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The Top 10 Cannabis Stories of 2020

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Dec 17, 2020   
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2020. A new year, a new decade, a clean slate.

After the highs of 2018 – California and Canada opening the world’s first and second largest legal cannabis markets – by comparison, 2019 felt a little more subdued. Despite the US Farm Bill offering a bloom in hemp trade, a national vaping crisis in the US raised alarm.

The new decade was supposed to be an opportunity to build on the groundwork that 2019 laid down, continuing the development of a strong hemp industry, researching the medical effects of cannabis in closer detail, and pushing for even more legislative reform. 

It suffices to say that 2020 has not been that opportune year. To unpack just how the cannabis industry has fared, Analytical Cannabis looks back on the biggest stories of the past 12 months.

10. Cannabis research rises

Conducting research on cannabis remains a tricky endeavor; conflicting regulations have created a confusing web of red tape for researchers to navigate if they want to study the drug.

“It is differentially regulated on both state, local, and federal levels. Because of that, physicians and other researchers who seek to appropriately study this potential medicine are really hamstrung,” Dr Joshua Levy, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Emory University, told Analytical Cannabis in August.

“Even if we do follow the rules that are prescribed by the government and we use the only federally-regulated source for the plant, we’re actually still not studying the exact material that is being sold by state dispensaries and that is being attributed to reported health benefits.”

But while the federal prohibition of cannabis in the US continues to throw up obstacles for researchers, 2020 did see rising levels of financial support for cannabis research projects. In the spring it was announced that researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had been gifted $4.5 million each to support their research into full-spectrum cannabis products. The $9 million total grant money, donated by an alumnus of both institutions, is the largest grant for cannabis research given to date.

According to new analysis, cannabis research has now attracted around $1.56 billion in funding since the year 2000. Most recently, California hit the headlines after awarding nearly $30 million to cannabis research projects at nine public universities across the state.

Carrying out cannabis research is tough, but with growing amounts of financial support and backing from state budgets, perhaps the hurdle of securing funding will be one of the first great barriers to research in this decade.

9. The UK commits to improving its medical cannabis scheme

Two years on from the UK’s legalization of medical cannabis, and access woes still plague the system.

In January, the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis called on the UK government to review its medicinal cannabis policies, after a survey it conducted indicated that there could be as many as 1.4 million Britons currently self-medicating with illicit cannabis to tackle diagnosed medical conditions. In July, medical cannabis campaigners echoed this call in an open letter penned to the home secretary, Priti Patel, highlighting the problems that remain in trying to access legal cannabis medicine via the National Health Service (NHS).

Though a “quick fix” to the system looks unlikely, there have been positive steps forward made for medical cannabis patients in 2020. Changes to import restrictions made by the Home Office and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency now allow for licensed wholesalers to import and hold larger quantities of cannabis medicine, which the government says should improve the long waiting times and access issues, which had affected approved medical cannabis patients.

The most recent notable change to the UK system is a new medical cannabis card initiative, created by medical cannabis campaigners and backed by several police chiefs. Holders of such a Cancard will be easily identifiable as medical cannabis users and will also have access to a free legal helpline.

“The Cancard will provide [holders] with assurance that their ill health will not lead to a criminal record,” Martyn Underhill, the police and crime commissioner for Dorset, said following the announcement of the scheme. “It will also be a valuable tool to help frontline officers, saving them time by providing immediate verification of genuine medical patients and therefore giving them confidence to use their discretion.”

Sapphire Medical Clinics, the first UK medical cannabis clinic to register with the Care Quality Commission (CQC), also announced this year that it would begin offering its patients a new, more affordable range of cannabis products, which should be cheaper than the unregulated illicit cannabis that desperate prospective patients may turn to.

While progress on this front might appear slow, hopes will be pinned on “slow and steady” winning the race for improved accessibility and better support for medical cannabis patients this decade.

8. Hemp gets serious

2018 legalized it, 2019 implemented it, and 2020 tried to standardize it.

Hemp testing is a confusing space; each state or jurisdiction, even down to each individual lab, can have different analysis procedures. This creates a massive problem when, in the eyes of the federal government, anything testing above 0.3 percent THC is considered illicit cannabis. One lab’s procedure might have its employees inadvertently destroying a perfectly legal batch of crops, or an artificially low result might have them selling “hot hemp” to unsuspecting product manufacturers and consumers. To dispel some of this uncertainty, the US federal science agency this year launched a new program to help commercial and forensic labs settle on standard hemp testing techniques.

