Kent Hutchison. Photo by Matt Nager.

A New Online Course Reveals What Scientists Really Know About Marijuana’s Health Benefits

The professor behind a new online marijuana class hashes out what scientists know about the plant's healing properties.

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Just because there are more dispensaries than Starbucks in Colorado doesn’t mean we know much more about weed than we do about the makeup of Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic—meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”—so it’s still difficult for scientists to legally access samples for research. That, however, didn’t deter Kent Hutchison. Using clever and compliant workarounds, the University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor has been studying the plant since 2014; this past fall, he launched an online course called Medical Cannabis: Health Effects of THC and CBD. The four-class CU Boulder series gives medical professionals, patients, and budtenders—or, really, anyone who wants to pay $49 a month to subscribe to Coursera, the learning platform that hosts it—evidence-based counsel for using marijuana medicinally. We lured Hutchison out of his van (it’s not what you think) to discuss dosages, government ganja, and how to responsibly consume even when you don’t have all the answers.

5280 Health: You first tried to study cannabis in 2007. What barriers did you face?
Kent Hutchison: To remain consistent with federal law, you have to file applications with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health before you can actually get the cannabis from the government farm in Mississippi. The really strange thing is, after all this paperwork—plus a visit from the DEA—your marijuana cigarettes show up in a FedEx box.

Then what happened?
When people smoked government-grown marijuana in the lab here in Boulder, they hated it. They said it was disgusting. We decided that it wasn’t useful to do research on a product nobody’s actually using, so we dropped it.

What brought you back?
When Colorado legalized marijuana in 2014, we wrongfully assumed studying it wouldn’t be a big deal. But the university’s lawyers told us we’d have to modify our original plan because it’s not legal at the federal level, so we can’t bring it on campus. To this day, I can’t go buy weed for clinical trials.

How do you conduct research, then?
We set up a van as a mobile pharmacology lab and drive it off campus. Study participants come to the van, we draw their blood, and we do some cognitive and motor testing. Then we tell them which product to buy and send them back to their houses to use it. When they return later that day, we again draw their blood so we can measure exactly how much THC they got, and we do that battery of tests again.

What have scientists learned?
Most agree on certain uses. An oral synthetic cannabinoid called Marinol (dronabinol) can ease nausea and dizziness caused by chemotherapy. For anxiety, we know you want something with CBD—a chemical compound in cannabis that doesn’t cause intoxicating effects—or a blend of CBD and THC. But we still don’t understand all the potential benefits of cannabis.

If there’s such little information available, why create this class?
My mother has chronic pain, and when she went to the dispensary and asked what she should use, the advice she got wasn’t always based on what we know scientifically. While we don’t have all the answers, we do know enough to offer some basic education about how to avoid harm.

Which is?
I think it’s wise to start with a higher ratio of CBD to THC, maybe 20:1. CBD is fairly benign, so you’re less likely to have a negative experience. If you’re taking an edible, a dose of 2.5 milligrams of THC is usually a good place to start. If you’re using an inhalable product, ask the dispensary about the flower’s potency. If the THC is 15 percent, a starting dose is typically one inhalation. If the potency is higher, you’ll want to try a half or even a quarter inhalation. I think the biggest thing, though, is to try your first dose in the evening before going to bed. That way, you can learn how you respond to it without feeling totally incapacitated around people.

This article appeared in the 2020 issue of 5280 Health.

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