Using A Lab On Wheels To Study Weed From Dispensaries

17:15 minutes

Two people stand inside the entrance of a white van.
Professional research assistants Devon Rapken (right) and Paige Xiaoying Phillips (left) stand inside one of CU Boulder’s mobile laboratories. Credit: Emma Gometz

Cannabis is legal in some form or another in over half of US states. But federally, it’s illegal and has no accepted medical use. However, the Biden administration is moving to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous drug under the Controlled Substances Act.

Studying strictly controlled drugs like cannabis is a major challenge for scientists, because they have to meet specific registration and sourcing requirements. And researchers can’t give commercially available cannabis from dispensaries to study participants, or bring it onto campus at all. But questions around the health impacts of these widely available products continue to mount.

A team of scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder is driving around these federal roadblocks by bringing a mobile lab—nicknamed the CannaVan—to people, so they can consume weed in their own homes and then come outside for some routine tests.

SciFri producers Emma Gometz and Rasha Aridi visited the CannaVan last year and join Ira to unpack how this research gets done, what the CannaVan has taught us about weed, and how reclassifying cannabis might affect research.

Read our article about how federal law impacts cannabis research.

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Segment Guests

Angela Bryan

Dr. Angela Bryan is a psychologist and the co-director of CUChange Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder in Boulder, Colorado.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice proposed that cannabis should be changed from Schedule I to Schedule III, knocking it down a couple of pegs in the hierarchy of restricted drugs. So could this affect how scientists study cannabis. Joining me are SciFri producers Rasha Aridi and Emma Gomez. Hi, team.


EMMA GOMETZ: Hi, Ira. Yeah, the Department of Justice is moving to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Although if you ask my dad, he would probably say they should make an entirely new, even more dangerous category for weed. Anyway, cannabis is legal in some form or another in over half of the US, including where I live in New York.

RASHA ARIDI: And where I live in Washington, DC.

EMMA GOMETZ: But federally, it’s illegal and considered a Schedule I substance, meaning that the Drug Enforcement Agency, or the DEA, says that it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. In this category, alongside cannabis, are drugs like heroin and ecstasy.

RASHA ARIDI: But if this plan goes through, cannabis will drop down to a Schedule III drug, putting it on the same level as drugs like ketamine and some steroids. The DEA says drugs in this category have a moderate to low potential for dependence, and it’s kind of set the cannabis industry abuzz.

EMMA GOMETZ: To my parents listening, this change will not affect me, nor my esteemed colleague, Rasha. We would never consider doing anything federally illegal, even if it is legal in my state. Right, Rasha?

RASHA ARIDI: Yes, of course. Wouldn’t dare, Mom and Dad. Wouldn’t dare. [LAUGHS]

Let’s go back through the history books. Weed wasn’t supposed to be a Schedule I drug in the first place. In 1970, President Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law. Cannabis was classified as a Schedule I drug just temporarily until his commission could review the science and make a recommendation, and they did.

They said that weed should be decriminalized altogether, a.k.a. taken off the list completely, just like alcohol is. But Nixon ignored that recommendation and continued to wage his war on drugs, one that spanned through many administrations now. So as a result, weed has been at the top of the drug classification pyramid for decades now.

EMMA GOMETZ: Now, this move wouldn’t decriminalize cannabis. It mostly just acknowledges that it has some approved medical uses, and doctors would be allowed to prescribe it instead of just recommending it like they do now. But having it without a prescription would still be illegal under federal law. So, how do scientists study cannabis use now, and would this reclassification make research more accessible or easier for them? Because as you can imagine, giving someone an illegal substance and studying what happens to them is a challenging.

RASHA ARIDI: Last fall, Emma and I went out to Colorado, which was the very first state alongside Washington to legalize recreational cannabis. Emma and I talked with scientists at the University of Colorado’s Change Lab in Boulder, which studies cannabis use. And they’ve come up with a way to skirt around these really strict federal roadblocks in order to study what’s going on the market. Enter the CU Change Mobile Lab, affectionately known as the CannaVan.




