Up and down the streets of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec world, the scent of cannabis wafting through the air wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Neither would it cause a sniff in population centers across Asia or Africa centuries ago. Cannabis, more commonly, less formally known as marijuana, has been around for ages. And not just for recreation.
Cannabis or hemp has for centuries been used for making clothing, sandals, fishing nets, baskets, rope, sails and a whole lot more. If any product from the ancient world could be called utilitarian, hemp might be it. But its utility today is not what makes it a matter of oftentimes smoldering debate. Dr. Rich Kreminski would like to change that.
Kreminski is Director of the Institute for Cannabis Research at Colorado State University-Pueblo. ICR is a publicly funded research center established specifically to study this often misunderstood plant. The state legislature has committed nearly $2 million to ICR. Pueblo County has also chipped in. This investment, said Kreminski, will add exponentially to our knowledge of cannabis which he said might seem significant but, in reality, might only fill a thimble.
In April, the University concluded its second annual conference where an estimated 500 national and international researchers gathered to discuss all things cannabis, including scientific, medical, industrial, legal, economic and social impacts of this ubiquitous plant. Cannabis is the kind of hearty plant that grows equally well in high deserts or tropical climates.
“Three years ago none of the faculty was thinking about cannabis,” said Kreminski. “It wasn’t in anybody’s mindset.” But it was front and center in a lot of other places.
Since legalization in Colorado in 2014 pot has become a major economic generator for growers, consumers and the state. Revenues in 2017 hit the $1.5 billion mark with tax revenues topping $240 million.
But while the state is riding an economic wave with this once illicit plant, the whole picture of what this plant is---and is not---remains somewhat out of focus. “We’re doing basic science,” said Kreminski. “We’re also looking at social and economic issues.”
While Colorado is the first state to legalize recreational marijuana, it now has plenty of company. Ten states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for the sale of pot for personal use. A number of others are considering legalization and another 20 states, including U.S. territories Puerto Rico and Guam, have laws that permit cannabis for medical use.
ICR is the hub of cannabis research in Colorado, but it also partners with the University of Colorado and Colorado State University in Fort Collins in a number of specialty areas. It also conducts research with out of state partners, including Humboldt State University in California and the University of Arizona.
Arizona and ICR are partners in a full-scale genomic research project. “We’re doing full genomic sequencing of several varieties of hemp,” said Kreminski. The study will examine all of the genes at the DNA, RNA and cellular or tissue level of hemp. “That’s something that couldn’t have been done five or ten years ago.”
ICR’s area of study is limited to cannabis that does not exceed a certain level of potency. “We don’t deal with anything that is high in THC (the intoxicant in hemp) except on an observational level.” ICR also conducts research on the cannabidiol part of the plant. It is this, the CBD that provides “a range of symptom relief and medical potential.”
It is hoped that the kind of research ICR and others are doing will result in knowledge that will add quality to the lives of millions who live with diseases like Parkinson’s, glaucoma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an issue that has grown exponentially after nearly two decades of war.
Despite the robust nature of its mission, ICR is not exactly swimming in personnel. Besides Kreminski, ICR has only three full-time staff. To conduct research it depends on nearby chemistry and biology faculty as well as student researchers.
CSU-Pueblo junior and Iraq War veteran, Joe Lopez works with mice and how cannabis interacts with the part of the brain that controls, among other things, emotions. “I want to be able to learn as much as I can so that in ten years this research will be able to help people with their own unique health conditions.”
Cannabis has been an economic boom to Colorado and other states where it is sold legally. But there have been some downsides, as well. In Colorado, driving under the influence (of marijuana) arrests have risen. Emergency room visits---particularly involving children ingesting edibles---have also gone up.
And while those two areas might have been anticipated, employment might not have been given the same consideration. It’s estimated that the state’s cannabis industry has created more than 27,000 jobs. But there’s also a small wrench in the gears for this budding career.
Marijuana is still listed as a Schedule 1 illegal drug by the federal government. Potential employees who test positive for marijuana are often not hired and sometimes not even encouraged to apply. That has presented a problem in Colorado where the economy is booming and jobs---at all levels---are waiting to be filled.
“I don’t have a problem getting workers,” said Brian Thompson, Director of Operations at several Denver-area Starbucks. But his plans to expand and place a coffee shop in a new suburban hospital has hit a snag. Federal law bars workers who test positive for marijuana from working in places like hospitals. “That’s where I’m having trouble.”
Still, while insisting it is not ‘looking the other way’ on pot, the Army and a number of police agencies across the country have begun relaxing guidelines and allowing new recruits who say they’ve used the drug to sign up. But recruits must also pledge not to use while in service. Also random drug testing remains a regular part of the military and law enforcement regimen.
Marijuana---hemp---will continue to be a point of contention both politically and socially. Critics will argue that its harm outweighs its benefits. Others will point to solutions it has provided people suffering from oftentimes debilitating health issues. Perhaps someday the clarity that brings these two sides closer together will be found in Pueblo and the findings from ICR.