By law, scientists cannot bring individuals into a lab and provide them with high-potency cannabis for research purposes.   

But there’s nothing stopping them – legally speaking – from bringing the lab to those individuals.

This is the idea behind the CannaVan, a mobile laboratory set up by the University of Colorado Change Lab.

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The CannaVan research team is studying the potential risks and/or benefits of ingesting the kinds of high-potency cannabis products // Photo CU Change Lab

The CannaVan is simply a Dodge Sprinter that’s been modified to include a phlebotomy and assessment station. It’s a setup that allows researchers to legally collect blood samples within the van and lets participants complete self-report assessments and physiological, behavioural and cognitive measures.

The research team, led by Dr. Cinnamon Bidwell, is studying the potential risks and/or benefits of ingesting the kinds of high-potency cannabis products that are common in legal dispensaries in Colorado and beyond.

Bidwell says this kind of research – and the way they’re going about it – is essential because federal barriers have made it so that studying what she calls “real world cannabis” is virtually impossible.

There’s only one source of cannabis for clinical research in the United States. It comes from a farm run by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and not only do researchers have to complete massive amounts of paperwork to obtain it, but it’s extremely low in THC content – an average THC potency of five or six percent, to be precise.

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The CannaVan team gets around federal restrictions by driving to the homes of research participants. // Photo CU Change Lab

In other words, it’s a far cry from the kinds of cannabis products that fill the shelves of legal dispensaries in Colorado, which average a THC potency of 16.5 percent. These are products whose effects on the human brain and body are not being adequately studied, says Bidwell, because the law prohibits researchers from administering anything other than government-sanctioned cannabis to patients in traditional lab settings.

As the CU Change Lab currently receives over $300 million a year in federal grants and they couldn’t risk flouting federal law, an untraditional lab setting was their only option. So, they consulted with their legal team and institutional review board and conceived the idea for the CannaVan.

“Our main goal is to collect much-needed public health data in the realm of the impact of cannabis. I say ‘much-needed’ because the barriers to cannabis research have been so great that there’s very limited data both on the side of harm reduction... and potential therapeutic effects,” Bidwell tells Civilized.

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Dr. Cinnamon Bidwell leads the CannaVan research team. // Photo CU Change Lab

Here’s how it works: the CannaVan drives to the homes of research participants, who have been assigned a certain cannabis product and tasked with purchasing it on their own. Participants enter the van sober and run through a series of tests. They then go back into their homes, consume the cannabis product, and return to the van for further testing.

This way, everything is above board, as researchers aren’t administering or even touching the cannabis products they’re studying.

Bidwell says the team is trying to answer a number of questions about the effects of high-potency cannabis products, including: “how impaired are people getting with high-potency concentrates? Are they getting more impaired than they do with typical flower? How long are people impaired so they can’t drive or go to work? If you increase the ratio of cannabidiol to THC, does it mitigate the impairing effects of THC?”

Response to the CannaVan project has been overwhelmingly positive so far, says Bidwell. She credits this to the fact that “people out there realize there isn’t a lot of information and they want to contribute to the science.”

“Observational studies like ours can provide... very strong data without a gold standard clinical trial that is still informative, especially in a space now where there is really no information,” she says. “Some people are okay with the hearsay and the anecdotes, but I think for the most part people want to make decisions based on evidence and it’s pretty clear there isn’t a strong base to rely on.”