Massachusetts marijuana research czar envisions open database, annual conference

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For now, Julie Johnson is a one-woman research team at the Cannabis Control Commission. But in the long term, she has an ambitious agenda that includes creating a national database where researchers and the public could share marijuana data.

“We love the idea of people being able to do research to add to our very nascent research agenda,” Johnson said, speaking at a Cannabis Control Commission meeting Thursday.

For now, there are numerous challenges to researching marijuana. The drug remains illegal federally, so the process of obtaining marijuana for research is highly regulated. There is little funding available for marijuana research.

Some Massachusetts researchers say they hope the Bay State can become a hub for marijuana research in the U.S., due to the area’s existing talent in academia, science and related industries, like pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Johnson was hired two months ago as the Cannabis Control Commission’s director of research. The commission is in the process of hiring a research analyst.

The state law legalizing recreational marijuana lays out several areas that the Cannabis Control Commission is required to research. These include economic and fiscal implications, public health impacts, public safety, social equity concerns, the makeup of the industry, and patterns of marijuana use. Johnson said she has already started gathering baseline data, so the commission will be able to compare pre and post-legalization information.

Specific research topics could include the implications of marijuana legalization for adolescents and young adults or the effects on distracted driving. The commission already sent a statewide survey to Massachusetts police departments to collect data on incidents of impaired driving and on the resources available to departments to track and assess impaired driving.

The commission will also be tracking industry information, such as the types of licenses granted and lab results from marijuana testing.

But Johnson, in a public presentation to the commission, said she also hopes the commission can help outside researchers produce objective, peer reviewed studies. The commission is charged with issuing research licenses, and it has gotten three completed applications so far from potential researchers.

Johnson said it is “critically important” that the commission licenses researchers working on objective, high-quality research in areas such as medicinal benefits of marijuana, agricultural innovations, energy efficiency and other topics.

“We are in a position to help create a pathway for research institutions in Massachusetts to conduct high impact research,” Johnson said.

Her long-term vision, which does not yet have a specific time frame, is to create a “data warehouse,” where anyone can access shared data to study different aspects of the marijuana industry and its effects on society. This would likely launch with the research done by the Cannabis Control Commission but expand to include academic and potentially industry data.

Johnson also floated the idea of hosting an annual marijuana research conference, beginning in the fall of 2019.

By: Shira Schoenberg, MassLive

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