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Johns Hopkins University Announces Nation’s First-Ever Psychedelics Research Center

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A major U.S. university announced on Wednesday that it will be launching the nation’s first center devoted exclusively to researching psychedelic drugs.

Johns Hopkins University said that it received $17 million in private funding to make the facility possible. A team of six researchers and five postdoctoral scientists will conduct studies on a wide range of potential therapeutic uses of psychedelics like psilocybin, including in treatment of opioid addiction, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The university has already produced cutting-edge research into psychedelics. In 2000, Johns Hopkins researchers were the first in the U.S. to gain federal approval to reinitiate research into the substances in individuals who didn’t have prior experience with psychedelics. The institution has since published 60 peer-reviewed studies on the subject.

“The group’s findings on both the promise and the risks of psilocybin helped create a path forward for its potential medical approval and reclassification from a Schedule I drug, the most restrictive federal government category, to a more appropriate level,” the university said in a press release. “Psilocybin was classified as Schedule I during the Nixon administration, but research over the last decade has shown psilocybin to have low toxicity and abuse potential.”

Roland Griffiths, the center’s director said the its establishment “reflects a new era of research in therapeutics and the mind through studying this unique and remarkable class of pharmacological compounds.”

“In addition to studies on new therapeutics, we plan to investigate creativity and well-being in healthy volunteers that we hope will open up new ways to support human thriving,” he said.

He also said in response to a question from Marijuana Moment that the center is “both completely new and more of the same,” referring to the university’s existing research into psychedelics.

James Potash, director of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said he is “thrilled about this magnificent opportunity that has been provided by enlightened private funders.”

“This center will allow our enormously talented faculty to focus extensively on psychedelic research, where their passions lie and where promising new horizons beckon,” he said.

Tim Ferriss, a tech investor who said his more than $2 million contribution to the psychedelics center was the largest investment he’s ever made in a single project, appeared at a press event and discussed how his personal experience witnessing people suffer from mental illnesses motivated him to donate.

“This represents the largest investment to date in psychedelic research, as well as in training the next generation of psychedelic researchers,” Ferriss said. “I sincerely hope this ambitious Johns Hopkins center will inspire others to think big and establish more psychedelic research centers in the U.S. and overseas, as there’s never been a better time to support such important work.”

Ferriss also took a question via Twitter from Marijuana Moment and said that he hopes that “by facilitating this” center, it “paves the way for federal funding [of psychedelics research] within the next five years.”

He added that the center’s innovations could spark further investments in psychedelics research from “brand name foundations” and that the facility will demonstrate to investors that there’s “more reputational opportunity than risk involved.”

Federal reclassification of the substances “is something that I hope for, but it’s not something I can aim for very accurately for myself,” he said, adding that the center “could mark the beginning of an important, exciting and new chapter in psychedelics research.”

WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg and TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie also made investments in the center.

“This very substantial level of funding should enable a quantum leap in psychedelic-focused research,” Potash said. “It will accelerate the process of sorting out what works and what doesn’t.”

“Ultimately [the Food and Drug Administration] needs to sift through that data,” the center’s director added, referring to the results of psychedelics research. “I would guess five plus years before approval for a depression indication, but it might become available sooner if some provisions are opened up for compassionate care.”

The announcement is especially timely given the rapid expansion of psychedelics reform efforts in recent months. Denver became the first city in the U.S. to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms in May, and Oakland’s City Council approved a psilocybin decriminalization measure in June.

Organizers with the groups Decriminalize Nature and the Society for Psychedelic Outreach, Reform and Education say that they are coordinating with activists all across the country to get decriminalization passed, including one effort to enact the policy statewide in California.

In Oregon, an advocacy group will be collecting signatures to legalize psilocybin for medical use, but that measure has faced criticism from reform groups because after a revision, it no longer includes broad decriminalization provisions.

Interest in lifting barriers to research into psychedelics is widespread and reached the congressional level earlier this year when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced an amendment to encourage such research. That measure was defeated on the House floor, however.

This story has been updated to add context about psychedelics policy reform efforts.

Oregon Psychedelics Activists Clash Over Changes To Psilocybin Mushroom Ballot Measure

Photo elements courtesy of carlosemmaskype and Apollo.

Marijuana Moment is made possible with support from readers. If you rely on our cannabis advocacy journalism to stay informed, please consider a monthly Patreon pledge.

Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Los Angeles-based associate editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

Politics

Canada Will Let Terminally Ill Patients Use Psychedelic Mushrooms For End-Of-Life Care

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Four cancer patients in end-of-life care will be become the first people in decades to legally possess and consume psilocybin mushrooms in Canada after a landmark decision Tuesday by the country’s minister of health.

