A unique center at Colorado State University – Pueblo is conducting groundbreaking research into the benefits and risks of cannabis that is being translated into innovative applications.

Since its creation in June 2016, the Institute for Cannabis Research has funded a variety of research projects and completed the first-ever socio-economic impact study of the effects of legalized marijuana on a U.S. community. That study, released March 12, is packed with information about Pueblo’s economy.

It has also launched an annual multidisciplinary conference that draws an international faculty and audience, and soon will begin publishing the nation’s first peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to cannabis research.

The institute, established through an innovative partnership among CSU-Pueblo, Pueblo County and the state of Colorado, is the first multidisciplinary cannabis research center at a regional, comprehensive institution. Other universities are conducting cannabis-related research, but no other institution has such a broad scope of research.

“The sheer number of faculty involved is unique,” said ICR Director Dr. Rick Kreminski.

The institute’s steering committee consists of a dozen faculty and staff members drawn from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; Hasan School of Business; College of Education, Engineering and Professional Studies; College of Science and Mathematics; and Library Services.

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The institute’s projects include research on the effects of medical and adult-use, or recreational, marijuana on individuals and impacts on the community. Other studies involve the nonpsychoactive components of cannabis and cultivation and uses of industrial hemp.

Studies currently underway range from the effects of medical cannabis on seizures in adults with uncontrolled epilepsy to use of industrial hemp fibers as reinforcing agents in 3D printing composites.

“We’re just starting some work with local farmers on hemp as a structural material for furniture and building, beyond 3D printing,” Kreminski said. “We can work legally on hemp, and we have some engineering faculty involved who are looking at it from a microscopic level, such as what we can do to extract compounds more efficiently. We’re undertaking research projects, but we’re not trying to stimulate direct activity.”

The institute is forbidden from administering cannabis to people but can perform observational studies of people who self-medicate. In the seizure study, “patients are wearing wristbands like Fitbits that collect data on heart rate, perspiration and temperature. When they self-medicate, they press a button on the wristband and we can see electrical activity.”

Novel applications stemming from the research, from drug development to industrial hemp, could be of interest to businesses and entrepreneurs, Kreminski said.

After the legalization of marijuana took effect in 2014, the institute began as conversations with “some people in the local community, including elected officials,” Kreminski said. “By the end of 2015, we had assembled a list of potential research projects, and it was clear that interest spanned many disciplines. We had the idea of all things cannabis, including legal and economic issues, and industrial hemp.”

During a March interview on CSU-Pueblo’s radio station, Rev89, Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace said he “encouraged and supported” the program from its inception, adding, “I see huge economic opportunities for Pueblo.”

The commissioners allocated $270,000 from marijuana revenues to fund the institute, including $50,000 for the impact study, and the state Legislature provided $900,000.

Forum explores cannabis

The institute is presenting its second annual conference, Exploring All Things Cannabis: Research in Action, April 26 through 28.

Last year’s inaugural event — the first-ever international conference on the science of cannabis — attracted more than 500 attendees and 75 presentations from researchers in every field of cannabis investigation. This year, Kreminski expects it to be bigger and better, with more than 100 presentations.

Principal speakers include Dr. Audra Stinchcomb, a Pueblo native, whose research at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy focuses on transdermal drug delivery, and Dr. Vincenzo Di Marzo, research director of the Endocannabinoid Research Group at the Institute of Biomolecular Chemistry of the National Research Council in Puzzuoli, Italy.

In the opening plenary session, Stinchcomb will describe her 20 years of research in cannabis-based drug delivery and the journey of a start-up pharmaceutical company. In his keynote speech on Saturday, April 28, Di Marzo will discuss the workings of the endocannabinoid system, the biological system that regulates key aspects of human biology and interacts with the active compounds in cannabis.

The conference also will include panel discussions, presentation of papers on a wide variety of subjects from basic science and medical applications to social and legal issues. There will also be poster presentations, during which conference attendees can have one-on-one discussions with researchers who will be standing beside posters describing their research.

Report measures impacts

The 200-plus page impact report the institute prepared for the Pueblo County Commissioners looked at the social and economic impacts of the cannabis industry in Pueblo. It was presented to the commission March 12.

The researchers found that 183 licenses for cannabis businesses have been issued in Pueblo County; 24 retail marijuana stores are located in the county, with eight more awaiting approval at the time the report was prepared.

Tax revenues generated by those businesses have increased an average of 58 percent per year in the past five years, the report notes. Secondary impacts of the industry include suppliers of material and equipment engaged in production, direct labor and cannabis tourism. All of these contribute to and stimulate the economy.

However, costs associated with governmental oversight, law enforcement, medical care, welfare assistance, and insurance costs also have increased since legalization. Social services, especially those associated with homelessness, had by far the greatest impact in terms of costs.

The researchers acknowledged that deriving the contributing costs related to cannabis is difficult but estimated that legalized marijuana cost the county a total of $23.2 million in 2016.

Total positive contributions to Pueblo’s economy, including multiplier effects, were calculated at $58.8 million. Deducting estimated costs of $23.2 million from that total, the researchers estimated a positive impact of $35.6 million.

Looking at other effects since legalization, the researchers noted positive trends including increased real estate values, growth in health care and social assistance employment and construction compensation, but found it difficult to quantify the impacts of legalization on these trends as opposed to general economic improvement.

The most likely economic impact scenario for the next five years would see increasing competition and a leveling of demand that could result in lower prices, lower tax revenues and lower overall economic impact, while infrastructure costs would remain relatively the same, the report projected.

Future research

Much more research focusing on social and economic impacts of legalized cannabis is under way, Kreminski said.

“One thing we found is that a lot of the data are incomplete,” Kreminski said. “We would like precise data, and sometimes it’s really hard to get it.”

While he views the impact report as a good first step, “we will be hiring a data analyst in the next couple of weeks to find data sets and talk to the community about the kinds of data that will be interesting to collect.”

Pace said the economic impact number “is probably higher than in the report. We’re creating good-paying jobs, often with insurance. Those are new dollars being generated in our community.”

One researcher is already conducting an analysis of the types of jobs being created in the county’s cannabis industry.

The institute also will be working on cutting-edge projects that range from blockchain application in cannabis research to creation of a national patient registry.

“Three years ago, we weren’t in this space at all,” Kreminski said. “Now we’re developing a certain amount of expertise. It’s a fast-moving field, and now we are a genuine participant.”