The Science of Studying Cannabis

Posted By Solstice on Science

As part of our series on sustainability, Solstice invited our resident science expert, Dr. David Baldwin, to discuss a viable scientific approach to studying cannabis, and why so little research has been done to date.

The word “science” means different things to different people, and to be sure, there are many different facets to studying the science of cannabis. There is strain diversity, which is based on the genetics of combining different traits from different species, including what cannot be seen with the naked eye or under a microscope. There is biochemical diversity, which is based on metabolic pathways (also defined by gene combinations). There are different methods for growing marijuana (indoor vs. outdoor, organic vs. non-organic, etc.). There are different methods for controlling pests. And the final product is effected by all of these variables, as all living things are with environmental change.

So what does it mean to be scientific about studying any subject with numerous variables, such as cannabis?

Studying the genetic basis and resulting phenotypes of diverse cannabis strains will take significant time.

Studying the genetic basis and resulting phenotypes of diverse cannabis strains will take significant time.

The scientific process for studying any question or hypothesis requires that one eliminate as many variables as possible for any given experiment. Ideally, one would only be testing a single variable in any comparison. For example, if you were interested in how different wavelengths of light influence THC production, you would use the exact same conditions for growing, fertilizing, pest control, water, etc., with the one exception of the light source, where you would isolate identical plants from each other (with plenty of replicates for each wavelength), and treat them with specific wavelengths during the flowering time. The plants must be harvested in an identical way, flowers must be cured and trimmed in an identical way and, in the process of making extracts to study, the outcome of the initial experiment, the protocol for producing such extracts must also be identical. The analytical method for studying the extracts must be repeated identically, being careful to start with the exact same quantity (mass) of material. In science, this our way of comparing apples to apples, and not some other fruit, for the purpose of drawing meaningful conclusions regarding one aspect of the apple.

Studying the genetic basis and resulting phenotypes of diverse cannabis strains will take significant time, despite the fact that the strains exist and emerging technology exists to study such things.

For now, the most challenging scientific problem is to accurately quantify known molecules from different strains of marijuana.

While chemical testing is well under way in the medical marijuana business, the proper controls for such testing are rarely seen. The results of such tests are posted as a percentage of the total starting material, or in milligrams per milliliter (mgs/ml). These numbers are legitimate in terms of describing what is found in any given harvest, but due to variation in the growing conditions, it is hard to trust strain comparisons using this method.

For a long time, it has been against federal law to use federal funds for propagating, producing, or studying the effects of marijuana.

Even in recent years, scientists such as Lyle Craker (University of Massachusetts) have been shut down repeatedly for more controlled scientific studies concerning marijuana, with an emphasis on understanding the medical benefits. Isn’t it about time the funding laws changed, as public sentiment about cannabis is changing?

David N. Baldwin, Ph.D.

Dr. David Baldwin holds a PhD in microbiology from the University of Washington and degrees in genetics and French from the University of California-Berkeley. He has developed coursework in drug discovery for the UW bioengineering department and currently teaches a scientific course on cannabis at Shoreline Community College. Look for his “Science of Cannabis” column, only on the Solstice blog.

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