About John: Dr. John Williamson is the Strategic Development Advisor at the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University, Pueblo. With his Ph.D. in Medicinal and Pharmaceutical Chemistry and his decades of research experience, Williamson provides a unique perspective regarding the current state of cannabis research and the future of the industry. In Rudly Raphael's interview with Dr. Williamson, we learn the ins and outs of cannabis research and how new endeavors in education are helping eliminate stigmas and promote market growth...no pun intended.

What has caused the growing awareness of marijuana?

Dr. John Williamson:

More recently, I think it was the potential medical uses, most of which were only anecdotal, to begin with. Nevertheless, when it became apparent that CBD eased Charlotte Figi’s seizures from Dravet syndrome, people began to be advocates for Charlotte and her family’s dilemma. They were also appalled at the legalization issues preventing the use of the natural product for this child. I think this led to the wave of implementation of new regulations, allowing for the use of medical marijuana across the country, in opposition to the Federal Government. With the legalization of industrial hemp in 2018, though medical uses of the cannabinoids remained illegal, the DEA stopped enforcing the law. This has led to the widespread use of CBD for a plethora of maladies.

What is the estimated market for marijuana right now?

Dr. John Williamson:

It has been reported to be in the billions and poised to soar beyond $50 billion in the next ten years. It is a huge market. Interestingly, I hear from the food industry about the introduction of CBD into foods. They are getting ready to infuse marijuana into everyday food products as marijuana legalization increases.

Despite its growing popularity, do you think the majority of the population has misconceptions about marijuana?

Dr. John Williamson:

Yes, definitely. Probably the biggest misconception is that marijuana is a natural product and must be safe. While there have been no deaths attributed directly to marijuana, to my knowledge, there have been very few studies looking at secondary health problems. One must remember that some of the most toxic compounds known to man are natural products.

What are some difficulties cannabis researchers face?

Dr. John Williamson:

The biggest hurdle is getting the material legally. When I worked at the NIH, I received many calls from Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, from people who wanted to apply for grant funding. They wanted to use marijuana grown or obtained legally per their State. Well, we could not fund such proposals even if they scored well in peer review. Even though marijuana is legal in a particular state, it is still illegal from the view of the Federal Government. All I could do is tell them that they could only receive funding to do behavioral studies, where subjects are not provided marijuana by the researcher. Of course, for the most part, this was not the kind of research they were interested in doing.

A researcher wants to be able to do a study where they can make their preparations. This allows them to know what they are giving their subjects, and everybody is getting the same formulation. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. To date, the only source of research on marijuana comes from the University of Mississippi's NIDA sanctioned marijuana growing facility. To do this, a researcher must spend a great deal of time gaining the appropriate DEA licenses! It is somewhat ridiculous, but it is the law.

What kind of research is ICR conducting?

Dr. John Williamson:

The institute is interested in many areas of cannabis research. One of these areas is extraction and testing to look at the components in the various hemp products. For example, if you buy a CBD product, the advertised concentrations likely vary and maybe have no CBD at all. There are simply no specific laws currently regulating and enforcing the sales of such products. One reason is that the cannabinoids are still officially illegal in the eyes of the federal government. The other is that crude extracts of natural products have so many minor components; one can never really show that they are the same batch-to-batch. Even if you could, the procedures would be costly, so buyer beware. Even if the government legalizes cannabis, the FDA would be hard-pressed to approve a crude natural product extract for medical use. One of the positive things about testing facilities is that they can provide legitimacy for companies that want to advertise a quality product. Although they cannot say the extracts are precisely the same from batch to batch, they can say that their product contains x amount of CBD with certainty.

It seems as though many celebrities and wealthy people are investing in cannabis. Where are those people typically investing in?

Dr. John Williamson:

I think, for the most part, celebrities are advocates for more clinical studies of cannabis, while the business crowd is looking at that projection of increased sales over the next decade. There is also quite a bit of new investment in hemp agriculture and processing.

Are universities offering courses on marijuana?