“The goal is to improve the analytical measurements that are being done in cannabis laboratories and forensic laboratories, to where we're promoting good manufacturing practices and encouraging safe products,” Brent Wilson, a research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and member of its Cannabis Quality Assurance program, told Analytical Cannabis.

And the federal government aren’t the only ones concerned with improving standardization. The Hemp Industries Association (HIA) formed a new “hemp task force” made up of analytical scientists, university researchers, and prominent hemp experts, to catalogue and study every technique currently used to analyze hemp, with a view to creating new guidance.

AOAC International’s Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP) has also been busy through 2020, officially approving a standard method for measuring THC in hemp and creating draft guidance proposals for dealing with fresh hemp sample preparation and mycotoxin and E. coli screening.

More pushes for standardization and general testing guidance are coming thick and fast. Even novel formulations like cannabis-infused chocolate are getting the once over from analytical scientists who want to ensure these products can be accurately analyzed.

7. Ensuring the efficacy of edibles

Among the many calls for methods that were put out by the AOAC’s CASP this year was a request for labs to send in their methodologies for quantifying cannabinoids in chocolate. Around the same time, Cw Analytical Laboratories published its investigation into the chocolate matrix and how it causes interference in cannabinoid testing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

“We found that different types of chocolate inhibited cannabinoid recoveries in different ways,” Dr Robert Martin, CEO of Cw Analytical Laboratories, told Analytical Cannabis.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg with chocolate. Many of the products in the cannabis space are first-time products – gummi bears with cannabinoids, dog food with cannabinoids, lotions, and salves – all these represent different matrix challenges for an analytical chemist.”

Infused beverages are another of these novel consumable products that have come to the fore in 2020. Concerns were raised earlier this year over the method being used to test the shelf life of these products. While it is standard practice for other beverage sectors to use heated ovens to accelerate the aging process and study shelf life, there are fears that this methodology could actually degrade the cannabinoids dispersed inside the infused beverages, leading to unrepresentative results.

In a similar vein, scientists spoke of the difficulties involved in testing these products. Cannabinoids do not dissolve readily in drinks; instead, they form an emulsion with the beverage, similar to how oil and vinegar mix together in a salad dressing without either dissolving into the other. Because of this, producers often use emulsifying agents or special water-soluble cannabinoids to make their beverages. Depending on how the product is prepared, it might have to be tested in a different way. Other variables such as carbonation, the type of container (glass or aluminum can), and the presence of artificial flavorings can all greatly influence the amount of sample preparation needed to properly study a sample.

As the popularity of non-smokable cannabis products continues to grow – especially among younger demographics – the focus for the next several years will be on delivering effective and accurate testing solutions that can handle these new product formulations.

6. Questions over vaping remain

After the EVALI outbreak of 2019, vaping remained on the minds of many in the industry. While researchers continued to look closely at the causes for the outbreak, the scrutiny of illicit market THC products also prompted interest into the effects of vaping cannabis and cannabis oils.

With respect to EVALI, federal researchers found that THC is capable of forming a complex with vitamin E acetate – a diluent thickener used in some illicit vape products that was strongly linked to the outbreak by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While the researchers were careful to not declare this complex as the cause of any injuries, they did say that the discovery warranted further work looking at how vape byproducts might harm the lungs. A second group of researchers from the University of California, Irvine, (UCI) School of Medicine and the Huntington Medical Research Institutes, also found that specific heating elements in vape devices, not vitamin E acetate, could be considered the primary factor in EVALI cases.

On more general vaping, several recent state studies have raised concerns about contamination issues. A Californian lab found nearly 80 percent of vape cartridges sourced from the illicit market were “unfit for consumption,” as over 60 percent of those studied contained dangerous levels of pesticides.

Lead contamination has also become an area of particular focus for vape products in the legal market. In August, two laboratories that were re-testing old disposable cannabis vape cartridges coming out of storage found concerning levels of lead. After closer inspection, they concluded that undisclosed lead from the cartridge hardware was leaching into the vape liquid contained inside.

Additionally, this summer, an investigation of vape cartridges sold by legal dispensaries in Hawaii flagged the sale of a cartridge containing dangerously high levels of lead. But equally concerningly, four of the nine cartridges investigated also contained amounts of ethanol exceeding five-times the legal limit in states that have imposed restrictions on the substance.

Trust in the safety of THC vapes took a bad hit at the start of the EVALI outbreak when initial investigations began to speculate about a possible relation to cannabis vaping. With 2020 bringing yet more concerning news over vape contamination, studying this issue is sure to continue well into 2021 and beyond.

