The American Chemical Society Is Digging in on Cannabis

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The American Chemical Society launched its cannabis subdivision in 2015 and so far has more than 300 members researching cannabis. But there is still more to be done, says Markus Roggen, founder and CEO of Complex Biotechnology Discovery Ventures, a private research laboratory, and a member of the ACS cannabis chemistry subdivision. 

While cannabis researchers have focused on the most “buzz-worthy” questions, there is a need to expand to more fundamental research areas such as plant makeup and compound stability, Roggen told Cannabis Wire

ACS may be trying to take that step. This week, the society held their Fall 2019 National Meeting and Exposition in San Diego, during which members talked about, among many topics such as diabetes and gut microbiomes, cannabis. 

New research, presented at the meeting on Tuesday, suggested that chocolate could be muddling cannabis potency testing. The chocolate study, led by David Dawson of CW Analytical Laboratories, found that chocolate could make it more difficult to determine the amount of THC in cannabis edibles. While the researchers don’t know exactly what might be causing the potency issues, it may have something to do with the fat in chocolate. 

In light of the study, and ACS’ growing interest in cannabis research, Cannabis Wire spoke with Roggen to get his take on the industry and his thoughts on how to develop serious cannabis research programs. 

Caroline Hroncich, Cannabis Wire: How has interest in cannabis among American Chemical Society members changed over time? 

Roggen: Cannabis only came into focus for ACS when CANN [the ACS’s cannabis chemistry subdivision] was founded in 2015. Since then this subdivision has grown steadily and now counts more than 300 members. Another example of the rising interest in cannabis research in the ACS community is the ElSohly Award [presented] by CANN. This award saw a doubling in scholarship submission from 2018 to 2019.

[Editor’s note: Mahmoud ElSohly is a researcher who has overseen the only federally-licensed cannabis research farm in the country, at the University of Mississippi, for decades.]

CW: How much research are ACS members doing with cannabis? 

Roggen: Not enough. It feels as if we hear or read about interesting cannabis-related discoveries every month. But a well-established research field would see dozens of groups and programs working on a multitude of research questions. The effort of establishing any research program with cannabis is so great that only short-term, buzz-worthy questions are being researched. This is to the detriment of any fundamental work.

CW: How can cannabis scientists expand beyond “short-term” and “buzz-worthy” questions? 

Roggen: Research is driven by two main factors: funding and publicity. The buzz-worthy projects do focus on the second of those factors. Concerning funding, we face a few problems. Schedule 1 dictates that … university researchers have an impossible task of getting public funding for research that would support the industry [and] industry players have to be supporters of research. Either in-house, by building research units similar to what the pharma industry does, or by supporting third-party researchers in academia or private. At this point I should disclose that I am the founder of a private research laboratory that does just that, fundamental research for the cannabis industry. My laboratory is also affiliated with the University of British Columbia, Vancouver (UBC). 

CW: How much effort does it take to establish a cannabis research program? 

Roggen: A lot. To answer this question in full, a complete article should be focused on it. Although, in short, the researcher needs to get a license for the research by the regulatory body. In the U.S. this is nearly impossible, as cannabis is Schedule 1. Even in Canada, university researchers are complaining about the hard times they face. It would be important to research topics beyond the buzz. Cancer and epilepsy are important targets, but fundamental questions of plant makeup and compound stability have mostly been ignored.

CW: Why is there so much interest in cannabis now?

Roggen: Because of cannabis legalization on the state-level in the U.S., federally in Canada, and the introduction of medical cannabis programs in Europe. The plant became ‘sexy’ for the research community. Additionally, with the growth of the cannabis industry, its professionals and concerned regulators realized that the industry is built on a very thin scientific foundation. The industry players have to put effort into strengthening this base to support sustainable growth. 

CW: Who do you see as the major industry players in the space? 

Roggen: Again, Canadian companies are leading the way. For example, Canopy Growth does fund a Professorship of Cannabis Science at UBC to research the role of cannabis in addressing the opioid overdose crisis. Tilray has a very active research collaboration with academic institutions in both the U.S. and Canada. A handful of U.S.-based multi-state operators (MSO) have looked into working with academic institutions. 

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