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

The landscape of marijuana laws has changed significantly over the past year. 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. Currently, a total eight states and Washington, DC will have fully legalized marijuana. Studies estimate that because of the sheer size of California, 21 percent of US Citizens now 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.

One of our most recent marijuana studies, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, looked at 94 adults in Denver and Seattle. Our researchers found that many of the adults in the study are not reading labels, and if they are, information is often hard to decipher. The lack of clear information on edible labels can lead to accidental ingestion.

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 of Marijuana

RTI has extensive experience in facilitating marijuana 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 Marijuana Usage

With regard to medical marijuana 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 marijuana 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 marijuana studies also explore 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. Jenny Wiley, PhD and a behavioral pharmacologist at RTI, is conducting important research into the implications of cannabis edibles. Her latest paper, Tasty THC: The promise and challenges of cannabis edibles, explores the current state of marijuana research regarding edibles, highlighting the promises and challenges that edibles present to both users and policy makers. It also looks at the approaches that four states have taken to regulate cannabis edibles. 

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