cannabis leaves

Marijuana Research

Investigating the medical, social, and political impacts of marijuana from multiple perspectives

The November 2016 election significantly changed the landscape of marijuana laws. Of the five states with legalized or medical marijuana on the ballot, California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine all voted to fully legalize the use, cultivation distribution and sale of marijuana. When these laws go into effect, eight states and Washington, DC will have fully legalized marijuana. Because of the sheer size of California, it is estimated 21 percent of US Citizens will soon live somewhere with access to legal cannabis.

Our researchers have been exploring the risks and benefits of marijuana for more than 40 years, contributing to the national conversation. More recently we have looked at the increasing use of marijuana, the potential risks and benefits of marijuana edibles, changing perceptions of marijuana, and marijuana in relationship to other forms of drug use.

We look at an array of aspects, from biological markers and effects on the brain to societal implications of medical, recreational, and underage use to the potential impact of legalization on product control and public policy. 

Chemical Characterization, Formulation, and Distribution

RTI has extensive experience in facilitating cannabis research, including synthesis of many cannabinoids. We provide the NIH with well-characterized chemicals and dosage formulations for preclinical testing and clinical trials.

Chemist and cannabis researcher Brian Thomas, PhD, coauthored The Analytical Chemistry of Cannabis: Quality Assessment, Assurance, and Regulation of Medicinal Marijuana and Cannabinoid Preparations (2015), which reviews the alarming lack of control in the industry and argues for consistency in manufacturing, labeling, and distribution.

Cannabis products now vary, in some cases widely, from state to state, store to store, and bottle to bottle in the same store. Under- and over-medication are real risks. Enforced standards of preparation and labeling with known chemical content and demonstrated performance characteristics are prerequisites for effective and safe clinical use.

Medical Usage

With regard to medical usage, we do research on the cannabinoid receptors in the brain, research that is critical to understanding the implications of medical and recreational use in the short term and over the life cycle.

We use integrated behavioral, molecular, and synthetic approaches to investigate site-selective cannabinoids that act in places other than the CB1 receptor, where THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, is thought to produce its psychotropic effect.

Our research illustrates the complex behavioral pharmacology of cannabinoids, which could ultimately lead to the development of more selective medications for disorders in which marijuana has shown some efficacy, such as pain and loss of appetite, and mental disorders that may have a cannabinoid receptor element.

Health Effects

Employing integrated behavioral, neurochemical, and pharmacokinetic approaches, our research also explores the different sensitivity of males and females to THC. This could guide the development of more effective sex-specific treatments for pain and cannabinoid dependence. We have also developed a novel assessment tool that evaluates the health impact of marijuana use.

Policy Change

In terms of public policy analysis, we are examining ways in which the legalization of marijuana could affect public policy. We recently reviewed public campaigns in Colorado and Washington that discourage driving under the influence of marijuana to determine use prevalence and consequences of newly adopted legislation.

As experts in public health and well-being, we are also working to expand awareness of marijuana usage. Scott Novak, PhD, currently directs the program of research on prescription drug abuse within RTI's behavioral health epidemiology program. He is also active in studies investigating the epidemiology of new synthetic/designer drugs of abuse in the United States and internationally as well as the use and abuse of marijuana. Novak has produced a social media tracker that analyzes data mined from Twitter and other apps to determine what people understand and say about marijuana use, whether people with chronic pain understand the use of medical marijuana and the public perception of legalization efforts.

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Talk to our marijuana experts.