Washington State University researchers are studying a variety of potential cannabis-related health impacts, including its effects on pregnant women, young people, and those with chronic pain. They are also looking at public and professional attitudes to the drug, its intersection with tobacco, and the science of how it stimulates users’ appetites.

The projects, all of which are consistent with federal law, were awarded recently by WSU’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Program. Funded by state cannabis taxes and liquor license fees, the program is aimed at pilot projects that focus on drug abuse in the state.

The program has awarded 28 cannabis-related research grants in the last three years.

“Funding for these pilot grants is essential because it allows us to expand our research at WSU to investigate some of the most pressing questions related to the impact of cannabis on health,” said Michael McDonell, an associate professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and chair of the university’s Committee on Cannabis Research and Outreach.

Here are several of the projects funded so far this year:

Treating pain

  • Rebecca Craft, psychology

“Pain relief is the most commonly reported medical use of marijuana,” according to the grant abstract. Clinical trials suggest it can bring “significant pain relief” and may be safer than opioids. This project is the first to characterize the pain-relieving effects of cannabis extract that is heated, or vaporized, but not burned, avoiding the particulates and toxins of cannabis smoke.

Cannabis during pregnancy

  • Ryan McLaughlin, integrative physiology and neuroscience
  • Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, nursing

Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among pregnant women, and they’re using it more in the wake of legalization. Nearly three out of every four women believe there is no risk to using cannabis while pregnant, yet prenatal exposure can interfere with neurodevelopment and increase the risk of cognitive dysfunction and addiction in subsequent generations.

One project will look at the multigenerational effects of maternal cannabis exposure. Another will investigate patient and healthcare provider attitudes and develop strategies for patient education while informing policy and improving standards of care.

Teens, tobacco and cannabis

  • Sterling McPherson, medical education and clinical sciences

Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among American youth. The use of one substance, cannabis or tobacco, creates a higher likelihood that the other one will be used. Because researchers tend to focus on only one of the substances, little is known about their potential additive and multiplicative health risks.

Marijuana advertising and young people

  • Stacey Hust, strategic communication

Research has demonstrated how alcohol and tobacco advertising can impact youth, but little is known about how much marijuana-related media is seen by Washington youth and what effect it has on them.

Youth perceptions

  • Michele Shaw, nursing

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug among American youth between the ages of 12 and 17. Roughly three out of five say they don’t see much harm in smoking it once or twice a week. Yet studies have found that the earlier in life one starts using marijuana, the greater the risk of negative health and other outcomes, including poor academic performance, cognitive impairments and mental health issues.

This project will interview about 20 adolescent youth and use key concepts from the data to develop a theory explaining their perceptions of marijuana use. The theory will in turn guide the development of interventions aimed at preventing and reducing their use of marijuana.

Professional perspectives

  • Louise Kaplan, nursing

There is only one known survey of state healthcare professionals concerning medical marijuana and it was conducted before legalization. The political and social environment is now substantially different.

What Washingtonians think

  • Clayton Mosher, sociology

Researchers will ask 2,100 state residents about their attitudes on cannabis use and legalization and estimate rates of cannabis use among Washington adults following legalization.

Marijuana and the “hunger hormone”

  • Jon Davis, integrative physiology and neuroscience

Two out of every five cancer deaths are not from cancer per se but anorexia as patients lose the drive to eat. Cannabis is widely known to influence appetite yet the cannabis-derived drugs for cancer patients are not universally effective or well tolerated. This project aims to get a better understanding of how cannabis induces appetite, including how it stimulates production of the powerful “hunger hormone” ghrelin. A new understanding of the hormone can help tailor a safer appetite stimulant as well as inform ways to block it and curb pathological overeating.

UPDATE: WSU statement on cannabis breathalyzer research

April 25, 2018 — Washington State University is involved in a wide range of research on the health and social impacts of cannabis legalization as part of commitment to address issues with a significant public health and economic impact on our state. It is also committed to abiding by the relevant state and federal rules and regulations, and revising and updating its activities as the legal landscape evolves.

University researchers have been working on a breathalyzer that would let law enforcement officers test drivers for THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, in the field. Researchers had hoped to involve volunteers who purchased marijuana from Washington state-licensed retailers. This would have satisfied the restrictions of the Cole Memorandum laying out the U.S. Department of Justice’s enforcement priorities. However, the U.S. Attorney General’s recent rescinding of the Cole memo has increased the legal risk for research participants using locally purchased marijuana. That portion of the research has been put on hold.

Researchers will continue to work with law enforcement on THC detection and impairment, as well as a variety of other research projects meeting all applicable University, local, state, and federal policies, statutes, and regulations.

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Media contact:

Eric Sorensen, Washington State University science writer eric.sorensen@wsu.edu, 509-335-4846