The patients petitioned Health Minister Patty Hajdu back in April for exemptions from the country’s laws against psilocybin in order to use psychedelic mushrooms as part of psychotherapy treatment. On Tuesday afternoon, Hajdu officially granted the patients’ request, the nonprofit TheraPsil, which assisted with the application, announced.

The approvals mark the first publicly-known individuals to receive a legal exemption from the Canadian Drugs and Substances Act to access psychedelic therapy, Therapsil said, and the first medical patients to legally use psilocybin since the compound became illegal in Canada in 1974.

“This is the positive result that is possible when good people show genuine compassion. I’m so grateful that I can move forward with the next step of healing,” one of the patients, Thomas Hartle, said in a statement Tuesday.

The applicants, as well as various advocates for psychedelic therapy, had personally appealed to Hajdu via a concerted social media campaign during the months their applications were pending.

“Health Canada is committed to carefully and thoroughly reviewing each request for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all relevant considerations, including evidence of potential benefits and risks or harms to the health and safety of Canadians,” a government spokesperson told Marijuana Moment in an email. “These exemptions do not change the fact that the sale and possession of magic mushrooms remain illegal in Canada.”

In statements issued Tuesday, other patients thanked Hajdu and said they were optimistic that more patients will one day have safe, legal access to psilocybin for therapeutic use.

“I want to thank the Health Minister and Health Canada for approving my request for psilocybin use. The acknowledgement of the pain and anxiety that I have been suffering with means a lot to me, and I am feeling quite emotional today as a result,” said Laurie Brooks, an applicant from British Columbia. “I hope this is just the beginning and that soon all Canadians will be able to access psilocybin, for therapeutic use, to help with the pain they are experiencing, without having to petition the government for months to gain permission.”

TheraPsil said on Tuesday that it expects more people to petition the government for exemptions following the first four patients’ approval. A separate request by the nonprofit to allow therapists to use psychedelics themselves in preparation for treating patients with psilocybin was not addressed in Tuesday’s announcement, the group said.

The government, in its statement to Marijuana Moment, said that the use of “magic mushrooms also comes with risks, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, flashbacks and bad trips that may lead to risk-taking behaviour, traumatic injuries and even death.”

All of the four patients who received the new exemptions have been diagnosed with untreatable cancer. Therapists who use psychedelics in their practices say that psilocybin-aided therapy sessions can help patients deal with issues such as depression and anxiety, allowing them to better accept death as a natural part of existence.

“At this point psilocybin is a reasonable medical choice for these individuals,” TheraPsil’s executive director, Spencer Hawkswell, told Marijuana Moment in an interview last month. “This is about the minister being compassionate and using her ministerial abilities to help give patients access to something that’s going to help them.”

The therapeutic potential of psychedelics has attracted attention in recent years from a growing number of academics, policy makers and even the U.S. government. In September of last year, Johns Hopkins University announced the launch of the nation’s first-ever psychedelic research center, a $17-million project to study whether psychedelics can treat conditions such as opioid use disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In June, the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced a $27 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense to research and develop an entirely new class of psychedelics-inspired drugs. The program, UNC said, “aims to create new medications to effectively and rapidly treat depression, anxiety, and substance abuse without major side effects.”

Meanwhile, activists in the United States have advocated for state- and local-level reforms to research, decriminalize and in some cases even legalize psychedelics.

In May 2019, Denver became the first U.S. city to enact such a reform, with voters approving a measure that effectively decriminalized psilocybin possession. Soon after, officials in Oakland, California, decriminalized possession of all plant- and fungi-based psychedelics. In January of this year, the City Council in Santa Cruz, California, voted to make the enforcement of laws against psychedelics among the city’s lowest enforcement priorities.

Reformers are pushing for similar changes in other jurisdictions. A proposal in Washington, D.C. would allow voters to decide this fall whether to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin, ayahuasca and ibogaine. A decision on whether that initiative will make the ballot is expected later this week. In Oregon, voters in November will consider a measure that would decriminalize all drugs and expand access to treatment. A separate Oregon proposal would legalize psilocybin therapy—the same therapy sought by the Canadian cancer patients.

Lawmakers in Hawaii earlier this year approved a plan to study psilocybin mushrooms’ medical applications with the goal of eventually legalizing access.

This story was updated with comment from Health Canada.

Psychedelic Therapists Petition Government For Permission To Dose Themselves In Order To Better Treat Patients

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia/Mushroom Observer.

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Women Who Use Marijuana More Often Have Better Sex, Study Says

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Among women who enjoy marijuana, there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence that adding a bit of cannabis can bring a thrill to the bedroom, and in states where the drug is legal, marketers have capitalized on that claim. THC-infused lubricants promise increased arousal and better orgasms, and some sexual health advocates have built entire careers on cannabis-enhanced intimacy. But is there anything behind the hype?

