After a slew of states voted to legalize recreational or medical marijuana earlier this month, more people than ever have access to legal cannabis. Even when it’s not legal, people seem to get their hands on it anyway, as cannabis is the most widely-used illicit drug in the country.
Considering this, surprisingly little is known about marijuana or its effects on consumers. Federally illegal, marijuana is ranked as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a classification that not only brings strict criminal penalties for consumption and trafficking, but that places severe restrictions on the research of cannabis.
As a result, there have been very few U.S. studies on cannabis and what little is known is now being called into question by a team of genomics researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Daniela Vergara, postdoctoral research associate at CU, headed a recent genomics study that found the strains of cannabis available for federally funded studies lag significantly behind recreational markets in both potency and diversity, potentially compromising the validity of research regarding the drug’s effects.
In the context of the growing legalization movement, the science is increasingly important.
“A consumer, whether recreational or medical, should know what they are putting in their body,” Vergara says. “When you are consuming alcohol or cigarettes, you know what is going on in your body because researchers have proven the effects of those substances on the human body. But we don’t know that about marijuana. Medically, this is even more important because we don’t know how much someone should take or to what effect.”
Vergara goes on to say that the government has a responsibility to support research and provide information to consumers, but current protocols only serve to inhibit research.
To study marijuana a researcher must jump through a series of hoops: They have to get a license from the DEA and approval for the study from the Federal Drug Administration. They must also apply to receive research-grade marijuana for use in the study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This marijuana, grown at the University of Mississippi, is currently the only source of marijuana for legal scientific studies in the U.S.
“If you want to study cannabis you have to access the strains produced by NIDA, and we found that NIDA is not producing strains that are relevant because it is not like what people are consuming,” Vergara says. “This means that studies using NIDA marijuana are not accurate.”
Before Vergara’s study came out, the DEA opened applications to become a certified source for federally sourced marijuana in hopes of adding more sources for NIDA.
While the intention is laudable, the process is slow, Vergara says, and ultimately won’t solve the problem.
“The government is never going to be able to compete against the strains from the private market because these are people, breeders and growers, who have been growing cannabis for I don’t know how many decades,” Vergara says. “Not only do they have a lot of experience but their progress is fueled by competition of the market.
“In my opinion the best thing is for them to allow us to work with the cannabis that is produced by the private market that people are consuming.”
Like most things in the emerging legal cannabis market, the scientific path forward isn’t clear, easy or straightforward.
In entering the field, researchers make a risky personal and professional choice — choosing to study a federally illegal substance forces them to grapple with longstanding social and ethical stigmas.
“I was scared of what my peers would say, but overall they have been very supportive,” Vergara says. “[But in making the career move] several professors told me that if I am doing good science, it doesn’t matter. Someone has to do it and if I don’t do it someone else will do it.”
So Vergara understands the difficult position institutions, like CU, find themselves in — schools like these rely on federal grants and studying marijuana isn’t often worth the risk of losing those funds. Despite its positioning in Colorado — the frontier of all things cannabis — CU has yet to receive government funding for research.
This makes a study like this, one that questions a premise of the basic science of marijuana, a big deal, not only for consumers across America, but because becoming a leading expert in cannabis could be lucrative for the university.
“Colorado is the pioneer, and I think it is a great opportunity for CU,” Vergara says. “But I don’t know if they have realized this, that as scientists we are struggling to be pioneers in this, that it is a huge opportunity and a gold mine and we are the first ones to be able to exploit it.”