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Vans are being retrofitted into cannabis labs to get around overly-strict research rules

Researchers at the University of Colorado have been getting around cannabis research regulations by driving around in a van retrofitted into a mobile cannabis lab.

Mar 16, 2018 - Rob Hoffman

Photo courtesy of
Boulder Daily Camera via Youtube

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Photo courtesy of
Boulder Daily Camera via Youtube

Last year, researchers at the University of Colorado came up with a novel solution for bypassing the regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of cannabis research in the United States. The researchers, who work at the university’s Institute of Cognitive Science, modified a sprinter van into a traveling research lab.

This allowed the researchers to get around restrictions that prevent them from administering sufficiently potent marijuana and studying participants on the university property. Now, the researchers are trying to raise $42,000 to invest in a second mobile cannabis research van, which they call the CUChange Mobile Pharmacology Lab. So far, the crowdfunding effort has raised roughly $2,850, with 63 days left in the campaign.

Colorado officially legalized recreational cannabis in January 2014. But performing adequate studies on the effects of different cannabis strains on medical and recreational users has been virtually impossible.

As the CUChange Lab’s crowdfunding campaign states, previous cannabis research in the United States has mostly been conducted using low-potency, government supplied cannabis, which doesn’t accurately reflect what recreational and medical users are consuming.

That is because this marijuana—the only marijuana that researchers are allowed to use—is grown at the University of Mississippi by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA’s monopoly on research cannabis has persisted for more than four decades and continues to exist despite a 2016 announcement from the DEA that it was going to license other research cannabis cultivators.

One of the researchers working with the CUChange Lab previously said during an interview with Colorado Public Radio that NIDA’s marijuana has a typical THC content of five to six percent, while the average THC-contents in marijuana sold in dispensaries ranges from 16 – 18 percent.

Also, due to marijuana’s Schedule I classification under the Controlled Substances Act, the grants that fund the University of Colorado researchers does not allow participants to consume marijuana on the university’s property.

“Nearly all published data on the effects of marijuana use are taken from studies of acute effects on mood and cognition that rely on low-potency, government-grown marijuana,” writes the CUChange Lab’s crowdfunding page. “This research has limited external validity, as the results may not reflect how people increasingly use Cannabis in everyday life.”

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Kent Hutchison, CU Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience (Photo courtesy of Boulder Daily Camera via Youtube)

A number of bills aim to dismantle the barriers to cannabis research, but the likelihood of this legislation passing anytime soon—or at all—is slim. By contrast, the CUChange Lab allows the researchers to conduct more thorough research right now.

The way the CUChange Lab works is simple. Participants in the researchers’ studies self-administer cannabis products they have obtained from dispensaries. Then, the researchers visit the participants at their homes to collect blood samples, heart rates and perform a number of cognitive tests. Participants are given $150 for their assistance with the research.

The studies will examine different cannabinoids’ medicinal effects on conditions like pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and even cancer. The team of researchers hope that these studies will be able to guide cannabis policy, to ensure the greatest benefit and least harm to recreational and medical users alike.

The researchers call the CUChange Lab “state-of-the-art mobile laboratory.” Most of the studies’ participants live in Boulder.


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