At the helm of this project are psychologists Dr. Cinnamon Bidwell and Dr. Angela Bryan. We sat down with Angela.

ANGELA BRYAN: When we first started thinking about doing cannabis research and legalization had just happened, and we thought, wow, it’s this brave new world of doing research on the potential risks and benefits of cannabis legalization. We’re going to bring people into the lab and give them different products and see what happens. And we very quickly learned that it turns out that is illegal. So we landed on the solution of, well, if we can’t bring the people to the lab, we’ll bring the lab to the people.

EMMA GOMETZ: These vans basically have a built-in lab. One van belongs to a project that tests how different levels of THC or CBD affect how you remember information. If you sign up to participate, the team will drive over to your place, and you’ll meet them inside the van. Evangelique Lopez is a research assistant at the lab, and that day, I was her guinea pig.

SPEAKER 1: Have you had caffeine or tobacco in the last four hours?

EMMA GOMETZ: I’ve had caffeine in the last four hours.

SPEAKER 1: In that scenario, we would say, oh, we’re going to have to reschedule you, unfortunately, because we try to make sure that everyone’s at a very natural baseline.


SPEAKER 1: And then we–

EMMA GOMETZ: Never mind.


SPEAKER 1: No, you’re perfect. We’re going to continue. But we’ll also ask if our participant has any alcohol or cannabis for the last 24 hours.

EMMA GOMETZ: OK, I had a beer last night.

SPEAKER 1: Wow, we’re going to reschedule.

EMMA GOMETZ: You fail twice. OK.


SPEAKER 1: You’re out of here.

EMMA GOMETZ: If this was really part of the experiment, I would have done a blood test and then an EEG, which measures electrical activity in the brain. At this point, I’d hypothetically go home and use the weed. This lab works with local dispensaries to monitor who gets what kind of cannabis products so they can control the experiment.

And so after I pretend puffed on my assigned blunt, I’d go back to the van and repeat all those tests again. And through experiments like these, the researchers test how weed affects memory. In a study from a few years ago, they compared how different strains of cannabis products ranging from 16% to 90% THC affect memory recall. And they found that despite a huge difference in potency, the THC impaired people’s memories in a similar way.

RASHA ARIDI: OK, so studying memory is one way this team is trying to unravel how weed affects the body. Another set of experiments is looking at aging, specifically with adults older than 60. They’re one of the fastest growing demographics of cannabis users in the US since weed can help with sleep, joint pain, mood, anxiety. Dr. Angela Bryan, the leader of this project, has some questions about it.

ANGELA BRYAN: First of all, do they see any benefits from using these products for those outcomes, but also, what risks do we need to think about with older adults using cannabis? So for older adults, I would ask about things like, are you dizzy? Are you going to fall down?

We know that falls are one of the things that compromises quality of life more than just about anything else for older adults. You know, we’re looking at things like balance and memory function and cognitive function, and then we look at the potential benefits that they’re experiencing based on which product they’re taking.

RASHA ARIDI: This project measures the health effects of weed on older adults, and its research assistants have seen just how much it affects participants on a personal level. Here are Madeline Stanger and Harmony Soffer.

SPEAKER 2: So we had a participant a little while ago who they had– I think they had had throat cancer, or something like that.

SPEAKER 3: Yeah, he had esophageal cancer, and he had a lot of nerve damage from surgeries. And he had been on all kinds of different prescriptions. And then he tried his product, and he was like, I don’t feel it anymore.

SPEAKER 2: Really cool.

SPEAKER 3: Stories like that are really great. I like it when people tell me it’s not working either because, like, we need to know, like the whole point is to know, like what’s working, what’s not working, what are we missing? Like, what do we already know? Things like that.

EMMA GOMETZ: OK, so we’ve talked about how the CU Change scientists are digging into the effects of cannabis on memory, on older adults, and the last element we’re going to get into is the effect on exercise. And I know what you’re thinking– that smoking weed would usually make someone lay down and take a long nap, not run a marathon. But the science of it might surprise you. Here’s Angela again.

