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Rescheduling of marijuana will lead to new research at WWU

The Drug Enforcement Administration's decision broadens access to marijuana for scientific studies

A marijuana leaf and an Erlenmeyer flask representing the scientific research surrounding the drug. On May 1, 2024, the Drug Enforcement Administration rescheduled marijuana from a schedule one substance to a schedule three substance. // Drawing by Isabella Doughty

In early May, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced it would move to change marijuana from a schedule one substance to a schedule three substance, a massive shift that will affect research at Western Washington University and beyond. 

Dr. Josh Kaplan, an associate professor in the behavioral neuroscience program at Western, started the Kaplan Lab at Western in 2019. Prior to that, at the University of Washington, he joined a lab studying the underlying neural mechanisms of autism and epilepsy. While there, he tested the effects of CBD on mice, and at that point, his focus shifted.

Kaplan spoke about why he started the lab, and what he felt was important about marijuana research. “I felt like the cannabis plant represented this unique opportunity because the chemicals, CBD being one of them, don't just act on a single mechanism in the body and brain, but have a wide range of targets,” he said. “It represents this outside-the-box opportunity to treat many conditions. That got me really excited to harness the potential of this plant.”

The Kaplan Lab has two main areas of research. The first is in the combination of cannabinoids and terpenes.

“Terpenes are a class of volatile organic compounds,” Kaplan explained. “If you walk down the hall of a dorm room and smell weed, it's not the THC or CBD you're smelling, it's the terpenes.”

The lab’s goal is to find what combination of terpenes and cannabinoids is beneficial for anxiety, social behavior and the negative effects of stress. 

The second main area of research focuses on the developmental impacts of CBD. The lab does pre-clinical tests on rodents to achieve these goals.

Nick Schneider, an undergraduate at Western, is a behavioral neuroscience major who works in the Kaplan Lab.  He described his experience researching marijuana. “It's a really good collaborative environment. It's great to be able to learn from a lot of people and do work that feels like it actually makes a difference,” Schneider said. 

The DEA’s May 1 decision to reschedule marijuana from a schedule one substance to a schedule three substance broadens access to the drug for scientific studies. One way in which the rescheduling will help researchers is through access to funding.

“By the DEA’s definition, if a drug is schedule one, it has no therapeutic effects. Because of this, it can be very difficult to get funding for research,” Kaplan said. He is hopeful the rescheduling will alter funding strategies and increase the dollars going to marijuana research. 

Kaplan also hopes the rescheduling of the drug will help align research with what people are using day to day.

“Currently, one of the limitations is that researchers are largely restricted in what they can study. We can only study one part of the much larger scope of what is currently being used out there,” Kaplan said. “We are often not looking at either the same products that are being used by people, or often not looking at the same potencies that are available in recreational markets.”

The difference in potency between what has been studied and what is recreationally available is vast. 

“If you look at the average cannabis strain from the ‘70s, it was less than 4% THC. Now the average strain has 16% THC,” Kaplan said. He compared this to studying the effects of drinking a beer every night versus drinking a fifth of whiskey every night. 

Susan Ferguson, director of the Addictions, Drug and Alcohol Institute at the University of Washington, explained how the schedule one status of marijuana makes it hard to do preclinical and human research. 

“There are just so many more regulations around schedule one substances. It really dissuades people from wanting to do that research,” she said. “At every level, it's time consuming and onerous to try and get approval for a human study with a schedule one substance.”  

However, with the recent rescheduling announcement, Ferguson is hopeful the landscape will change.

“We’ll have more researchers wanting to do the research, we’ll have more human studies and hopefully we'll be able to start purchasing cannabis from a lot more places,” she said.

With so little research available on the effects of commercially available products, Kaplan has some advice for those who self-medicate.

“When people consume more of the high-potency products, it changes the way the brain functions in ways that lead to dependency,” he said. “People lose the benefits of the drug they were seeking. So, when I talk to people about how much they should use, the advice is ‘go with less.’”

Liam Walsh

Liam Walsh (He/Him) is a city news reporter this quarter for the Front. He is a sophomore majoring in journalism with a news/editorial concentration. In his free time he plays for the Western rugby team. Reach him at

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