Published: Dec. 16, 2016 By

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science (ICS) have been awarded a $839,500 grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) to study the effects of using high-potency cannabis, informally known as “dabbing.”

The three-year project will look at how consumers and public health are affected by high-potency forms of marijuana, which have been widely available since Colorado legalized recreational cannabis use in 2012.

“These concentrates are basically extracted cannabis. The THC levels can be as high as 95 percent,” said Cinnamon Bidwell, an assistant research professor at ICS and the lead investigator of the project. “In the context of a research study, nobody has assessed how intoxicating these are or studied the effects on public health behaviors such as driving.”

Sales of marijuana concentrates, which often resemble resins or oils, have increased dramatically in Colorado in recent years. The state currently defines dabbing as the “inhalation of a dose of marijuana concentrate that is heated on a hot surface and then inhaled through use of a special apparatus.”

Bidwell, along with co-investigators Angela Bryan and Kent Hutchison from CU Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, will study the behaviors of high-potency marijuana users and focus on the underlying cognitive processes such as selective attention, divided attention, working memory and planning.

Cannabis remains illegal federally and federal guidelines prohibit CU Boulder researchers from handling cannabis, providing cannabis to research subjects and/or being present while research subjects use cannabis products. Therefore, the new study will be observational in nature, with researchers only taking data after pre-screened participants self-report that they have consumed marijuana concentrates at an off-campus location.

Working in pairs, the researchers will then use a mobile pharmacology lab to take blood samples and perform a series of cognitive tests on-site while the volunteers are under the influence.

“The volunteers are doing what they would in their normal life and then we are recording data from that,” said Bidwell. “In that way, we are able to study real-world usage patterns.”

The study, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S., will aim to fill a key gap in public knowledge about high-potency marijuana products as well as better inform Colorado policymakers about potential effects on public health and safety.

a cannabis concentrate

A close-up view of a cannabis concentrate. Photo: Andres Rodriguez / Flickr