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Health, Science, Environment

How Much Do We Really Know About Cannabis? We Ask Someone Who’s Researching It

Illinois Supply and Provisions in Collinsville sold $5 million of recreational marijuana in January. The dispensary accounted for 13.6% of sales in Illinois.
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Recreational cannabis may be legal in some states, but robust research into the plant is hard to come by. Cannabis' status as a federally scheduled drug makes it difficult for researchers to investigate it.

Illinois becomes the 11th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana on Jan. 1, six years after Colorado started to allow recreational sales. The cannabis industry grew rapidly in that time, and so did claims about the plant’s properties and effects.

Joseph DiVerdi doesn’t believe those assertions. He should know. DiVerdi is a cannabis researcher and chemistry professor at Colorado State University.

“The hype totally outstripes knowledge,” he said. “The lack of hard data has permitted opinion to run wild and rampant. There are so many things attributed to the cannabis plant that are far beyond what might be considered reasonable.” 

One example: the disappearance of cancer tumors because the patient consumes the plant. Most of the evidence is just anecdotal, DiVerdi said.  

“We’re nowhere near the point of being able to say, ‘Oh, if you have this, take this. If you have that, take that,’” he said. 

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a few drugs that are either derived from cannabis or have similar molecules. They either use CBD or synthetic THC, the part of cannabis that makes people feel intoxicated. 

St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid spoke to DiVerdi about cannabis research and why we don’t know more about the plant.

This interview transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Eric Schmid: What do we know about these drugs at this point?

Joseph DiVerdi: They help people get to sleep, and they are appetite stimulants. The latter case is used in folks undergoing chemotherapy who often have a loss of appetite. It also helps prevent vomiting. The only FDA-approved indication for CBD is Epidiolex. It is for two rare forms of previously untreatable epilepsy, not mainstream epilepsy. CBD offers some improvement, but it is not a cure-all. 

We’ve got a couple of clinical indications, and then you’d be excused from marveling at all the different claims that you’ve probably heard in the media about all the different things that CBD and THC do. There just isn't hard, robust clinical data in support of all those.

Joseph DiVerdi is a chemistry professor and cannabis researcher at Colorado State University.
Credit Joseph DiVerdi
Joseph DiVerdi is a chemistry professor and cannabis researcher at Colorado State University.

Schmid: What are some of the things people are actively researching right now? I’m asking about the whole range of possible topics.

DiVerdi: Some anti-cancer effects are being explored. Cancer seems to be a hot one for physiological work. Many folks are working in the psychology area and learning about reaction times or the effects on cognition. That’s an important area. We ought to be looking at neuro activities and saying, “What is the effect on both adult brains and developing brains?” Those are two separate questions.

Schmid: I also understand people are looking into parts of cannabis that don’t have to do with the psychological or physiological aspects. I know something you’ve looked into in your research are aromas and colors. Why is it also important to look into these topics as it relates to cannabis?

DiVerdi: Flavors and fragrances are incredibly important parts of our lives. They are important parts of our culinary traditions. We put fragrances in everything. Many of us wear colognes and perfumes or burn incense. They change our outlook on the day or even longer term. We associate different things with the fragrances that are in cannabis. So it’s reasonable that we would care about them.

Schmid: You mentioned there isn’t hard evidence, which has let opinion flourish. Why isn’t there as much research? 

DiVerdi: In the early parts of the 20th century, our leaders decided psychoactive substances had negative consequences and were not appropriate for the general public to use them. It was decided that cannabis was bad. The prohibition against the use of cannabis, THC in particular, has persisted and persists today. 

Schmid: What are the barriers that an academic like yourself faces when wanting to look into this field?

DiVerdi: To work with THC, an investigator has to get a Schedule I license from the Drug Enforcement Administration. It’s a formal application. Many investigators who have attempted to obtain these licenses report six to 12 months wait time before getting any kind of response. And it’s often a “no” or “need more information, need more time.” The accusations are running wild that the DEA, while tacitly, is going to approve cannabis and THC investigations; it’s really trying to put a damper on them.

If someone gets past that, the only cannabis that is approved is provided by one facility in the U.S.: the University of Mississippi. Some of the folks that I have spoken with have actually seen presentations. They hold up the containers of cannabis that has been received from that facility, and they note the labeling; it says 2% THC. Those that are familiar with the legal cannabis market in Colorado know that the cannabis on the retail market is about 10 times that concentration, in the 20% range. All of these things contribute to just slowing down the process. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, we’re permitting research to take place,” but in practice, it’s not facilitating it. It’s less than neutral; it’s holding it back.

Schmid: There are a lot of difficulties that you just laid out. Is it also hard to get funding for this kind of research?

DiVerdi: It can be difficult. There are some sources that are interested in supporting this kind of work. There are more sources supporting CBD research, which is not so hard — it’s not quite the pariah. I conject that one of the reasons CBD has taken on so much interest is because it’s really close to THC as a molecule; it comes from the same plant. It’s kind of like we can experiment and fool with that, whereas we can't fool with THC.

Schmid: Is federal funding also an aspect? I know a lot of universities and researchers receive federal funding. Since the drug is scheduled at the federal level, you can’t get federal funding to do this research, right? 

DiVerdi: That’s generally the case. There are many levels of prohibition. One of the testaments that the university must make is that it has a drug-free workforce. In cases where there are violations of prohibitions, it puts into jeopardy an enormous amount of federal research that has nothing to do with this particular field of research. An institution like a large university can jeopardize a multihundred-million-dollar research budget if it gets crosswise with the federal agencies.

Schmid: Based on what you’ve seen in Colorado, what would you say that we should expect here in Illinois and also in Missouri?

DiVerdi: A lot of people don’t remember that recreational cannabis use for adults passed as a state amendment by a slim margin in 2012: 55-45. So there are a lot of people in the state of Colorado who are opposed to this experiment. Not everyone is going to be on board. They've been used for so long to saying, “This is prohibited; this is marginalized.” It’s going to take some time for the general populous to grow into acceptance, if it ever does.”

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid 

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