The state of cannabis research: Q&A with Emerald keynote speaker Daniele Piomelli

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For the past three decades, Daniele Piomelli has worked on understanding how the compounds in our bodies that activate cannabinoid receptors are produced, how they’re activated and the functions they serve.

“Understanding the endocannabinoid system for the cannabis industry is important, not so much because there could be some actionable knowledge for businesses right away but because it’s the context in which companies can put their work,” Piomelli said.

“They can understand how their products could be influencing health, positively or negatively.”

A distinguished professor at the University of California, Irvine with a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Columbia University, Piomelli is a pioneer in the field of research into the endocannabinoid system.

Piomelli will be the keynote speaker at The Emerald Conference, a science-focused convention and trade show for the cannabis industry. The conference, produced by MJBiz Science, is Feb. 27-March 1 in San Diego.

In this Q&A, Piomelli shares insights with MJBizDaily about the state of cannabis research as well as his research of the endocannabinoid system.

How do you assess the state of research in the cannabis industry right now?

There is a lot of research on cannabis, but I do not know for sure how much of that is happening in the cannabis industry.

My fear is that a large part of the industry is more focused on marketing than it is on research.

My impression is that a lot of statements are made which are not really backed by research.

Is there more the industry could be doing to help research efforts?

Yes, there is. Let me preface that research is very expensive, and the state of the cannabis industry is one of considerable fragmentation.

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Most players don’t have the type of resources that are really needed to do this type of work, the type of clinical work that we need but also a type of visionary preclinical work that we need.

So there is still room in a variety of areas for the industry to be proactive.

There is a lot of need for easier, better, quicker ways to analyze cannabinoids, particularly phytocannabinoids.

That is something that the industry is already doing and could continue doing.

Another important area is one of genetics – improvement on understanding better the genetics of cannabis, the plant.

It’s, of course, a very, very complex plant. Understanding the regulation of the various enzymes present in the trichomes, the enzymes that control the synthesis of THCA, as opposed to CBDA, for example.

Those are aspects that I think can be addressed more aggressively. They’re not beyond what a midsize or relatively small-size company could handle.

Where the industry would be hard-pressed is in everything clinical, because the clinical trials are so expensive.

One or two players have the wherewithal, but they seem to be shying away from it.

Probably because there are some intrinsic intellectual property issues that we have in the field of cannabis that are very hard to overcome.

If you are in the business of making cannabis and selling it, there’s nothing patentable there – no matter how clever your attorney firm is – there is nothing there you could do.

One thing that some companies are exploring is to take whatever is in the cannabis plant and make modifications. But then, these folks are really going into the pharmaceutical space. And that is a different ballpark.

How can the industry use a deeper understanding of the endocannabinoid system to effectively communicate how cannabis might react to each individual?

One thing I always try and warn everyone is not to hide anything, not to overstate your case. By that, I don’t mean overstating the qualities, I mean overstating the dangers.

The dangers of cannabis have been overstated for 70 years, overstated to the point of being ridiculously overstated.

Not that cannabis is free of dangers, but if you put it in a rank order, it doesn’t totally end up at the top. Somewhere in the middle, together with stuff that we don’t feel very anxious about.

So I think overstating in either direction is a problem. That would be my plea to the industry. Try to stay as close as possible to the data.

The endocannabinoid system is the reason why we all respond differently.

For example, cannabis produces the munchies. Sure, for some people, sometimes. For others, cannabis makes you euphoric. Sure, for some people, sometimes. Other people go to sleep.

What you end up asking yourself, if you’re a scientist, is what is the rhyme and reason behind it?

And I wish I could say, “This is the rhyme, and this is the reason,” but I can’t because we don’t have the data.

Can you give us a few hints of what you’re going to be talking about at The Emerald Conference? 

I will bring two perspectives.

One, is how we can use the endocannabinoid system to generate new medicines. So that’s something the audience will be interested in from a cultural perspective.

If you’re in the cannabis industry, knowing that something related to what you’re doing could lead to potential medications or could also give ideas to people.

Two, I believe cannabis is a chemical engine, and it could be used as such.

I like to impress on the listeners the idea that the endocannabinoid system is really the portal of entry for cannabis in the body.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at