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WWU cannabis lab explores impacts of CBD on young brains

Despite federal prohibition, CBD shows therapeutic promise in studies with mice

An illustration of a brain, with the letters CBD floating in the middle of it. // Illustration by Rosemary Wheeler.

Western Washington University psychology professor Josh Kaplan and his team of student researchers are exploring the possible impacts and therapeutic benefits of using CBD, also known as cannabidiol, on a still-developing brain.

Using young mice at different developmental stages to mimic human growth – from prenatal development to adolescence – Kaplan said he and his team are looking for key developmental periods of time where using CBD could cause negative long-term effects. He said conversations about cannabis typically focus on two main compounds, CBD and THC. THC is the compound of the cannabis plant that causes a high, while CBD tempers that high and has been shown to have therapeutic effects. 

Kaplan was inspired to start the project after ongoing discussions about known instances of CBD being administered to children as a treatment for conditions like pediatric epilepsy and autism. However, the long-term consequences of CBD on a child’s mind are unknown, as these children have not yet reached adulthood, he said.

So far, Kaplan and his team have identified several unique developmental windows in the mice where excessive exposure to CBD has resulted in lasting behavioral impairment. 

While more studies are needed to fully understand the effects of CBD on a developing brain, Kaplan hopes that future findings can offer insight to parents and medical professionals who are considering giving CBD to children. Especially for severe conditions like pediatric epilepsy.

If CBD can alleviate suffering, parents may decide that it is worth the risk of future impacts to provide relief in the present, he said.

Kaplan has been interested in studying the therapeutic effects of cannabis since arriving at Western in 2018 but has encountered constant roadblocks due to federal standards. In order to study CBD, Kaplan had to get a license from the Washington State Department of Health, followed by a separate license from the Drug Enforcement Administration. This allowed Kaplan to buy a single gram of CBD isolate from a medical supply company for $2000. 

After this experience, Kaplan said he petitioned the Department of Justice for approval to study commercially available hemp-based CBD products instead and was eventually approved.

“It makes it really hard for laboratories that are funded by federal dollars to study the therapeutic effects of a drug that by definition do not have therapeutic benefits,” Kaplan said.

Cannabis and all of its derivatives are classified as Schedule 1 drugs by the DEA. This means that cannabis is defined as not having any currently accepted medical uses and has a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA.

Because Western receives federal funding, the university is required by law to uphold federal standards regarding Schedule 1 substances. Therefore, cannabis use is prohibited on campus. 

Cannabis’ prohibited status also impacts the student population. Even though cannabis has been legal in the state of Washington since 2013, students 21 and older are not allowed to use any cannabis products on campus, including CBD, according to the student code of conduct.

This standard highlights the hypocrisy of federal standards and general attitudes toward drug use in general, said Finn McGuinness, founder of Western’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

SSDP at Western focuses on peer education and harm reduction with drug use, emphasizing empathy toward those who choose to use drugs, McGuinness said. 

“I don’t think [drug use] makes you a worse person, or a lazier person, or a less worthy person,” he said. “I think drug users are just people and it’s a personal choice that everyone has the right to make.”

However, without changes to federal law, Western’s policies toward drug use are unlikely to change, according to Michael Sledge, executive director of the Office of Student Life.

“Since there are federal laws regarding alcohol and drug policies on campus that are tied to our ability to receive federal financial aid, it’s unlikely that we’ll reexamine our policy without a corresponding change in those laws,” Sledge said.



Matthew Phillips

Matthew Phillips (he/him) is a campus news reporter for The Front. He is majoring in psychology and minoring in journalism. When not reporting, Matthew enjoys watching movies, reading, cooking, talking endlessly about his love for cats, and trying to befriend the raccoons on campus. You can reach him at matthewphillips.thefront@gmail.com.


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