Washington State—flush with millions of dollars' worth of cannabis, a thriving biomedical research industry, and a long history of agricultural research—is well positioned to start answering questions about the world's biggest cash crop. Scientists know surprisingly little about the most efficient ways to grow, process, and breed the plant.
"The reality is that pretty basic research needs to be done," said Jessica Tonani, CEO of Verda Bio, a Seattle company that is seeking a permit from the state to research cannabis. "The research that needs to be done on this plant isn't reinventing the wheel, it's just doing what we need to do. I think you can look back at what has been done on any number of crops for the last 50 years."
The state's marijuana research permit has stalled for three years in Olympia, and new administrative problems continue to delay the program. That has created an ironic system of state laws: It is legal to sell and smoke weed, but it is completely illegal to study it.
"On our end, we thought the research license was a critical component of the promise of I-502 [the law that legalized recreational use in Washington State]—a regulated market of safe products that were developed with better quality than what was available in the medical market," said Brad Douglass, the scientific director at Bellevue cannabis lab the Werc Shop.
The state may finally be able to follow through on that research promise soon. The legislature passed a law last year creating a new type of cannabis license for firms looking to research weed, and the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board said it's ready to accept applications starting March 1. But there's one final hurdle before the scientists can get to work: The legislature required that a third-party scientific reviewer evaluate the scientific merits for each applicant, and as of now, the WSLCB hasn't found any acceptable scientific reviewers.
"We need that scientific body to be that reviewer. We are not a scientific agency, we are a regulatory agency," said WSLCB spokesperson Brian Smith.
In the first version of the law, the state's Life Sciences Discovery Fund served as the scientific reviewer, but the state legislature defunded the organization last year. The WSLCB hoped the University of Washington and Washington State University could act as scientific reviewers, but neither school submitted a proposal to serve in the role, according to Smith.
Sam Mendez, executive director of UW's Cannabis Law and Policy Project, said the university determined it wouldn't be able to do the work without more funding. "To be frank, we couldn't do it for free," Mendez said. "We had no idea how many applications would be coming in and when that funding would come in to pay for the work to be done."
What if the state didn't investigate the scientific merits of the research firms? That's the approach Oregon is taking. Mark Pettinger, spokesman for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, said applications are screened primarily for safety and accountability by the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Agriculture. "Between the three agencies, will there be some experts on public health and pesticides and plants production? Yes. But will it rise to the level of a scientific panel scrutinizing it? No, not at this point."
Oregon has its system up and running, but it appears that our southern neighbor has less business interest in the research permits. Only two firms have started applications for Oregon's permits since they became available in 2015, and neither has completed its application, according to Pettinger.
Many people within Washington's legal weed industry see cannabis research as a way to ensure that pot revenue finds a permanent home in our state. "I think if you develop some IP [intellectual property] that is just waiting to be had in cannabis, you develop that in-state and even if the producers go elsewhere, that continues to be a source of revenue for Washington State moving forward," said Douglass of the Werc Shop cannabis lab.
That running start may be fading away as other states push forward on cannabis research.
"I think we still have a small window of competitive advantage, but I think that's drastically closing for us," said Tonani of Verda Bio. "So long term, I think the value to the state is in any sort of research or intellectual property they can get. I think that will show greater return than this short-term gold rush."