Dr. John Williamson:

One would think that such courses would be most appropriate for Pharmacy schools where we train drug experts. Since marijuana is not an approved drug, most education focuses on the material as a drug of abuse. Still, for the most part, pharmacists are probably the most educated of those professionals on the front lines who can answer questions from the general public. There is one CBD approved product, Epidiolex, and pharmacists are certainly very knowledgeable about this product. Some professional schools, like the pharmacy school in Colorado, are offering courses to students as track programs as well as 'keep-up' courses to practicing nurses and physicians.Unfortunately, too many physicians and other medical professionals are likely insufficiently trained to make recommendations on using natural products beyond FDA approved ones.

At CSU-Pueblo, this is our first year offering a Bachelor's degree in the cannabis sciences. In the first couple of years, a participant will take all of the same courses required in a pre-med, pre-dental, or pre-pharmacy major. The latter part of the curriculum calls for attention to research in the biological and chemical areas related to cannabis. What can you do with such a degree? Well, you could open a cannabis dispensary, I suppose. My goal is that these kids will go to Ph.D. programs, medical school, and professional programs with a strong background in natural products research.

What is your hope for the Institute of Cannabis Research?

Dr. John Williamson:

I'd love to see the Institute at Pueblo act as the hub for cannabis research, just like the center of a bicycle wheel with the spokes reaching out to cannabis researchers beginning in Colorado, then the USA, and even internationally. A system where everyone collaborates and is aware of everyone's work, collaboration rather than competition.

How are you adjusting to COVID?

Dr. John Williamson:

As for my job, I have not had to make many adjustments, but those I have made have been very positive. For example, the Zoom meetings seem to be much more organized than in-person meetings and generally stay within scheduled times. People seem more open to using Zoom. The meetings and conferences are more comfortable to schedule and get more people to come to attend. I am enjoying working from home. I have learned how to do it very effectively. As far as others on campus, I think they have been adapting reasonably well, but there is lots of stress.

I understand you're a big motorcycle guy?

Dr. John Williamson:

I love to ride on my motorcycle. I have ridden to all of the lower continental 48 states, mostly with Mississippi being the starting point. A couple of years ago, I made a 7000-mile trip to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Beartooth, Glacier National Park, Mount Rainer, Mount Saint Helens, the Oregon Coast, Crater Lake, Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Mesa Verde, and quite a few other national parks. I also went up and down Pikes Peak and Mount Evans, both of which were gnarly. The trips I have planned for the future are a dedicated trip up the entire Pacific Coast Highway and one to the Cascades loop.

What is the key to your success?

Dr. John Williamson:

I have been so blessed to have many mentors and colleagues who are the reason for any successes. I did the things I wanted to do, and I luckily found a niche. I think that my enjoyment of the grants process, in general, has led to where I am. Since I was a biomedical researcher, I focused my efforts on NIH solicitations and competitions. To gain insights as a researcher, then as a program officer, and as a branch chief was a great deal of fun. One thing that I never really enjoyed was personnel management. I have never felt I could be a good judge of someone else's productivity. I enjoy working with people who like to learn and have interesting new ideas to challenge my thinking.

What is your biggest pet peeve?

Dr. John Williamson:

People who think and act like they are better than anyone else! I do not particularly appreciate it when instructors are that way with students. I got much more from those instructors who saw potential in all of their students. Of course, I do not care for people who drive slowly in the far left lanes.

That’s a wrap on our interview with John. The takeaways? The cannabis industry is just getting started. With breakthroughs in cannabis research and an increase in state legalization, the industry’s best days are ahead.

If you enjoyed this interview and want to know more, please share this article on social media. We love to hear from you! Come back next week for Executive Insights' new segment with Catherine Blake, President/Founder of Sales Protocol, and the Institute for Executive Women.

Interviewee Fun Facts

Favorite Type of Music?: Classic Rock. I guess more folk, I idolized Bob Dylan growing up.

Hot, Spicy, or Mild Food?: I used to love it as spicy as it could get, but I had a motorcycle wreck a few years ago. I bumped my head, and my taste changed, so I have to say mild. I love spicy foods, but it’ll make me sick.

Do You Play an Instrument?: I play the radio.

John lives life on his terms, following his intuition and curiosity wherever it takes him. As an avid motorcyclist, John has ridden his Harley across the country, stopping at national parks on the way. Moving to the South at a young age, John became dissatisfied with the school system, taking matters into his own hands to further his education without a high school diploma or equivalent. Since then, John has gone on to receive a Doctorate Degree from the University of Iowa, become a Post-Doctoral research fellow at Yale University, and become a published researcher.