ANGELA BRYAN: One of the things when cannabis legalization happened for me was, oh my gosh. I mean, I had the same stereotypes everybody else does. If everyone’s going to be using a lot of cannabis and sitting on the couch eating Doritos, what does that do to physical activity and diet?

But I quickly learned that actually, there’s this interesting paradox with cannabis use– that cannabis users in big epidemiological studies, they have lower risk for type 2 diabetes, lower BMI, better waist to hip ratio, better insulin function. And I was like, what? So it’s this interesting paradox, right?

EMMA GOMETZ: Do we know the mechanism of how that happens?

ANGELA BRYAN: We don’t. We don’t. What I will tell you is that a lot of the recent work that’s showing associations between cannabis use and physical activity in particular have been done in states that have legalized– Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Washington, DC.

What do those states also have in common? Highest rates of physical activity in the nation. So I say all this with a bit of a grain of salt because we don’t know if this association holds across the whole country in every state.

But that said, graduate student who just finished did a study where we used the van to go to people’s houses, and we drew blood. They went inside and used their flower cannabis product. We drove them back to the lab, and they ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes.


ANGELA BRYAN: And we did that–

EMMA GOMETZ: How is that physically possible?

ANGELA BRYAN: These were people who were experienced at doing this. So we recruited people who used– yeah, who– they’re runners. They use cannabis. So they did this once under the influence of either a THC product or a CBD product and then once without using cannabis. And we compared their experience.

They had a better experience. They felt more of the runner’s high feeling even though they were doing the exact same running activity at the exact same intensity the two sessions. So we think there might be something about the experience of physical activity during cannabis use that makes the two have a linkage.

But again, we’re some of the first people to be doing that work because we have the van technology to be able to do it. But it’s really exciting to think about. So that’s one of the–

RASHA ARIDI: You’re just breaking my brain here. Everything I know is a lie.

ANGELA BRYAN: I know, I know.

RASHA ARIDI: The folks at CU Change are clearly working to get a lot of answers to a lot of questions. So what happens next, and what do they do with this information?

ANGELA BRYAN: There are a few different constituencies that we think about in all of this work. Most important are the people who are using these products. I think, you know, whether you’re using them recreationally or there’s some medical benefit that you’d like to get from using these products, I think we need more information to be able to tell you what are the potential harms and benefits of different kinds of preparations, of different levels of. THC and CBD.

The other constituency is medical providers. So in the context of people who are wanting to use medicinally, they’ll go to their providers, and they’ll say, you know, I think I want to try cannabis for my pain. And for the most part, the data show that doctors respond to that favorably. But the answer is, OK, sounds good. I don’t know what to tell you.

RASHA ARIDI: Oh no, not what you want to hear from a doctor.

ANGELA BRYAN: Not what you want to hear from a doctor, and especially if you’re a cancer patient.


ANGELA BRYAN: So we’d like for medical providers to have more information. And then the third constituency is the regulatory bodies, right? So people who are making the rules about, you know, maybe it’s not a good idea that we have 95% THC concentrates on the market. Maybe that’s too much. But we don’t know because we don’t have those data yet.

And, you know, in terms of the products that people can buy, if I’m going to buy a topical or a tincture or whatever, you know, I’d like to know, well, is that going to do anything for me, or am I spending money for something that really isn’t going to have any impact?

EMMA GOMETZ: It’s like gimmicky.


EMMA GOMETZ: Just this week, a new study from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that more people are consuming weed every day than there are people drinking alcohol on a daily basis. So untangling the science is more important than ever. But why haven’t we figured it out yet? Part of it basically boils down to having very tight rules.

ANGELA BRYAN: It’s because of the way the National Institutes of Health sets up the funding structure for this work. Because cannabis was put on the Schedule I list of drugs, we were really, for many years, only able to study it in the context of abuse. And we were also only allowed to study the product that’s grown by the National Institute on Drug Abuse on one specific farm in Mississippi.

RASHA ARIDI: So if you wanted to study weed, you would have had to special order it from this one farm at the University of Mississippi. But the quality of their product wasn’t good. One scientist described it as a mishmash of stems, sticks, and leaves and claimed that it had yeast and mold growing on it. Angela tried it in an experiment once.

