Irvine is mostly known for its pristinely manicured lawns, cookie-cutter houses, and a 10 p.m. nightlife curfew. In other words: surburbia at its dullest. But as of a month ago, the city will also be known for something else: UC Irvine’s Center for the Study of Cannabis, a multidisciplinary program that blends the schools of law, medicine, science, business, public health and engineering.
The hallways of UCI’s Gillespie Neuroscience building are lined with doors that stretch from carpet to ceiling. All of them look the same with the exception of one. From it hangs a hemp-woven textile featuring an image of a dark-haired woman with a large green fan-leaf behind her head, kind of like a peacock headdress. The words Exportacin and Puntas Del Oro outlines the top portion of the image. The words Marijuana and Fina Calidad Colombia sits beneath the portrait.
If any other professor—especially in the neurosciences building—had a cannabis-related tapestry hanging on his or her door, it might be deemed inappropriate. But this particular decoration is accepted, even expected, as it leads to the office of Dr. Daniele Piomelli, a world-renowned endocannabinoid researcher and a professor of anatomy, neurobiology, pharmacology and biological chemistry at UCI. He’s also the director of the university’s new Center for the Study of Cannabis.
“I got this at a fair in San Bernardino,” he says in an Italian accent as he points to the tapestry. He’s likely referring to the High Times Cannabis Cup—or one of the cannabis festivals once regularly held at the NOS Events Center—but Piomelli didn’t specify.
I am sitting at a conference table with UCI law professor Bob Solomon, who’s a co-director of the new cannabis program. Piomelli walks toward us with an unopened, warm bottle of beer. “Have you seen this beer before?” he asks. “It’s called the Hemporer!”
A colleague had given Piomelli the New Belgium beer as a congratulatory gift; the day before, the Center for the Study of Cannabis was officially approved as a recognized program through the University of California system. It also received confirmation for its first major grant of $10 million, which was facilitated through the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), the Golden State’s governing body for cannabis.
Piomelli has been studying the endocannabinoid system (a biological system in the human body that interacts with cannabis’ chemical compounds, such as THC and CBD) for more than 25 years and is one of—if not the—leading endocannabinoid scientist in the world. He went to Columbia University in New York and studied under Nobel Prize winners Eric R. Kandel and Paul Greengard. He got involved in endocannabinoid research soon after its receptors were identified in the late 1980s. By the time Piomelli finished his postdoctoral research, more endocannabinoid discoveries had been unearthed, signaling to him that this specific realm of research was his life’s path.
“As soon as the structure of anandamide was discovered, it was simple for me—the interest was already there,” Piomelli told the Weekly in May 2017. “I immediately jumped on it because it seemed to me no one knew anything about the endocannabinoid system or cannabinoid drugs, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way the two are connected. I had a very small lab, and I only had three people working with me. I called them up, and I said, ‘Listen, folks, this discovery changes my life. Stop doing whatever you’re doing or finish it up. We’re going to work on this 100 percent of the time going forward.’”
Known as the “bliss molecule,” the naturally produced anandamide binds to the body’s cannabinoid receptors, known as CB1 and CB2. (Ananda is the Sanskrit word for bliss, happiness, joy and delight.) This molecule is responsible for producing feelings of happiness. Anandamide also aids in managing memory, sleep, motivation, higher thought processes and movement control, and it plays an important role in many physiological processes including pain management, appetite and fertility.
The anandamide’s structure was discovered in 1994, leading scientists such as Piomelli on the path of endocannabinoid research and, thus, cannabis science—an area people still know relatively nothing about thanks to the plant’s Schedule I classification. Four years later, Piomelli began teaching neuroscience at UCI and has lead an endocannabinoid research program for the past 20 years, mentoring other scientists from around the world.
On July 13, 2016, Piomelli appeared at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to testify on cannabis as medicine. Little did he know that in the following few days, the seeds for the multidisciplinary program would be cultivated. “Former state Senator Joe Dunn came into my office and said, ‘I didn’t know we had people working on cannabis on campus.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been here only 20 years,’” Piomelli recalls, laughing.
Dunn, who’s currently the assistant dean for external relations and a lecturer at the UCI School of Law, instantly expressed an interest in creating a multidisciplinary program. Piomelli wasn’t sure how to go about conquering such a monstrously sized task, but Dunn said he’d talk to some people.
“I didn’t want to spend too much time on it or worry about it too much,” Piomelli says. “I was very much concerned that the university, being a little bit conservative—and rightly so at times—wouldn’t really support me.”
