By Zachary Sylvester, Staff Writer
Last year, two grants were issued to members of the natural science department at the University of Maine at Farmington to study the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The grants, totaling over $100,000, were issued by the Maine Economic Improvement Fund and the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence.
Terry Morocco, an Associate Professor of Chemistry, and Jean Doty, a Professor of Biology have taken on the task of leading the project throughout its entirety. Initially, Morocco became interested in the subject after consulting for a cannabis lab in Portland. While consulting, Morocco began to familiarize himself with the medicinal benefits of cannabis. The positive medicinal effect that cannabis has had on many patients piqued the interest of both Morocco and Doty.
The goal of the project is to create ‘barcodes’ for the DNA of different cannabis strains. The medicinal effects of cannabis are achieved through specific chemicals in the plant, called cannabinoids and terpenes. Three specific cannabinoids, found only in cannabis, are associated with its medicinal effects, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinol (CBN), and cannabidiol (CBD). The team hopes to discover what ratios of chemicals are found in medicinal strains of cannabis, and the genetics that cause those ratios to form.
“We’re going to get the terpene profile, and then the cannabinoid profile, and then we’re going to look at those levels and see what ones correspond to high activity for success,” Morocco said. “We don’t want the recreational stuff that has all THC and no CBD. So we’re looking for that ratio, but we don’t know what a good ratio is.”
Though the research project started last year, direct investigation of cannabis has not been approved by the government. The team has instead been working with hops, the plant used to flavor beer, because they belong to the same plant family. Morocco and Doty will be restricted to working with non-cannabis plants until they receive permission from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
“Now it’s kind of complicated, because it’s still a Schedule I . . . the government still considers it a very serious thing, so you can’t just work with it if you want,” Morocco said. “We can’t just say ‘oh we’re going to do cannabis’, you have to have money, you have to have a grant to do it, and then government will let you do it.”
The process to work with a Schedule I substance requires a permit from the DEA. The permit is accompanied by a lengthy application, followed by numerous background checks. Due to the legal nature of Schedule I substances, the DEA is forced to check the background of the investigator(s), and the validity of the University. If the DEA is satisfied with their checks, a field investigator will come to inspect the University’s campus.
Involvement with the project and research is not limited to Morocco and Doty. Various students are currently aiding the investigators with their research. “I think it’s been a good experience for them,” said Morocco. The team will be looking to hire additional students in the near future, and anyone with a science background is encouraged to apply.