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HOW GREEN MY STASH?

MARIJUANA AND ITS non-psychoactive hemp sibling are becoming big business around the world. These are the two species of the genus Cannabis, each originally cultivated in Eurasia 8500 years ago. Hemp is derived from C. sativa, a tall plant with narrow leaves. C. indica, a shorter, denser plant, is rich in tetrahydrocannabinol, THC, the stuff that gives “grass” its high.

The article “A New Neglected Crop: Cannabis,” by Elizabeth Pennisi, is in the April 21, 2017, issue of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Pennisi says, “To many, cannabis is a recreational drug; to some, it is a medicine. Now it is increasingly seen as a crop, to be grown in quantity and engineered for better traits…” These include not only its pharmacological effects, but also “fiber content and the rapid, efficient growth that makes a plant useful for biofuels.”

Hemp growing on an agricultural research farm in Virginia. Image from Science, April 21, 2017.

One challenge, Pennisi notes, is that “Hundreds of strains of cannabis are grown around the world, many developed illegally and little-studied. She quotes Nolan Kane, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder: “Cannabis is the only multibillion-dollar crop for which the genetic identities and origins of most varieties are unknown.” He and colleagues have compared DNA from hundreds of these strains and built a Cannabis family tree.

Pennisi notes, “The first cannabis genome came out in 2011; now, more than 150 strains of the plant have had their DNA sequenced, to various degrees of completion.” The Open Cannabis Project has been established, with one of its goals that archival records “remain forever in the public domain, available to all, and will not be restricted by commercialization or patenting.”

For instance, Pennisi notes that “copies of a single gene may determine a strain’s level of cannabinoids responsible for psychoactive and, probably, medicinal effects.” Other studies in the past five years have suggested that hemp can be used to produce biofuels, thus saving edible feedstocks. (One ethanol tradeoff is the motor fuel-or-food conundrum of using corn in its production.) Hemp can also be transformed into biodegradable packaging or building materials. And a hemp extract may prove effective in controlling aphid infestations.

The Science article states that “… research in North America still faces steep hurdles. The United States continues to class cannabis with heroin and other Schedule I drugs, and this complicates getting permits and authorizations to study it.”

Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences has published “Medicinal Uses of Marijuana and Cannabinoids,” by Dr. Franjo Grotenhermen and Kristen Müller-Vahl. From its abstract: “Preliminary data suggest promising effects in the treatment of anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, dystonia, and some forms of epilepsy. This review gives an overview on clinical studies which have been published over the past 40 years.”

Daniela Vergara, a postdoc in Kane’s University of Colorado lab, conjectures, “This clock is ticking…. Once it’s legal everywhere, applying for funding to NSF [National Science Foundation] or NIH [National Institutes of Health] for cannabis will be the same thing as applying for tomatoes or sunflowers.”

Provided, of course, NSF and NIH still exist. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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