A few months passed, and there was no word from Dunn. Then, like divine timing, UCI announced it was accepting proposals for on-campus multidisciplinary activities. Piomelli called Dunn, and they both agreed it was an ideal time to pitch the cannabis program. They got support from a number of other UCI deans and professors, but Piomelli says it was a killer letter of recommendation from Erwin Chemerinsky—the former dean of the UCI School of Law, now a dean at UC Berkeley’s law school—that made the difference.
The seeds for the Center for the Study of Cannabis officially germinated. With some funding help from the university, Piomelli began hosting a series of seminars and panels focusing on cannabis education that were attended by industry stakeholders, banking representatives, lawyers, members of the university’s faculty, trade unions, politicians and law-enforcement professionals. During this time, Solomon and Piomelli finally connected and decided to tackle the multidisciplinary project together.
Before working at UCI, Solomon had spent years at Yale Law School, operating one of the largest interdisciplinary programs in the United States’ legal-education system. This interwoven curriculum included architecture, business, international relations, law, medicine and nursing. “One of the reasons I consider myself to have won the job lottery is that I get to work every day with young, diverse, people,” says Solomon. “It’s from working with diverse people that we can learn so much. We don’t understand the world without that.”
Three-quarters of a gourmet chocolate cake topped with soft powdered sugar sits on the conference table. It was also brought in celebration of the center’s funding and official creation. “You have to try some,” Piomelli enthusiastically says, assuring me there is no “funny stuff” in it. “I made it from scratch with no flour, by the way. So just in case you are a celiac, you can eat it!”
While chomping on cake—which tastes like a homemade fudge bar—Piomelli explains that although this program is unusual for Orange County, there are universities throughout the United States and abroad that are starting various types of education-based cannabis projects. UCLA has a Cannabis Research Initiative and a Cannabinoid Affinity Group, UC San Diego has the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, and UC Davis has a Cannabis Research Initiative—all of which provide students with interrelated classes. From Harvard to the University of Vermont to Northern Michigan University, higher education in America is embracing the movement. Universities in Israel, Spain and Canada are also known for their research programs and classes, too.
But what makes UCI’s project unique, according to Piomelli, is that they’re building the program to explore cannabis from a multidisciplinary perspective, with the medical and law schools as the primary foundations. Built on that infrastructure is a network of other schools on campus—such as public health, business and engineering—adding to the conversation. “The goal is to have expertise in a whole gamut of areas that are relevant to cannabis,” says Piomelli.
In this upcoming academic year, both Solomon and Piomelli are offering courses on cannabis in their respective fields. “Next spring, I’m teaching a course called ‘Cannabis and the Law,’” says Solomon. “I already have lined up an environmentalist who wants to talk about use of public lands and land use in general. There’s going to be a session on the business-organization aspect of the industry; [Piomelli] will do a session on the science and also current research in what we’re testing. There will be a section on the regulations in California, which inevitably are going to change. We’ll look at the whole federal history and current federal law, law enforcement, the social effects, what should we do about school discipline.”
Piomelli will also teach his own two-hour neurosciences course on cannabis. Last year, he offered a short cannabis lesson that was open to anyone willing to show up. “I was expecting there to be 10, maybe 20 people total,” he recalls. “Literally, I had people lined up around the building. The students and professor in the class after mine were pushing me out—that’s how long I was there. Because of the interest, I ended up holding a better-planned one-hour session, and it was a great success—the class was full. Next year, we actually have a formal neuroscience course, two hours on cannabis. We are the only university in the country to do that.”
The Center for the Study of Cannabis is working with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) on an apprenticeship program. Though one can major in horticultural studies or get a degree in business, the cannabis plant and industry has its own nuances. As the labor union that has been predominantly utilized by the cannabis industry since 2010, UFCW aims to help provide students who are serious about getting into the industry with the skills needed.
“A worker needs to have a basic understanding of what’s going on from cultivation all the way to sales,” says Piomelli. “Right now, you have these folks in the dispensaries who literally know nothing about cannabis, except that they’ve tried it and they’ve tasted it many times. So if someone goes in there saying they have back pain and want to know what strain to use, and they say, ‘Ummm, try this one!’—that’s not a good way of doing things. An apprenticeship would help change this.”
Though the new program will be essential in encouraging the shift toward legitimacy, major and minor hurdles lie ahead thanks to the plant’s Schedule I status. As of late June, it has yet to have a website with the name “Center for the Study of Cannabis” that’s affiliated with UCI. According to Piomelli, the bureaucratic UC system requires a ton of steps and approval. But considering it just received official funding, there’s a chance that might change soon.