ANGELA BRYAN: We used that substance and promised ourselves after that, we wouldn’t study cannabis anymore because it just– it was so awful. Participants were vomiting. And these were regular cannabis users.

EMMA GOMETZ: So not only was the quality really poor– the THC in it was a lot lower than the products you’d find in a dispensary. One study from 2017 found that the cannabis grown at that farm in Mississippi contained about 5% THC, whereas products in dispensaries around the country could contain about 15% to 20% So the government-grown weed doesn’t really give you a full picture. And also, you might vomit.

Earlier in Biden’s tenure, the DEA approved more growers than just that one Mississippi farm, which could mean more options for research. But the registration and transaction processes to get research grade cannabis are no joke. It takes time, effort, and cash to get cannabis products for human experiments, not to mention approval from the FDA, the IRB, and sometimes local narcotics boards.

ANGELA BRYAN: It’s the way that the federal regulations were written that prevented us from doing all the work that needed to be done. So it’s really legalization that’s opened up the opportunity for us to study these products that people are using.

EMMA GOMETZ: I’m just so surprised at how bad the government weed is, so to call it.

ANGELA BRYAN: Yeah, and I will say it’s definitely getting better. But the problem is, you know, if you look at the commercialization of cannabis, right– like, I don’t know if you’re going to go to dispensaries while you’re here. But you walk in, and there’s hundreds of products, right?

And people are making a lot of money designing all kinds of different cannabis products. There’s no way the federal government is going to keep up with that kind of commercialization. And so they’re just so far behind this multi-million dollar industry that I just– I don’t see them catching up.

And so I feel like the way forward really is to study the products that exist on the legal market that people can– you know, we can go to any dispensary in town and have our pick of. Those are the things we need to be studying, not the things that– the limited range of things now that are being grown by the government.


RASHA ARIDI: So this brings us back to the question. Will the reclassification of cannabis from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule III change anything for researchers like Angela? She says no.



I wish I could say I’m optimistic about legislation because if it’s on the schedule, we have to keep doing what we’re doing. So unless it’s completely taken off, it won’t change for us. What I hope happens is that it’s regulated in much the same way that alcohol is regulated.

So it’s interesting because we and lots of other labs around the country have done work where we bring people in. We give them, you know, a measured dose of alcohol, and we look at how it impacts the brain and performance on tasks and social behavior and things like that. And so I would love it if cannabis regulations allowed us to do that same kind of research with cannabis products.

EMMA GOMETZ: But this reclassification might make it easier for scientists to study the weed grown from that list of the DEA’s approved growers. But one of the biggest changes might actually come from the FDA. So you’ll remember that when a drug is classified as Schedule I, there are no accepted medical uses for it. So the FDA hasn’t made any standards for its production.

But if it becomes Schedule III, that acknowledges that there can be acceptable medical uses for that drug. So the FDA can finally come in and say, hey, these are some guidelines for how to produce medical cannabis in a way that we say is safe for human consumption.

RASHA ARIDI: On the business side of things, this reclassification is a major deal. Folks in the industry will be able to access normal banking and credit, and it’ll ease up on the tax burden for cannabis businesses, or canna-businesses, which could make it ultimately a little more affordable for customers.

EMMA GOMETZ: To learn more about how federal rules affect research on cannabis, check out our reporting at sciencefriday.com/cannabis. Special thanks to all the researchers we spoke with in Colorado, Dr. Ziva Cooper, and to D. Peterschmidt for composing the music. I’m Emma Gometz.

RASHA ARIDI: And I’m Rasha Aridi.

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About Rasha Aridi

Rasha Aridi is a producer for Science Friday. She loves stories about weird critters, science adventures, and the intersection of science and history.

About Emma Lee Gometz

Emma Lee Gometz is Science Friday’s Digital Producer of Engagement. She’s a writer and illustrator who loves drawing primates and tending to her coping mechanisms like G-d to the garden of Eden.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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