On March 20, 2019, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences Professor Emeritus Dr. Brian O’Donnell and Research Scientist Dr. Alex Straiker met with the student community for a Q&A session entitled “Cannabis: Science and Policy.”
“IU has been the world center for research regarding cannabinoid signaling,” said Dr. Straiker during his address at the Science Café talk. Having studied cannabinoid signaling for more than 20 years, Dr. Straiker mentions the growing enthusiasm for cannabis use in a variety of forms, like essential oils; not only recreationally, but also for the treatment of anxiety, autoimmune disease, inflammation, and pain management.
Dr. Straiker’s introduction to cannabinoid signaling started as a curiosity when an acquaintance mentioned cannabis’s effects. This curiosity led to him pitching cannabis as a potential project to his Ph.D. advisor, and he has never looked back. Dr. O’Donnell’s introduction to cannabis-related research started 12 years ago, when a postdoctoral scholar wondered if there was a connection between the cannabinoid system and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia.
So, when IU’s undergraduate-lead neuroscience club wanted to educate other students about the science of cannabis use, they didn’t have to look further than their own department!
Although cannabis is legal to use medically in 33 states and recreationally in 10 states in the U.S., scientific research on cannabis use has been challenging. “In human studies, given that cannabis and derived compounds are schedule one substances,” says Dr. O’Donnell, “it’s extremely difficult to do human studies using specific compounds, or even to have a person smoke marijuana in lab. So, our ability to do that is very limited.”
The issues don’t stop there, as the lack of research on cannabinoids is a public health issue due to increased availability of cannabis products. With the presence of synthetic cannabinoid substances out there, “some people are dying, and they’re having psychotic effects. They’re having long-term heart damage. It’s just really bad news,” says Dr. Straiker. When these substances came on the scene (around 2008 in the U.S.), there was barely any research into their effects. But Dr. Straiker, who was then a first year Ph.D. student, jumped to the challenge and provided neurological pharmacology analysis.
While Dr. Straiker works to see how cannabinoid substances affect our bodies molecularly, Dr. O’Donnell works directly with humans, comparing cannabis users to non-users and determining their lifetime exposures to cannabis on a series of measures, including cognitive skills and psychological well-being.
“It’s now been replicated in a number of different countries that cannabis use, in early adolescence in particular, increases the risk of psychotic disorders like schizophrenia later in life,” says Dr. O’Donnell. “So even in people who are clinically ill, they still show an elevation, and these kind of odd thoughts [like] strange or distorted perception may be related to cannabis use.” One of the questions that still confounds him is whether this relationship is causal or simply an association: does marijuana use early in life heighten the risk of later psychological problems? Without an ability to study the schedule one drug in a controlled, large-scale manner, however, scientists are far from answering that question.
Since research is still years behind from definitively saying what the true risks for the use of cannabinoids are, a question may come to mind — why is cannabis legalized?
As an example, Dr. Straiker explained the story of legalization for the use of a type of cannabis — CBD. CBD was approved by the FDA in 2018 as a form of treatment for childhood epilepsy. “[Parents of kids with childhood epilepsy have] been very politically active, and it’s hard to say no to them,” says Dr. Straiker. CBD has no euphoric effects, but it does affect one’s psychological activity. “You might say that they are not getting high,” says Dr. Straiker, “so, you know, what’s the rationale for saying no under those circumstances?”
When asked how policies on cannabis use have changed from when they first started working in this field, their responses were variations of “never thought this would happen.” So, I will leave you to come to your own conclusions about this complex saga of cannabis research and use.