While researchers are still trying to tease out the precise relationship between cannabis and sex, a growing body of evidence indicates the connection itself is very real. The latest study, which asked women who use marijuana about their sexual experiences, found that more frequent cannabis use was associated with heightened arousal, stronger orgasms and greater sexual satisfaction in general.

“Our results demonstrate that increasing frequency of cannabis use is associated with improved sexual function and is associated with increased satisfaction, orgasm, and sexual desire,” says the new study, published last week in the journal Sexual Medicine.

“Increased cannabis use was associated with improved sexual desire, arousal, orgasm, and overall satisfaction.”

To reach their conclusions, the team analyzed online survey results from 452 women who responded to an invitation distributed at a chain of cannabis retail stores. Researchers asked respondents about their cannabis use and had each fill out a Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) survey, a questionnaire designed to assess sexual function over the past four weeks. The survey scores six specific domains, including desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain.

“To our knowledge,” the authors wrote, “this study is the first to use a validated questionnaire to assess the association between female sexual function and aspects of cannabis use including frequency, chemovar, and indication.”

Generally speaking, a higher FSFI score is understood to indicate better sexual function, while a lower score indicates sexual dysfunction. Comparing frequency of cannabis use to each participant’s FSFI score, the researchers determined that more frequent consumption was associated with lower rates of sexual dysfunction.

“For each additional step of cannabis use intensity (ie, times per week),” the report says, “the odds of reporting female sexual dysfunction declined by 21%.”

“We found a dose response relationship between increased frequency of cannabis use and reduced odds of female sexual dysfunction.”

Women who used cannabis more frequently had higher FSFI scores in general, indicating better sexual experiences overall. More frequent consumers also had higher specific FSFI subdomain scores—indicating things like greater arousal and better orgasms—although not all of those differences reached the threshold of statistical significance.

Another weak relationship showed that women who used cannabis frequently reported lower levels of pain related to sex.

“When stratified by frequency of use (≥3 times per week vs <3 times per week), those who used more frequently had overall higher FSFI scores and had higher FSFI subdomain scores except for pain,” the study says.

The research doesn’t shed much light on what marijuana products might work best for sexual stimulation, however.

“Our study did not find an association between cannabis chemovar (eg, THC vs CBD dominant), reason for cannabis use, and female sexual function,” the researchers, who included members of the Stanford Medical Center’s urology department and the medical director of the Victory Rejuvenation Center, wrote. “Neither, the method of consumption nor the type of cannabis consumed impacted sexual function.”

Researchers said a number of mechanisms could explain the overall results, noting that prior studies have postulated that the body’s endocannabinoid system is directly involved in female sexual function. It’s also possible, authors wrote, that cannabis could be improving sex by reducing anxiety.

“As many patients use cannabis to reduce anxiety,” the report says, “it is possible that a reduction in anxiety associated with a sexual encounter could improve experiences and lead to improved satisfaction, orgasm, and desire. Similarly, THC can alter the perception of time which may prolong the feelings of sexual pleasure. Finally, CB1, a cannabinoid receptor, has been found in serotonergic neurons that secretes the neurotransmitter serotonin, which plays a role in female sexual function thus activation of CB1 may lead to increased sexual function.”

As the study notes, cannabis’s potentially positive effect on women’s sexual function was first noted in research from the 1970s and ’80s, when women in research interviews who used cannabis reported better sexual experiences, including more intimacy and better orgasms. But subsequent research has yielded mixed results. Some studies have found that women’s orgasms were actually inhibited by cannabis use. Authors of the new report said that past studies used interviews rather than a validated questionnaire to conduct research.

“The mechanism underlying these findings requires clarification,” the authors said of their report, “as does whether acute or chronic use of cannabis has an impact on sexual function. Whether the endocannabinoid system represents a viable target of therapy through cannabis for female sexual dysfunction requires future prospective studies though any therapy has to be balanced with the potential negative consequences of cannabis use.”

Regardless of the mechanics at work between marijuana and sex, emerging evidence is overwhelming that there’s some sort of relationship at play. A nationwide survey conducted by an East Carolina University graduate student last year found that “participants perceived that cannabis use increased their sexual functioning and satisfaction.” Marijuana consumers reported “increased desire, orgasm intensity, and masturbation pleasure.” Numerous online surveys have also reported positive associations between marijuana and sex, and one study even found a connection between the passage of marijuana laws and increased sexual activity.

Yet another study, however, cautions that more marijuana doesn’t necessarily mean better sex. A literature review published last year found that cannabis’s impact on libido may depend on dosage, with lower amounts of THC correlating with the highest levels of arousal and satisfaction. Most studies showed that marijuana has a positive effect on women’s sexual function, the study found, but too much THC can actually backfire.