Additional funding also continues to be a concern, as Solomon explains the university might disagree with or question contributions of any kind from the cannabis industry. Most multidisciplinary centers—and programs in general—accept contributions from donors without problem, but, Solomon admits, the industry has some serious issues that need to be solved before it will ever be that way with cannabis. “The question always is: Where is the money coming from?” says Solomon. “Additionally, how is all of this affecting the consumer? There was a case in Colorado where a consumer sued for pesticide poisoning. That’s going to happen; you can guarantee that.”
Though the distributor in Colorado won, Solomon adds, “Don’t forget that the tobacco companies won a lot of cases before they lost.”
The lack of federal legal stability also makes the Center for the Study of Cannabis increasingly difficult to operate. But Piomelli hopes the program will provide the data necessary to change that. “We managed to convince the university that it’s important to advocate for research,” says Piomelli. “So they asked us to write a paper that they can use to convince other universities, outside the University of California system, to pressure and push the legislators on the federal level to make researching cannabis okay.”
The objective, Piomelli explains, is to get an exemption on Schedule I obligations to carry out research in a publicly funded university. In order to carry out such research, the university must be accredited. “That’s the level of advocacy we could possibly do,” Piomelli says. “Advocacy for research, advocacy for data. Anecdotal evidence does not stand as real data, which is why we want to provide the facts on cannabis: so people can make informed decisions about everything from health to policy.”
Piomelli and Solomon go back and forth about living in a world of “post-facts,” or appeals to emotion. But Piomelli says there are some growing correlations that are shown to be in favor of cannabis. In February, UCI held a conference on cannabis and the opioid epidemic. There was a panel on legal cannabis and its potential impact on the use of opioids, addiction and the drugs’ lethality. Just a few months later, a number of papers appeared that showed that in places where cannabis is legal and available, opioid use has dropped.
“We’re striving for light, not smoke,” says Solomon. “We want to be the source of cannabis data for people around the world on a number of topics. I am a strong believer that we make terrible public policy decisions because we don’t know enough and people in different fields don’t communicate with one another enough. The most important things to me are figuring out how things work and trying to make them work a little better.”
Via the Center for the Study of Cannabis, Piomelli wants to understand how cannabis impacts people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “This is a question that is a lot more iffy than the question of pain,” he says. “With pain, I think, the evidence is already out there; we just need to buckle it up. With PTSD, there is a lot more research that needs to be done.”
Piomelli also seeks to know the impact of cannabis on pregnant women and fetuses. A growing, albeit controversial, trend is mothers using cannabis products while pregnant to help with the discomforts of carrying a child, including morning sickness. Because cannabis is an herb, many believe it is less harmful than the pharmaceuticals a doctor may prescribe to treat such conditions.
He points out that there are potential impacts that could last beyond adolescence and into adulthood. “We do not have that data yet, and we need to err on the side of caution because who truly knows if you’re causing harm to your baby?” Piomelli says. “What I do know is the idea that cannabis is harmless because it’s a plant is a wrong logic. Arsenic is from the earth, and so is opium. For every substance, there’s going to be a dose level where toxicity will occur.”
Piomelli explains that the questions of cannabis around PTSD and pregnancy are highly complex. But he’s determined to find the answers in the next five years. “They might not be conclusive, but they will be substantial and hold much greater weight than the anecdotal stories being used as evidence and data today.”
We also know little to nothing about hemp. According to Piomelli, the Center for the Study of Cannabis recently applied for funding to join UC San Diego and UC Davis in studying such questions as why hemp has less THC than the other cannabis plants and if it has any utility in pharmacology. “This plant has been around for hundreds of thousands of years,” says Piomelli, “and we don’t have any data on it. Believe it or not, no one can tell you why this plant has so many different varieties or how it can be best used.”
The next several years are going to be crucial for the cannabis industry in terms of science and discovery, and thanks to UC Irvine, Orange County will play a major role in that innovation. “Given the heated rhetoric that surrounds the topic of cannabis, the interdisciplinary and groundbreaking research led by Dr. Piomelli and Professor Solomon is more important than ever,” says L. Song Richardson, dean of UCI’s School of Law. “It is an honor to support their critical work through the UCI Center for the Study of Cannabis.”
Piomelli is thrilled to contribute a legitimate body of well-rounded research to the field of cannabis. “It is with much pride that we are able to do this,” he says, looking at Solomon. “We’re truly living in high times.”