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The iCannToolkit – connecting the dots in cannabis research

The iCannToolkit is designed to connect the dots between cannabis researchers across the globe. 



Hundreds more studies were published on cannabis in 2022 than in the years previously

While the increasing liberalisation of cannabis policy is making scientific research more accessible than ever, a lack of standardisation of data is limiting the potential of international collaboration. A group of global experts have come together to create a solution. 

Cannabis research is booming right now. As cannabis laws continue to be eased in countries across the globe, the floodgates have opened for scientists to study cannabis after years of battling regulation and red tape.

Now, in countries like the UK, Germany, Australia, US and Canada, it’s no longer the legal status of cannabis that is holding the science back, but data. Specifically, how data is gathered and recorded. 

Currently, there are no standardised ways of gathering evidence in cannabis research. The result is a huge amount of siloed data that can be difficult to bring together. Without standardised units and methods of delivery, the evidence cannot be integrated.

Now, a worldwide collaboration of scientists is coming together to standardise cannabis research and enable better international collaboration. 

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Leading the group of researchers is Associate Professor Valentina Lorenzetti, who runs the Neuroscience of Addiction and Mental Health Program at the Healthy Brain and Research Mind Centre, at the Australian Catholic University. 

Dr Lorenzetti, who has been working in neuroscience and addiction for the past 15 years, co-led the project with Dr Tom Freeman, who leads the Addiction and Mental Health group at the University of Bath.

As part of her work, Dr Lorenzetti has sought to understand the neurobiology of cannabis use for both non-medicinal and medicinal purposes but she soon noticed a flaw in the existing data. 

“I’ve been working alongside a number of different consortia where there is brain imaging data, cognitive data and mental health from thousands of people collected across different countries,” Dr Lorenzetti told Cannabis Health.  

“Doing this kind of work it becomes very obvious that different groups collect things quite differently. Some studies measure pounds or grams of cannabis to measure quantity, while other studies use joints, bongs and other measures you cannot directly compare.”

She continued: “It’s the same for how often people use cannabis. Some studies use how many occasions they have consumed in the past month and other use days.

“You end up having this constellation of studies of which you cannot directly integrate; it’s like pears and apples.”

The iCannToolkit - connecting the dots in cannabis research

Dr Valentina Lorenzetti has been working in neuroscience and addiction for the past 15 years.

The consequence is a huge amount of data on cannabis use across different jurisdictions, markets and countries, but this wealth of knowledge cannot be fully taken advantage of.

Dr Lorenzetti and her team have created the iCannToolkit, a simple tool to connect the dots between cannabis researchers across the globe. 

She enlisted the help of some of the world’s leading cannabis experts from different countries, cultures and disciplines to run a workshop at the international conference Lisbon Addictions, in Lisbon in 2018. 

Among the group of 25 world-class cannabis specialists were representatives from the University of Bath, UCL, King’s College London, The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) and scientists from across South America, Australia and the US. 

Together, the researchers and the 70 people in attendance discussed the best way to scientifically measure cannabis use. The result was a consensus-based paper authored by Lorenzetti and her colleagues that provided a framework – named the iCannToolkit – to measure and record cannabis data. 

Among other measures, the framework includes a standardised THC unit based on the amount of psychoactive cannabis in a product. The unit was developed by Dr Freeman of Bath University and Dr Lorenzetti, and has since been endorsed by NIDA, NIH and other public health agencies. 

“Alcohol researchers created a standard unit, so there is a standardised way of measuring alcohol exposure,” Dr Lorenzetti said.

“Cannabis is so highly prevalent but there’s nothing like that right now in the research.”

Coming from a background in addiction neuroimaging research, Lorenzetti also stressed that it is important that cannabis research separates the minority who are dependent on cannabis from those who are not. 

“Most cannabis research has not measured if people have a dependency or not. Thus, it is unclear if the results relate to people who experience problems with their cannabis use, or to those others who don’t, or to both,” she said. 

“It’s like conducting a study with people who experience severe alcohol dependence and people who have a couple of drinks on the weekend and don’t experience issues with it. These can be completely different groups.” 

The team behind the iCannToolkit are confident that the framework will enable the international community of cannabis researchers to improve the existing science and set the groundwork for future research. 

“If everyone uses this framework, we’re able to combine the findings from all studies globally and integrate the results from many different studies and really improve this science,” she said. 

The iCannToolkit has the potential not only to improve medical research but also to help consumers and patients know what is in their cannabis-based products. 

The ultimate aim, Lorenzetti said, is to help cannabis consumers and people in the community make more informed decisions. 

Lorenzetti added: “When people read a label of a THC-based product, there are some that are in grams, some in percentages. People don’t have a solid understanding of how many units are in there and how intoxicated they’re likely to be with that amount.”

Cannabis is an ever-changing landscape with new methods of consuming it being developed all the time. From gummies and water-soluble products to vaporisers and tinctures. Lorenzetti hopes the iCannToolkit will help track these changes over time. 

“I think that one key thing that this toolkit can do is over time track changes in trends in the licit and illicit markets, medical and non-medical markets,” Lorenzetti said.

“It can be used across settings, whether you’re in psychiatry, in clinical psychology, public health or a member of the public.

“If they want to ask their friend how much they’re using, they can ask three basic questions. One of these questions helps people understand if their cannabis use is a risk. It’s a way to really try and standardise evidence, map trends and raise awareness.”

Like many working in cannabis research, Lorenzetti is concerned that the science is failing to keep up with changing regulations and an ever-expanding global industry. 

“We need to measure things better. We can talk about it all we want but we don’t have the science behind it and that’s an issue because the evidence is not quite there in terms of quality,” she added.

“The goal is to increase our scientific knowledge from a research perspective on cannabis and its consequences so that we have actual objective evidence to improve our understanding about who’s most vulnerable to the adverse consequences of use, which products can be harmful, who are most resilient, who benefits the most and what types of cannabis might be more beneficial.”



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