5. Medical cannabis forges ahead, despite skepticism

The efficacy of medical cannabis treatments has always been a somewhat controversial topic. While many existing patients testify to how the drug has improved their quality of life, the scientific literature paints a more mixed picture.

For example, take opioid use. This year, one study found that people who inject opioids like heroin are less likely to accidentally overdose if they are also using cannabis to treat feelings of pain. The study also suggested that those using cannabis for pain relief used illicit opioids less frequently overall. But just months later, another study on cannabis and concurrent opioid use concluded that opioid use was not affected by cannabis at all. In fact, some of the study’s participants used more opioids on days when they also used cannabis. This second study also saw no associations between drug use and self-reported levels of pain.

The only way to fully explain these mixed observations, and many others like them, is more research. And when it comes to research efforts, 2020 has delivered.

In June, the London-based Sapphire Medical Clinic launched a new medical cannabis registry initiative with the intention of collecting real-world evidence on the experiences of medical cannabis patients in the UK. A lack of such UK-specific information was one of the hurdles cited by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Matt Hancock, at the beginning of the year when speaking on the country’s medical cannabis access issues.

The following month, University Health Network, a hospital network in Toronto, Canada, announced the launch of its first medical cannabis clinical trial. Similarly, the Network wants to create a greater real-world knowledge base on the efficacy of medical cannabis, and to explore this a six-month-long trial was launched. Following around 2,000 patients from across Canada, the study will provide the patients with a range of tested cannabis products to assess the effects on chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, and depression.

But maybe the biggest headline medical cannabis news from 2020 is the official commencement of Project Twenty21, Europe’s largest medical cannabis project. Firstly, it is important to note that the project is not a traditional clinical trial, it is a patient registry. But with the aim of recruiting and documenting the treatment journeys of up to 20,000 patients, it will create the largest single body of evidence on medical cannabis treatment and safety ever seen in Europe.

Going into 2020, there was a lot of skepticism and questions over medical cannabis. Coming out of 2020, those questions understandably still remain. But with numerous large-scale endeavors now dedicated to widening this scope of knowledge, this decade must surely have some answers in store.

4. Big shifts in domestic cannabis policy worldwide

How will drug policy reformists look back on 2020? Well, it had its highs and lows. While New Zealand narrowly rejected the legalization of recreational cannabis in November, the US presidential election meant numerous important cannabis votes were still to be contested.

Mississippi and South Dakota both passed ballot measures to legalize and regulate medical cannabis. Four states – South Dakota, Arizona, New Jersey, and Montana – all voted to legalize recreational cannabis use and introduce a regulated retail market to manage the sale of the drug. While it may take several years to see these policies fully implemented, the votes bring the total number of legal medical cannabis states up to 33, and the number of recreational use states to 15 (plus the District of Columbia).

Elsewhere in the world, Lebanon became the first country in the Middle East to legalize cannabis cultivation following a parliamentary vote. The nation’s economic advisers believe that legalizing the cultivation of the drug for export purposes will give the country a much-needed economic boost and create new jobs.

After numerous postponements, Mexico’s Senate also finally approved a bill to legalize cannabis. In 2018, the nation’s supreme court ruled cannabis prohibition to be unconstitutional and gave lawmakers one year to implement a regulated adult-use market. Now, after several extensions being granted by the court, the long-awaited bill has finally been passed.

US Presidential election years always bring an extra flurry of activity with their associated ballot votes. But with 2021’s run-off elections set to decide the balance of power in the Senate, who knows what the next few years might have in store?

3. CBD under scrutiny

2019 was a rather mixed year for CBD. While the hottest new buzzword made a $270 million-dollar sized splash in the American market, concerns were raised about the safety of many of the products available to consumers. Tackling misinformation and furthering research efforts simply had to be the focus of 2020.

In a survey of social media posts on Reddit, researchers found a concerning volume of people using CBD to treat diagnosable health conditions, despite other established and proven-effective medical treatments already being available. From their analysis, the researchers concluded that the general public already view CBD as some kind of panacea, despite this being “potentially detrimental to public health.”

With so many people reaching for commercial CBD products to treat their ailments, at the very least they deserve to know what is actually in them. This is why it is particularly concerning that a product testing study carried out by the FDA found only 45 percent of products they tested to be within 20 percent of the CBD content listed on the label. In a similar study done by a Nevada laboratory, 10 out of 37 randomly sampled products from across the US breached a 10 percent upper-or-lower threshold on the advertised CBD content.

