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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Psychology department hires cannabis expert

By Ian Haupt

Western’s psychology department has hired one of the 100 most influential people in the cannabis field.

Joshua Kaplan, who has a doctorate in behavioral neuroscience, was included in High Times magazine’s list for his freelance writing.

As a new assistant professor to the Behavioral Neuroscience Program, Kaplan said the goal of his research is to improve the medicinal benefits of cannabis, while further understanding its effect on brain development and reducing its side effects.

Kaplan said he can use his expertise in cellular electrophysiology, a process which allows for the recording of communication patterns within the brain, along with his animal behavior background to study the brain responses of rodents exposed to cannabidiol, CBD. CBD is a non-intoxicating chemical found in the cannabis plant, which targets over 65 known areas in the brain and body, making it a powerful therapeutic tool, he said. 

Dr. Josh Kaplan poses next to a microscope. He is wearing a white shirt and blue pants.
Joshua Kaplan, associate professor of behavioral neuroscience at Western Washington University. // Photo by Matthew Tangeman

According to Program Director Kelly Jantzen, Kaplan’s expertise in cannabis was not the reason he got the position. He said it is not unusual for neuroscientists to study drugs in the lab; for example, cocaine is widely used by researchers to study addiction.

Away from the lab, Kaplan teaches Psychology 220, Behavioral Neuroscience, now halfway through his first quarter at Western. He described the course as an introduction to the inner-workings of the brain and all the interesting things about it.

Kaplan got his freelance writing start with High Times when they were looking for a writer with a background in science. Kaplan said his articles began to attract a large audience, which led him to other writing opportunities with similar outlets like Leafly, the self-proclaimed “largest cannabis website in the world,” out of Seattle.

Despite his involvement in the cannabis field, Kaplan said he doesn’t use cannabis products therapeutically or recreationally.

“I feel like a fraud when I say this,” he said. “But I personally do not [smoke marijuana]. That’s not to say that I’m against it.”

While not a smoker himself, Kaplan is in favor of the legalization of cannabis, especially for medicinal purposes, but he said he never expected his career to take the path it has.

“I wish I could say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been interested in this my whole life,’ but it’s funny the path you take in your career,” Kaplan said. “I went to grad school thinking I was going to study traumatic brain injury.”

Kaplan said he found his interest in the cannabis field while he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Washington, where he began with a focus on autism spectrum disorder. He studied rodent models of autism to better identify the mechanisms by which the brain motivates humans to seek social interaction and process social behavior.

At the time, William Catterall’s lab at UW was starting to study CBD as a treatment for epilepsy. Kaplan jumped on that project, in part to see CBD’s effects on autism, he said.

While working at UW, Kaplan said he and his team found CBD to be effective in treating both disorders, and they identified the mechanism by which it worked in the brain, he said.

The machine sits on a cart, a hand touching it. The machine has many knobs and several wires coming out of it.
A key instrument used by Kaplan to listen to electrical signals in the brain while researching cannabis’ effects on brain signals and brain development. // Photo by Matthew Tangeman

While at Western, Kaplan said he has a number of different experimental directions he wants to take the study. One path to study is the effect of CBD on the developing, or child and adolescent brain. The drug seems to be safe and well-tolerated by adults, but researchers are unsure of the consequences it may have on brain development, he said.

Another point of research is to discover if the use of a combination of cannabinoids, diverse chemical compounds in the hemp and cannabis plants that possess psychoactive properties, including CBD, has more therapeutic benefits. Kaplan said this is an idea known as “The Entourage Effect,” where the therapeutic aspects of the plants are improved. His goal is to empirically test whether this is the truth and to find the optimal combination, he said.

Kaplan said he wants to answer the question, if CBD can relieve 40 percent of pain, hypothetically, could the use of multiple chemicals found in the cannabis plant combined with CBD increase relief to 60 or 70 percent?

“That’s what I would love to know,” he said. “Really, crack the cannabis code.”

Currently, Kaplan said he is in the process of getting the necessary licensing from the state of Washington and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, since cannabis is still considered a Schedule I drug. According the DEA’s website, a Schedule I substance has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. Because of its classification, Kaplan said before he can bring in the product to start his lab work, DEA agents must visit the lab to sign off that it has the proper safety mechanisms required by law.

“We have cameras in the hallway, locked doors, just so you can’t come in and steal my CBD,” Kaplan said.

Through his research, Kaplan said he’s also trying to better mimic the consumption methods of users. To do this, his lab will have a tool called a passive inhalation chamber.

“It’s kind of a hot box for mice,” he said.


  1. Dr Kaplan, I would like to get contact info from you, as I would be very interested in utilizing your knowledge regarding mmj. I am an internist who just started a medical marijuana practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, where the cows run free and people need to be educated about medicinal benefits of mmj. Having some good studies to refer to is always helpful. I also want to be involved in patient based clinical research.
    Loraine Glaser-Zakem, MD


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