US Universities Face Crippling Obstacles When Researching Marijuana

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A common refrain you’ll hear from those supporting cannabis prohibition is that we simply don’t know enough about the drug to legalize it. Not enough research exists regarding the long-term health effects: Is it beneficial or harmful? Can you become addicted, opening a gateway into more serious substance abuse? Will smoking weed too early or too often kill all your precious brain cells?

It’s easy to assess that lawmakers should rigorously explore causes and effects when debating new legislation. But as the recent case at Washington State University represents, how can we properly answer these questions when studying the plant is so institutionally prohibitive?

Washington State University professors were recently in the throes of developing a marijuana breathalyzer that would allow law enforcement to gauge the intoxication of drivers by testing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which accounts for marijuana’s euphoric “high” feelings. But to properly test the field accuracy of the device, researchers would have needed test subjects who were recreational marijuana users. Without the authenticity of studying active marijuana in a test subject’s breath, the accuracy of their breathalyzer would be inferior.

However, WSU has halted their research on such a device for fear of federal persecution. As Nicholas Lovrich, WSU regents professor emeritus of political science, told the Spokesman-Review, “It’s too much risk to the university” to test on real marijuana users.

Lovrich said the project, which began in 2010, ended amid concerns that WSU could lose federal funding under the leadership of the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era guidance that allowed states to legalize marijuana without federal interference.

Lovrich said the university’s Institutional Review Board denied his proposal for continued research in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts. After Lovrich met with the university’s Office of Research Support and Operations, a senior assistant attorney general for WSU expressed concerns about the university’s liability. After that conversation, the research was put on hold.

WSU scientists will still study marijuana and its effects, albeit through federally approved manners. For example, the university is researching the impact cannabis advertising has on youth, and investigating a mouth swab that could detect THC in the body. The latter can continue, because scientists can create saliva in the lab and add THC compounds to it after the effect, though, one doctoral student bemoaned how the swab couldn’t differentiate between long-term users who had THC metabolized in their bodies.

So, while some research continues at WSU, it’s nowhere near the breadth of what these scientists are truly capable of. Federal limitations added with the fear of losing funding vastly inhibits the progress we could make on cannabis research. It’s a catch-22 of sorts — politicians and naysayers want more available marijuana-related science before regulating any legislative approval, but such a feat remains impossible under the current climate facing scientists and universities. We’re not exactly stuck in the same position, but we’re not going anywhere representing progress anytime soon.

By: Brendan Bures, The Fresh Toast

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