Scientists were purportedly wary of dealing with cannabis, for good reason; with so many areas of research to choose from, why pick a subject that would ensure a lot of extra trouble and controversy? Fortunately, not every country followed the same path. Israel has long had a cultural sweet spot for hash and cannabis use, and as a result, the medical climate was comparatively more receptive of research (although still not exactly “welcoming”). This is perhaps why in 1963, Israeli researcher, Raphael Mechoulam, sensing a great potential within cannabis, made it a mission to find the chemical structure of the active ingredient of cannabis. He reasoned that while other plant-based compounds, such as cocaine, had long been identified, the psychoactive component of cannabis remained a mystery. In the end, Mechoulam discovered THC, a now world-famous molecule, and was rewarded with more funding and cooperation from both the Israeli government and research institutions. Mechoulam then patiently expanded research. Two decades later, he identified the main mechanism of action of THC with the discovery of the endocannabinoid system. Thus solving two of the largest questions about cannabis and igniting further research all over the world.

Unfortunately, the U.S. has not been a large part of this research. The TIME article describes a “scientific trade deficit”, where most of the research coming out of the U.S. is geared toward asking the question, “does this cause harm?”, rather than, “what can this help?”. This is not surprising, because until recently, it has been very difficult to obtain the permission to study Cannabis for Americans. In the U.S. drug schedules determine what rules apply to what substances. While cocaine is a Schedule 2 drug and therefore fairly straightforward to obtain for study (by a legitimate research institution), cannabis is Schedule 1, meaning it has been declared to have no medical value and some of the most stringent restrictions. In fact, as reported by National Geographic, Nolan Kane, a geneticist who has been trying to map the complete DNA of cannabis, has had to teach cannabis growers how to extract DNA to give him directly, since he is not able to legally obtain cannabis for research. Let’s break that down to highlight what a ridiculous situation this is: a basic quest to gather more information about the DNA of cannabis now has to rely on untrained growers who, by the bizarre forces of politics, are ironically able to grow what the researcher can’t. Meanwhile in Spain, Manuel Guzman continues cancer research with THC, churning out study after study on the subject and drawing the interest of international pharmaceutical companies…*cue slow clap for America*.

The TIME article essentially concludes by noting that the U.S. is finally realizing the need for greater research, citing large investments by the government and private institutions alike. The descriptions of these programs are vague, and an internet search doesn’t reveal much in the way of federal research other than the well-known University of Mississippi program scaling up. However, a scan of research databases is more hopeful; on almost any database, one can see cannabis-related studies may still be predominantly coming from outside the U.S., but the rate of U.S. studies appears to be increasing, no doubt thanks to the changing legal climate of cannabis. The difficulty Nolan Kane faces to procure DNA samples is ridiculous, but before caregivers with legal permission to grow existed, his research would have been outright impossible. For now, just the fact that cannabis research is being discussed in culture outlets such as TIME seems to be a large step forward. We hope that this cultural trend continues. In the meantime the most practical step the U.S. Federal Government can take to allow U.S. research to catch up to global research would be to officially reduce the schedule of cannabis to reflect its medicinal value and safety. This would make it simpler for laboratories to obtain cannabis for legal study. However, more importantly, it would also be seen as a message from the USFG that the official medical policy is changing. This, in turn, would remove much of the blind stigma against cannabis research currently found in the U.S.


Works Cited

Sides, Hampton. “Science Seeks to Unlock Marijuana’s Secrets.” National Geographic. June 2015. < http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/06/marijuana/sides-text>.

Barcott, Bruce and Michael Scherer. “The Great Pot Experiment.” TIME. 14 May 2015. Web.

Gupta, Dr. Sanjay. “Why I changed my mind on weed.” CNN. 8 August 2013. < http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/08/health/gupta-changed-mind-marijuana/>.

Halper, Evan. “Mississippi, home to federal government’s official stash of marijuana.” LA Times. 28 May 2014.