Cannabis Research

Why I have trust issues:

If you’ve been in the weed game for longer than five minutes, you probably already know the problematic nature of cannabis research. Since the scheduling of cannabis deemed it to be a narcotic with “no medical value,” laws make it nearly impossible to do clinical research. An article in the L.A. Times reported, “Some prominent researchers complain approval is unreasonably tough for scientists whose work aims at finding beneficial uses for the drug.”

Until recently, scientists in the United States performed studies under the directive of proving the dangers of cannabis. Propaganda ensued. Regrettably, claims of lowered IQ, premature aging, lung disease, and addiction (among scads others) enveloped the plant in misinformation. The government even released a study claiming that cannabis kills braincells. However, researchers have never been able to replicate these claims and have largely debunked them. Regardless, concerned parents across the country still quote this when confronted with cannabis.

But even research that indicates cannabis can help treat symptoms of diseases should be approached critically. Because research institutions have national grants and must comply with federal law, scientists must research exclusively with the federally legal source of cannabis, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Where does research weed even come from?

Until very recently, 12 acres of campus at the University of Mississippi has provided all the cannabis used for studies. The director of the Marijuana Project at Ole Miss, Mahmoud A. ElSohly, leads the long-time legal grow operation. The garden has begun gearing up to grow around 30,000 plants to facilitate the growing demand by researchers.

ElSohly runs the heavily regulated, out-door facility. He grows the plants for scientists seeking to research its effects after receiving special licensing through several federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). ElSohly has been quoted saying, “Pot should never be smoked. You do that to get high and there are ways to move the curative chemicals into your system without getting stoned…THC is not absorbed through the rectum,” in an article for the L.A. Times in 2014.

With regards to legalization happening across the country, ElSohly said in the same article, “The liberalization of those laws really scares me. To have marijuana available just like that? I feel sorry for Colorado and Washington state. In a few years, you are really going to see the impact of the liberal laws they have there.”

To date, Washington state has collected around $401 million from the cannabis excise tax, greatly impacting local communities.

Though ElSohly does believe in the potential benefits of cannabis, he has also admitted having never consumed it. Many long-time cannabis growers have scoffed at his admission. Some compare growing cannabis to professional chefs: how are you going to make a good sauce if you’ve never tasted the recipe?

What does that mean for research?

Basically? Research bud is bunk schwag. And a recent study out of the University of Colorado can confirm.

Using statistics provided by NIDA and lab results from Steep Hill from Denver, Oakland, Sacramento, and Seattle, researchers compared data. “Our results demonstrate that the federally produced Cannabis has significantly less variety and lower concentrations of cannabinoids. Current research, which has focused on material that is far less diverse and less potent than that used by the public, limits our understanding of the plant’s chemical, biological, psychological, medical, and pharmacological properties,” the study reported.

It’s kind of like only testing Xanax at an eighth of a dose.

And while centuries of use—spanning cultures and generations—teaches us incredible amounts about the herb, we still have so much research to do. What are the full effects of cannabis on things like tumor growth or movement disorders? We don’t yet know.

Lab Cannabis Testing

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Should we trust cannabis testing results for product potency?

Customers comment often that the coolest quirk of legalization is cannabis testing. Don’t guess which strain is fire: our consumers feel it only takes a quick compare/contrast of the tiny test results on the back of each baggie before they know which product is powerfully potent. But how effective is that?

Experts across the state have raised their collective eyebrow, questioning the accuracy of these tests by up to 10%. Any budtender will tell you, if you have four different grams for sale, it doesn’t matter if gram A is the frostiest. The highest testing will sell out first.

Customers rely heavily on printed numbers,” a Pot Shop budtender explained. “I’ve looked a customer in the eye and explicitly said, ‘I’ve tried all of these. Don’t believe the numbers. This one is the most potent,’ only to have them nod along and grab the highest testing anyway. Even when it clearly won’t look, taste, or smoke as good.” This attitude proliferates through the cannabis community.

But I thought numbers don’t lie?

Due to regulations, most consumers put blind faith in the numbers on each bag, but mounting evidence suggests we shouldn’t. “There are clear indications that a large number of potency values are higher than reality,” Donald Land, a chemistry professor at UC Davis and part-owner of Steep Hill Labs, told Seattle Weekly. “That’s not because of errors, that’s intentional.”

The issues stem from laws requiring regulations, without laws clearly defining regulatory standards. That means Washington says that cannabis must be tested, but doesn’t yet specify how. Through this grey area, laboratories around the state (and in other cannabis-friendly states) can pad their numbers, ensuring growers return to that lab for more fast-selling lab results.

Not only that, but the natural variations of a plant means that differences will occur flower-to-flower on the same plant. Just like how one rose bush could produce five flowers. The top flower might grow to be enormous and fragrant. But another flower could look sickly and only half bloom, from the same plant. That happens with cannabis too. The plant’s biological components vary enormously. Yet the state only requires tests of one bud from one strain. This leaves space for natural variability and major inaccuracy.

So what is WA State going to do about testing?

In light of testing inconsistencies, the WA Liquor and Cannabis Control Board have proposed requiring labs to test three samples of each product. According to Joanna Eide, the coordinator for the LCB: “The hope is that [average] is a more accurate potency of the plant.”

But Land has reservations about this change. “Just doing the three samples alone won’t solve the problem of bad actors. Bad actors can manipulate three measurements just as easily as they can manipulate one,” he says. And he’s right. Since nothing stops labs from using “business-friendly” results currently, nothing would stop them continuing that practice.

Others have suggested that the three samples be tested by different labs, ensuring independent numbers, and (theoretically) more honest averages. The conversation, however, is ongoing.

Currently, the LCB has opened up the topic of cannabis regulations to the masses. A public hearing will be held 11 January 2017, before a vote on 25 January. If you have opinions on the validity of cannabis testing (and as a consumer, you should), contact the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Control Board.