Uncovering (and then cracking down on) inaccurate labeling is just one way that the CBD sector is endeavoring to improve itself. In the UK, the Association for the Cannabinoid Industry (ACI) has recruited 16 CBD companies to a new toxicity trial, which aims to test the tolerability of CBD on the body and uncover possible drug interactions. Meanwhile, in the US, the FDA has drawn up and submitted new draft guidance on CBD enforcement for the industry and submitted it to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where it is currently pending review.

And so the bumpy road towards full regulatory compliance for CBD continues. But with consumer safety on the line, studies and policy actions like these will play an important supporting role for the sector as it matures.

2. A big year for international reform

Last year set up the pins, and 2020 bowled them down. From hemp to CBD to cannabis, the past few months have seen some real blockbuster decisions.

The first big news to break happened in October when the European Parliament voted to increase the allowable THC limit in hemp to 0.3 percent. The move would lift the THC limit to be in line with other major layers in the hemp industry, such as the United States and Canada. Supporters of the change also believe that it would herald a surge of hemp research and development in Europe. So, is that it over now? Not quite. The change still needs to be sanctioned by the European Commission and Council to become law. But the initial approval by the parliament is a very positive sign.

The second big move to come out of Europe is the ruling from the European Union Court of Justice – the EU’s highest court –deciding that CBD cannot be considered a narcotic. Stemming from a review of a French ban on hemp-derived CBD, the Court of Justice also ruled that the principle of free movement of goods within the union must still apply to legally produced CBD products.

And last, but certainly not least, a United Nations commission voted to reschedule cannabis. By a margin of 27-25, the UN’s Commission on Narcotics and Drugs (CND) approved a recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) to remove cannabis from the strictest category of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

“The move is mostly symbolic, but what a symbol!” Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, an independent drug policy researcher who closely monitored the vote, told Analytical Cannabis.

“More than anything, it normalizes and will impulse the normalization of the place of cannabis in medical care globally.”

As the UN’s rulemaking on drug classification underpins the reasoning of a large number of national drug laws, this rescheduling of cannabis by the CND has the potential to create a massive ripple effect on cannabis policies around the globe.

1. The coronavirus pandemic

There was really only one story that could knock the UN rescheduling cannabis off the top spot.

It is hard to think of a single industry that has escaped the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and cannabis has been no different. Testing labs in Canada were asked to help out with coronavirus testing and cannabis businesses across North America were forced to close or severely limit their operations under local shutdown restrictions.

“I have no doubt that the damage done to the broader economy by the Covid crisis will have a dramatic impact on the nascent cannabis industry,” Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Toronto, told Analytical Cannabis. “We will no doubt see a number of bankruptcies in the coming months and perhaps some mergers. It will certainly be a tough time for many – not only the growers and distributors, but also for the ancillary businesses.”

Within the first few weeks of coronavirus disruption, concerns were raised about shutdowns possibly giving a boost to illicit cannabis markets and the circulation of misinformation on CBD and the symptoms of Covid-19. The need to introduce coronavirus relief measures in the state budget put cannabis legalization on the backburner in New York. And in France, the start of a major medical cannabis pilot study had to be delayed as health department resources were redirected toward tackling the pandemic.

Research into how THC might attenuate acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) took on new significance in light of the coronavirus pandemic, as the respiratory disease spiked the number of ARDS cases in hospitals around the world. On the flipside, one prominent cannabis and coronavirus study came under fire for flawed study design, a problem that was only exacerbated by sensationalized news reports on the findings.

Now, as 2020 draws to a close, places like New Zealand and Taiwan have effectively reigned in community spread of the virus with the help of mass screening and strict isolation. But elsewhere, in the United States and across much of Europe, a second wave continues to make its presence felt. Though the development of multiple vaccines is a promising ray of hope for public health, the immediate future progression of the virus is still unpredictable. Likewise, the state of cannabis-related research, political decision making, and grassroots organization remain equally uncertain as we inch into 2021.

Alexander Beadle

Science Writer

Alexander Beadle has been working as a freelance science writer since 2017 and has covered the cannabis industry for Analytical Cannabis since 2018. He has also written for our sister publication, Technology Networks, and the cannabis industry consultant firm Prohibition Partners, among others. Alexander holds a Master's in Materials Chemistry from the University of St. Andrews, where he won a Chemistry Purdie scholarship, and conducted research into zeolite crystal growth mechanisms and the action of single-molecule transistors.


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