Dispatch #7: On high desert, they’re the answer-seekers

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When Wendy MacColl’s friends heard about the job she started last week in Pueblo, Colo., one noted the importance of the work. But at least one other made a certain gesture with their fingers. 

No, there’s no smoking at the year-old Institute of Cannabis Research, which occupies a small suite of offices on this high desert city’s Colorado State University campus. 

Along with big mountain views on the north side of Pueblo come big goals tied to an industry that’s already generated a billion dollars in tax revenue. 

“It’s not as exciting as people might think it is, but it is historic,” MacColl says of her work, after inviting me into her new office in the school’s arts and music building. “It’s a sea change.”

The rising tide is the state’s thriving cannabis industry. 

“It’s happening and we need to understand this plant,” she tells me. “They’re thinking this might be the Silicon Valley for research and science.”

Life with cannabis prompts questions. This new institute aims to find answers, using hard science to cut through anecdotes and attitudes.

“There are opinions on both sides, as you know,” MacColl notes. “We are pro-cannabis research. We are not pro-cannabis.”

Or against, for that matter. Just neutral.  

“Hopefully, data will inform decisions going forward,” she says.

This year, lawmakers steered $1.8 million in cannabis tax revenue to the institute’s operations. Pueblo County kicked in more. And this spring, the institute, led on an interim basis by Jennifer Mullen, convened its first conference, called, in part, “From the margins to the mainstream.”

The questions

Scientific research needs a hypothesis to test. There are plenty of questions to ask about cannabis, and that sense of wonder buzzes through papers presented during two full days of conference proceedings.

Legal questions, yes, but also inquiries into biomedicine, education, public safety, education, social issues, sexuality, government regulation, law enforcement, social justice and social issues, pain management and politics.

Almost anything under the big Colorado sun. Lots of the topics are explored by the local media, including The Pueblo Chieftan

Some of those papers will be published in a new journal, Cannabis, set to debut this year. 

MacColl believes the institute is one of the first of its kind. It joins another represented at the spring conference, the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research at Humboldt State University in California. 

Faculty members from departments throughout the Pueblo campus are now affiliated with the institute. 

Landing the center was a coup for the Pueblo campus, which has had its growing pains since its founding as a two-year school in 1933 as Southern Colorado Junior College. It went on to become Pueblo County Junior College, Southern Colorado State College, the University of Southern Colorado and finally (perhaps) Colorado State University-Pueblo.

Teams here play as the Thunderwolves, the name that won out over other suggestions, including the Tarantulas. With the institute, this little school is looking for a new place on the higher ed map.

As its president said in a message to researchers this spring: “The ICR 2017 Conference will celebrate the myriad research and intellectual pursuits that the Institute has inspired thus far,” Lesley Di Mare wrote. “We welcome cannabis researchers, industry representatives, public officials, and interested citizens to join us and share this historic opportunity to become enlightened about ‘all things cannabis.’”

Lines to walk

To be sure, there are lines to walk in this research.

One is that bench science conducted on the campus involves only hemp, the cannabis plant that contains no more than 0.3 percent Tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient. 

That’s because marijuana remains barred by the federal government. MacColls says labs elsewhere involved with THC studies need to be licensed and may struggle to obtain material lawfully. 

“It’s tough to get and the DEA is involved,” she says. 

That doesn’t restrict studies into CBD, however, the non-psychoactive substance that is widely believed to carry medicinal value and is a prime ingredient in lotions, tinctures and other preparations that can be purchased throughout Colorado. CBD is also used alongside THC in products sold in medical marijuana dispensaries and in recreational outlets. 

Aside from studies of the plant’s chemistry and health-care applications, institute researchers have plenty of other questions to chase. 

A big one this year is to examine what impact the legalization of recreational cannabis has had on Pueblo County. Seven faculty members from this campus will be working through 2017 to pick that issue apart. They plan to report to Pueblo County officials by year’s end. 

Two professors are looking at the social effects, including public health, wealth and poverty, the quality of jobs in the cannabis industry and demographic shifts.

In the past few years, those issues have been regularly debated in Pueblo, including before a November vote on whether to repeal recreational sales. That measure failed by a wide margin.

Today, the institute’s assignment is to take a neutral approach and find information that can improve policymaking.

Another side of the project will study water and energy use -- since cultivation facilities use a lot of both. 

A third aspect relates to agriculture and could have applications in all places where both industrial hemp (with its low THC content) and marijuana are crops. How far apart do fields need to be to prevent cross-contamination between the two types of plants? 

“There are so many interesting questions to ask about the plant cannabis,” MacColl says. 

“There are things yet to be discovered. What are those things?”

Have a question about what’s up with the cannabis business in Colorado? Email Larry Parnass at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com. And watch this space for regular reports from the road.


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