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Raphael Mechoulam inspires students interested in studying cannabis

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Mechoulam was hailed like a rockstar by conference-goers. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Mechoulam was hailed like a rockstar by conference-goers.

This past weekend was the first-ever international conference on the science of weed held at the new Institute of Cannabis Research (ICR).

Headquartered at Colorado State University at Pueblo, the ICR conference lasted three days, had 550 attendees from 10 countries and 21 states, and featured about 75 presentations. (Maybe the scientists can add this up more precisely, but we calculated a lot of learning during the conference.)

Founded less than a year ago, in June 2016, the ICR is already conducting many cutting-edge studies on the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on everything from Alzheimer's Disease in mice, to sociological trends, to the impact of regulation. Before the conference, Jen Mullen, the interim managing director of the ICR, was clear: "Our mission is not advocacy; our mission is research and education."

The ICR is multidisciplinary, she says, meaning "the research can come from anywhere — not just from STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] stuff." She further notes that research will span "psychology, advertising, business, social sciences — anything."

And students are eating it up. At the conference, Brandon Wilson, 23, a senior Psychology Major at CSU-Pueblo and student ambassador for the event, said he thinks "cannabis and cannabinoids play a significant role in psychology," which is why he embraces the opportunity to be at the forefront of research.

He also believes what's going on at the ICR is positively impacting not just the university, but the city of Pueblo too. "There has always been a merge between the community and campus, and I just see this as tightening that bond," he said, given all the cannabis-related businesses and jobs that have sprung up in recent years. So what researchers find out can directly benefit the local economy.

In fall of 2017, CSU-Pueblo will be offering a Cannabis Studies Minor. There's currently a pilot program in motion to gauge interest among the student body. The class offered this past year was reportedly popular enough to create a long waiting list, but the university found a way to accommodate all of the students. So, it's a good bet that there will be no shortage of sign-ups.

Generating the most excitement among students, faculty and the crowd at large was the conference's keynote speaker: Raphael Mechoulam, the Hebrew University professor of organic chemistry who's considered the father of modern medical marijuana research.

Mechoulam was the first person to isolate and synthesize THC, the primary compound in cannabis, and has since published about 400 journal articles, which have been cited nearly 100,000 times. He conducted most of his research in the 1960s in Israel through processes that would never fly in the U.S. (In fact, when he asked about doing his work in the U.S. in the '70s, federal officials turned him away, allegedly telling him "other than a small handful of musicians, no one in America smokes pot.")

During his talk, Mechoulam recounted how he approached the Israeli Police, simply letting them know he'd need some of their seized hashish to conduct research on. They saw nothing wrong with that and forked over five kilos. He then went to the governmental agency that oversees drug research, Israel's version of America's National Institutes of Health (NIH), to ask their permission to conduct research on the seized hashish. They told him, "sure, go ahead."

At that, the crowd broke into applause. Needless to say, other researchers in the room wished that were how it worked in the U.S., where access to cannabis and the ability to do clinical trials is severely limited. The only cannabis currently available to American researchers for study comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) which, for now, only grows in Mississippi.

It's a sad, running joke here that their crop is totally inadequate for scientists' needs. In fact, the conclusion of one presentation by a Boulder scientist was that studies using NIDA-grown marijuana are likely to yield inaccurate results.

So, while it's clear that the federal government still isn't out of researchers' way, researchers themselves are getting better organized, supported and equipped to explore the mysterious and powerful plant that is marijuana.

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