“Several studies have evaluated the effects of marijuana on libido, and it seems that changes in desire may be dose dependent,” the review’s authors wrote. “Studies support that lower doses improve desire but higher doses either lower desire or do not affect desire at all.”

CBD Is A ‘Promising’ Therapy In Treating Cocaine Misuse, Meta-Study Finds

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Feds Launch Cannabis Testing Program To Help Consumers Know What They’re Buying

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A federal science agency announced on Tuesday that it is launching a cannabis testing program to help ensure that the products people purchase from retailers and dispensaries are accurately labeled.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) said that since hemp was federally legalized under the 2018 Farm Bill, there’s an urgent need for consumers to be adequately informed about cannabis products being sold on the market. To that end, the agency will be spearheading a multi-phase project to encourage best practices in lab testing.

While the immediate focus of the Cannabis Quality Assurance (CannaQAP) program will be on hemp-derived oils like CBD, officials said it’s possible they will expand the program to test marijuana flower, concentrates and edibles—a notable step for a federal agency while the intoxicating version of cannabis remains prohibited.

The program is meant to “help laboratories accurately measure key chemical compounds in marijuana, hemp and other cannabis products including oils, edibles, tinctures and balms,” NIST, which is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said in a press release. “The program aims to increase accuracy in product labeling and help forensic laboratories distinguish between hemp, which is legal in all states, and marijuana, which is not.”

The first part of the CannaQAP effort will involve NIST sending hemp oil samples to participating labs and asking them to “measure the concentration of various compounds and report back.” It added that plant material samples will be sent for testing at a later stage.

NIST said that while most labels note the concentrations of two key cannabis ingredients—THC and CBD—many labs do not have experience conducting these tests, leading to cases of “unreliable” results.

“When you walk into a store or dispensary and see a label that says 10 percent CBD, you want to know that you can trust that number,” NIST research chemist Brent Wilson said.

The institute will send hemp oil samples with identical concentrations of THC, CBD and more than a dozen other cannabinoids to participating labs. “Those labs won’t be told the concentrations of those compounds but will measure them and send their results back to NIST, along with information about the methods they used to do the analysis,” it said.

“After collecting responses, NIST will publish the measurements the labs obtained. That data will be anonymized so that the names of the individual labs are not revealed,” the notice states. “However, the results will show how much variability there is between labs. Also, NIST will publish the correct measurements, so each lab will be able to see how accurate its measurements were and how it performed relative to its peers.”

NIST research chemist Melissa Phillips said that anonymity “means that labs don’t have to worry about how their performance will be viewed.”

“Our goal is to help labs improve, not to call them out,” she said.

Once NIST researchers are able to review the results, they said they will be better positioned to issue recommendations on best practices for cannabis testing. The initial exercise is expected to take six months to a year.

“We hope to see a tightening of the numbers the second time around,” Wilson said.

NIST noted that the CannaQAP program is important as a matter of criminal law given that hemp farmers must comply with a federal mandate that their crops contain no more than 0.3 percent THC.

The Food and Drug Administration recently submitted a report to Congress on the state of the CBD marketplace, and the document outlines studies the agency has performed on the contents and quality of cannabis-derived products that it has tested over the past six years.

The report, which is responsive to a mandate that Congress attached to appropriations legislation last year, shows significant inconsistencies between cannabinoid concentrations that are listed on labels and what the products actually contain. At the same time, it found negligible evidence that dangerous metals and minerals are contaminating these products.

The new federal CannaQAP effort might go beyond legal hemp products.

“NIST is also planning to conduct future exercises with ground hemp and possibly marijuana,” the agency said. “Those exercises will involve measuring a larger number of compounds, including terpenes—the chemicals that give different strains of marijuana their distinct aromas—and compounds that people don’t want in their cannabis such as fungal toxins, pesticides and heavy metals. Future exercises may also include extracts, concentrates, distillates and edibles.”

Finally, NIST said it will be developing a standard hemp reference material, or “a material that comes with known, accurate measurement values” that labs can use to validate their testing methods.

“Labs can accurately measure how much sugar is in your orange juice because they have standardized methods and reference materials for that type of product,” Susan Audino, a chemistry consultant and science adviser the AOAC International, a group that creates standard methods for laboratory analysis. “But cannabis has been a Schedule I drug since the ‘70s.”

Phillips of NIST said the institute’s goal with this program is “to support U.S. industries by helping labs achieve high-quality measurements.”

Labs that would be interested in participating in the CannaQAP program can register on NIST’s website. The deadline to sign up for the first exercise is August 31.

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