Pueblo County is quickly becoming a center not only for cannabis production, but for cannabis research, too.
“Pueblo County has been in the forefront for marijuana,” says Joan Armstrong, director of the county’s Department of Planning and Development, which includes the division of Marijuana Licensing. “We adopted regulations when medical marijuana was first allowed in Colorado, and then realized the need for regulations. We’ve been very open with marijuana; it was the voice of the people, and we listened to the voters and what’s allowed.”
Unlike the city of Pueblo, which has medical marijuana dispensaries but no retail stores (eight are currently in the process of being licensed, however), Pueblo County allows both medical and recreational cannabis sales, as well as indoor and outdoor grows, which account for a growing portion of the county’s economic vitality. In 2015, Pueblo County residents voted to direct $270,000 from marijuana excise-tax collections to medical marijuana research and marijuana-related community impact studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo. The Institute of Cannabis Research is a new partnership between the school and Pueblo County, with a $900,000 assist from the Colorado Legislature last year.
This inaugural ICR conference was the nation’s first academically focused, multi-disciplinary cannabis conference, emphasizing pure and applied research and technologies, including industry developments. Despite heavy snowfall, the three-day conference attracted representatives from ten countries and 21 states, including some of the world’s top scientists and experts in the field. Among them was Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, known as the “father of cannabis research.” An organic chemist by trade, Mechoulam has published hundreds of scientific articles and received dozens of patents as a result of his work with cannabinoids at Hebrew University.
CSU-Pueblo President Lesley Di Mare introduced Mechoulam, the keynote speaker. “His discoveries are the basis for all research today,” Di Mare said. “It’s a historical event, and we are deeply appreciative.”
Mechoulam reviewed his breakthroughs, emphasizing the need for others to continue building on his life’s work. “Why did we have to wait three decades to study the plant?” he asked. “I have no answer, but a huge number of children would have been helped.” His speech — and his call to arms for more clinical research — earned Mechoulam a standing ovation.
Subsequent speeches echoed the ne ed for more research. Julia Arnsten, a cannabis researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, spoke on the biomedical track of cannabis research. “We are all dealing with an extremely rigid system,” she warned. “We have chosen to live within that community and try to do work in that community to try and make a difference from within.”
Pueblo’s work promoting research could help make that difference. The first ICR conference was immediately followed by the third CBD Outlook, a one-day event focusing on the viability of cannabinoids for medicinal and industrial uses. Panels discussed hemp, CBD, medicine and politics, and the differences between more than 100 cannabinoids. “There are cannabinoids other than THC to research, so universities have that to work with,” noted Thomas Dermody, executive director of the Denver-based Industrial Hemp Research Foundation and a firm believer in the potential of industrial hemp and CBD.
The most high-profile CBD Outlook panel featured Sue Sisley, Uma Dhanabalan and longtime Pueblo resident Malik Hasan, who discussed federal barriers to cannabis research and the work they’re doing at ICR. Hasan, a neurologist and philanthropist, has donated millions to the CSU-Pueblo Hasan School of Business; a former HMO entrepreneur, he’s now the CEO of NuVue Pharma. “Most of the foundational work is done, but there’s still a lot of work ahead and potential we can tap,” he told the audience. “Looking forward, the path is now easier than what the people before us had, and the opportunities for cannabis research are far greater than we could have ever imagined.”
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Sisley, who’s on the ICR steering committee, is doing groundbreaking research into cannabinoid use for post-traumatic stress disorder; the State of Colorado has given her a grant for her studies. Sisley said she can’t wait for the day when she can get her hands on FDA-approved cannabis from a cultivation company outside of the University of Mississippi — which currently has a lock on the market — because “it would mean a renaissance of cannabis research.”
Dhanabalan, a highly respected physician and cannabis practitioner with Total Healthcare, traveled to Pueblo from Massachusetts to speak at both the ICR conference and CBD Outlook. “Cannabis is not an entrance drug; it’s an exit drug for opiates and pharmaceuticals,” she said, blaming America for endorsing the global prohibition of cannabis and for the failed War on Drugs.
But Dhanabalan was also full of praise for Pueblo’s work pushing academic cannabis research. The best way to counter the propaganda is to “educate, embrace and empower,” she said. “And that’s what Pueblo did this weekend.”