Government Grown Cannabis May Be Harming Research

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

Physician researcher Sue Sisley, MD, has filed suit against the federal government over the quality of cannabis provided for her study on post-traumatic stress disorder. Sisley claims that the cannabis supplied by the DEA-sanctioned facility at the University of Mississippi is “suboptimal.”

Sisley told Green Entrepreneur that the DEA provided "standardized green powder that is just cannabis ground up.” She also said that the plants were moldy and contained sticks and seeds. 

Sisley is not the first researcher to say government cannabis intended for research is not the same as the cannabis available in dispensaries. This of course poses a key question: What is research cannabis?

Cannabis is a plant. Specifically, cannabis is the genus of a plant that includes the species C. sativa, C. indica, and C. ruderalis. There is still dispute if C. ruderalis should be included with C. sativa, or if all three species should be considered a single species, C. sativa. 

There is no precise pharmacological definition of medical cannabis. There is no agreed-upon level of THC, CBD, or other cannabinoids, and no accepted terpene profile. In dispensaries, cannabis comes in a large variety of strains used in a wide range of products. 

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There is poor consistency among strains. Leafly recently attempted to measure the reliability of cannabis strains and found that even the most reliable ones were far from consistent at the levels necessary for clinical research.

Moreover, cannabis is a moving target. Because it is a commercial product often intended for nonmedical use, it is subject to a variety of market forces involving its various psychogenic effects. And new strains are introduced regularly. 

Further, cannabis products are consumed in many different ways, such as smoking, vaporizing, ingesting and through the skin . The bioavailability of cannabis varies significantly by route of consumption because of different absorption levels and metabolism. So whatever research cannabis is used would have to be specified by strain, amount and route of administration. 

For research purposes, that requires precise information. But as Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News reported, medical cannabis comes in so many forms and has so many different uses that it presents a "unique challenge to cannabis testing laboratories." No existing test provides a good model on how to proceed.

In other words, there is no clear definition of research cannabis and there is no practical way to reliably test commercial strains with a consistency adequate for clinical studies. 

This means the definition of research cannabis is arbitrary. Researchers and advocates keep adjusting the definition or questioning the quality to explain away poor outcomes. According to Microscopes and Machines, when Dr. Sisley's PTSD study concluded, she unblinded the data and quickly came to realize the quality of cannabis provided by the University of Mississippi "had negatively affected the study’s efficacy data.”

But we cannot define research cannabis as the form of cannabis that only gives the results we were hoping for. This would be circular and self-justifying. It would also be self-defeating since we’d never know what, if anything, cannabis has to offer. 

Cannabis is a plant, not a laboratory-synthesized chemical being turned into a USP-grade pharmaceutical. As Jonathan Stea wrote in Scientific American,“it is best to conceptualize cannabis as a chemical soup with over 500 ingredients that can be served in countless different ways.”

This means that researchers will need to define their cannabis before starting a study. And the U.S. government will need to provide such cannabis. Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health is responding by producing more varieties of cannabis.

A more favorable legal landscape would also help. There may not be any “research cannabis” per se, but cannabis is certainly worth researching. 

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society.Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.