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On the hunt for facts about marijuana

May 30, 2018 | UCI Health
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The scientific community has been blindsided in many ways because of legalization and the changes in society regarding the perceived risks associated with cannabis, says Daniele Piomelli, PhD.

California voters in 2016 passed the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which made cannabis legal for recreational use. Despite its passage, scores of questions remain about the impact of marijuana on individuals and society — from its health effects to its economic, legal and environmental impacts.

To meet the demand for accurate, unbiased information, UC Irvine has launched the Center for the Study of Cannabis. Researchers from the schools of medicine and law will work jointly on cannabis research.

We asked Daniele Piomelli, PhD, who directs the new center along with School of Law Professor Robert Solomon, to explain the center’s function and why it is so important.

Piomelli, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology and the Louise Turner Arnold Chair in Neurosciences, is well-suited to the task.

As a young researcher in Paris, he and his colleagues discovered a naturally occurring endocannabinoid chemical in the brain that attaches to the same cell receptors in the brain as marijuana’s active ingredient, THC. The findings launched Piomelli’s long career studying endocannabinoids.

What does the legalization of recreational marijuana mean for scientists?

The scientific community has been blindsided in many ways because of legalization and the changes in society regarding the perceived risks associated with cannabis.

That poses a substantial number of challenges. Societal attitudes have changed at a much faster pace than science has. This is not unusual. Science is not typically fast in its pace. But there is a pressing need for research.

Voters have questions that can and should be answered through research. People wonder what cannabis can be useful for and what potential harm can come from it. We’d like very much to give the public the answers it now requests, indeed needs.

How can the center help?

UCI is one of the greatest institutions in the world, one that can and should tackle the need for research head-on and to take advantage of the fact that the state is poised to be a primary producer of cannabis in the United States.

UCI has a strong School of Medicine and School of Law that can move forward hand-in-hand on cannabis research.

We are also reaching out to sister institutions, UC San Diego and UC Davis, to research important topics such as the environmental impact of cannabis use and production. I think it’s important for the public to appreciate that this research should continue unabated.

We need to be aware of the obstacles to cannabis research and prevent diversion of research dollars mandated by Proposition 64 (which legalized recreational use of marijuana in California).

Why is it hard to conduct research on cannabis?

There are regulatory complexities.

The drug is illegal at the federal level — it is classified as a Schedule 1 drug. So in order to be able to conduct research, one has to have a Schedule 1 license, which is not an easy process to obtain or maintain. One is constantly worried about the Drug Enforcement Agency coming and finding something wrong with the logbooks.

Even with a Schedule 1 license, one can only study cannabis from a single authorized provider at the University of Mississippi. That is the only cannabis we can use, but real people use all sorts of different types of cannabis that are often stronger in THC content.

We’d like to study the drug that is out there in the real world, but right now we cannot. As scientists, we hope that these obstacles will be removed in the coming years. Otherwise, research to identify the risks and benefits of cannabis will be seriously weakened. It’s in nobody’s interest to curb research that is so important to the health of Americans.

Can academic-based research break down some of the biases surrounding cannabis?

It is very surprising to find out how ingrained opinions are on this particular topic. Opinions are often not based in fact.

Even among my fellow scientists, I’ve seen so many pass judgment without having the data. Scientists are humans.

But it’s time for us to remind ourselves of what we really know and what we think we know. If there are harms, we need to understand exactly what those harms are — based on data and analysis.

Why is research especially needed on cannabis and pain?

One thing that’s urgent, from a public health perspective, is an understanding of the role of cannabis in treating chronic pain. Many studies have been conducted on this.

The National Academy of Sciences has said there is “substantial evidence” that cannabis is useful to treat chronic pain in adults. In the context of the opioid epidemic, can cannabis be used to reduce the number of opioid overdoses and addictions?

It is possible to conduct well-designed, controlled clinical trials to address those questions.

What are the most pressing health questions regarding cannabis?

The issue of usage by adolescents and pregnant women is something close to my heart. Unfortunately, the data we have are insufficient to conclude whether the use of cannabis during pregnancy is detrimental to the fetus and has long-term effects.

The use of cannabis in adolescence is very important because the adolescent brain is still developing. The impact of all psychoactive drugs is always stronger in an adolescent than in an adult. We also must address the question of driving under the influence of cannabis.

We need to understand better how cannabis influences driving and operating heavy machinery, and we need to find ways of better assessing impairment in drivers.

Our law enforcement and state regulations essentially are drawn up based on alcohol impairment. Alcohol and cannabis are very different. Alcohol is only very partially translatable to cannabis. We need a fresher approach.

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