The legalization of recreational cannabis in Washington state and Colorado in 2012 opened a box full of questions and debates about the drug and its related crop, hemp.

What is the effect on youth? Will crime go up? How does cannabis interact with other drugs and medicines? What health claims are accurate? How does the potency of cannabis affect mental health? These gaps, and many others, in our knowledge—combined with unverified claims by both proponents and opponents of legalized cannabis—make it difficult to find the best ways to regulate and manage the substance.

To answer the call, almost 100 Washington State University researchers have begun applying scientific rigor to explore the questions, clear up misconceptions and questionable claims, and help the state navigate the legalization of cannabis.

Michael McDonell, associate professor at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, is chair of WSU’s Collaboration for Cannabis Policy, Research, and Outreach (CCPRO). He testified to the Commerce and Gaming Committee of the state House of Representatives last September that WSU is aiming to be “the nexus for cannabis scholarship, policy, outreach, and community engagement” in the state.

McDonell notes that WSU has four priority areas for CCPRO: health and well-being, public policy and safety, economics, and agricultural research. Some research has already borne fruit in these areas.

For example, on health issues, inhaled cannabis reduces self-reported headache and migraine severity by nearly half, according to a study led by Carrie Cuttler, assistant professor of psychology. The study, published online recently in the Journal of Pain, is the first to use big data from headache and migraine patients using cannabis in real time.

On public policy, a Department of Justice study completed by WSU criminal justice researchers, led by Professor Mary Stohr, showed that racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests continue even though marijuana arrests overall went down after legalization. African Americans are still twice as likely to get arrested as white offenders.

Still, much of the research is ongoing, from the economics of hemp, to banking, taxation, and the genomic characteristics of cannabis. For example, Celestina Barbosa-Leiker in the College of Nursing leads a team that’s assessing better care for women who use cannabis during pregnancy and postpartum. In the Department of Chemistry, Brian Clowers researches the trace detection of cannabinoids in order to develop a portable, sensitive instrument capable of assessing recent consumption of marijuana.

It’s not an easy area to research. WSU began by establishing its own policies in 2012, due to the federal status of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug. As McDonell says, “When the initiative passed, we thought, ‘Woah, we better have rules around this.’”

Due to the need to stay in compliance with federal law, the University set up innovative collaborations with industry partners to support cannabis studies. The Puyallup Tribe, for instance, approached WSU to evaluate whether medicinal cannabis reduces opioid use and pain, and if it improves the physical and mental health of clients at the Tribe’s Qwibil Natural Healing and Research Center.

McDonell says WSU continues to engage with the state Liquor and Cannabis Board and other state agencies, and collaborates with the University of Washington on prevention research and practice to curb youth abuse of cannabis.

There’s a pressing need to answer the big cannabis questions in a definitive way, says McDonell, which will require financial commitment, focus, and more partnerships.

The following stories delve deeper into a few of those big questions, highlighting some WSU studies and providing some facts around cannabis use, to help us achieve clarity in this mostly unexplored area.

“The sky isn’t falling”

“Cannabis and mental health: The peril and promise”

Infographic: “Washington’s cannabis consumers”

“Hemp on the horizon”


On the web

Cannabis research at WSU (CCPRO)

WSU researchers tease out genetic differences between cannabis strains
(May 29, 2019)