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INSIGHTS BLOG > Cannabis Science and Technology Finally Got Hitched!

Cannabis Science and Technology Finally Got Hitched!

Written on 03 October 2019

Ruth Fisher, PhD. by Ruth Fisher, PhD

The Separate Worlds of Science and Technology

Throughout most of human history, science and technology existed within completely separate realms of society. Science, or natural philosophy, fell within the realm of the upper ranks of society. Natural philosophers were “uncommitted to any program of useful knowledge,” developing “abstract speculations about the natural world.”[1] Joel Mokyr calls science the sphere of savants.[2]

In contrast, technology historically fell within the realm of the working classes, those who used their hands to earn a living, so-called fabricants: physicians, engineers, and skilled mechanics. Technology was developed as a tinkering, or learning-by-doing, process, without any understanding of the scientific underpinnings of how things worked.

Historians James McClellan and Harold Dorn describes the worlds of science and technology as being completely separate, with only a small overlap of applied science:

Only in those handful of subject areas where societies required and patronized specialized knowledge – astrology/astronomy, literacy, numeracy, aspects of engineering, and medicine for example – is it at all meaningful to speak of a limited existence of applied science. Otherwise, worlds of technology and learned science remained sociologically and institutionally poles apart. The vast bulk of technology was not applied science and had developed according to sociologically distinct craft traditions.[1]

The Shift to Anticipating a Better Future

Throughout history, society served gods and kings. New information was presented authoritatively and simply accepted by the masses as being true. During this time, society tended to be backward-looking; that is, people looked to the past and the ancients as the ideal, rather than looking to the future as inspiration as a better time, when society would progress.

It was the Scientific Revolution (1543 – 1687) that finally ushered in a change in perspective, from a backward- to a forward-looking society: “At the deepest level, the common denominator was the belief in the possibility and desirability of human progress and perfectability through reason and knowledge.”[2] The fundamental features of the Scientific Revolution were: (i) the social utility of science, that is, that science and knowledge could be used to improved man’s well-being, and (ii) the emergence of the scientific method, where new information was gained through experiments that explained natural phenomena.[1]

The Merging of Science and Technology

The shift in society from authority-based to reason-based information took several hundred years, many movements and revolutions, and the influence of great men such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, and Rene Descartes. It was during this transition that “the building of bridges between the sphere of knowledge and that of production, between savants and fabricants” began to take place.[2] Science and technology were finally wedded. Equally important to the unification of science and technology was the changing nature of society – attitudes, government, and markets. In this new, fertile, social environment, science and technology first began to inform one another. The resulting feedback loops began powering sustainable technological innovation as early as the 2nd Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th century. [2] Since then – in modern society – science and technology have worked together synergistically to propel social growth and development to phenomenal new heights.

Cannabis Science and Technology Were Forcibly Separated

Not long after science and technology were wedded throughout most of the rest of society, however, science and technology were forcibly separated within the cannabis industry.

Cannabis was first listed in the United States Dispensary in 1854, and “at least 100 major articles were published in scientific journals between 1840 and 1900 recommending cannabis as a therapeutic agent for various health conditions.”[3] However, anti-cannabis sentiment started brewing in the US in the early 1900s. Soon thereafter, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 strongly regulated and stigmatized the use of cannabis by doctors and patients. “Medical products derived from cannabis were removed from the US Formulary and physicians could no longer prescribe it.”[8] Cannabis use in medicine quickly plunged: “its decline in medicine was hastened by the development of aspirin, morphine, and then other opium-derived drugs, all of which helped to replace marijuana in the treatment of pain and other medical conditions in Western medicine."[4] With the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, cannabis became an illegal drug under Federal law. Scientific research on cannabis had long since withered for lack of available funding.

US Cannabis Technology Was Stoked

Since the early 1900s, however, despite the increasing social stigma surrounding cannabis use, recreational cannabis continued to gain popularity in pockets of society. Since its original debut in US society, the cannabis being used recreationally had been imported, mostly from Mexico: “home grown” was low quality, “something you only smoked in an emergency.”[5] However, not long after Nixon started his War on Drugs in the late 1960s, the US began working with the Mexican government to stop cannabis imports from Mexico into the US. In addition to cutting off cannabis imports from Mexico, “other eradication programs wiped out crops in other foreign countries that once were America’s leading suppliers.”[6] As supplies of foreign-grown cannabis dried up, US ingenuity kicked in, and domestic growers began in earnest to develop cannabis technology themselves. Ironically, the US government unwittingly fostered the development and flourishing of a domestically-supplied market, by protecting the home-grown market from foreign competition.

A super potent strain of marijuana [sensimilla], born and bred in America, has vaulted this country to world-class status as a marijuana-producing power…

In many ways, the rise of sinsemilla is a prime example of American ingenuity: American growers displaying the horticultural prowess to engineer more productive and potent sinsemilla, and American companies developing an array of high-tech gadgets to make the job easier.

It is also a lesson in economic protectionism, albeit inadvertent. Through seizures and eradication, American anti-drug policy helped cripple foreign marijuana competitors, thus allowing the domestic market to flourish. The relaxed public attitudes that developed after several states decriminalized marijuana also helped fuel the market.[6]

Due to the illegality of the home-grown market, none of the technology being developed by fabricants could be patented: increasingly potent varieties of sinsemilla, elaborate hydroponic growing systems, and special growing lights, just to name a few.

US Cannabis Science Was a Drag

Meanwhile, cannabis science continued to putter along, backed by scantily available funding, stigmatized by society, and completely uninformed by continuing developments in cannabis technology.

The first breakthrough discoveries in cannabis had come in 1964, when Raphael Mechoulam first isolated the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, THC, the substance that makes people high. But it took another 25 years – not until the early 1990s – in the subdued research environment before researchers finally discovered the system in our bodies upon which cannabis acts, the Endocannabinoid System.[4] After this groundbreaking discovery, cannabis research started to accelerate (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

1 mj search

Cannabis Legalization Begins at the State Level

Grassroots support for cannabis had been pushing for the legalization of cannabis ever since it became illegal at the federal level under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. As early as 1973, states began to declassify or decriminalize the use of cannabis at the state level.[7] Grassroots movements finally triggered a major breakthrough: in 1996, California became the first state to legalize cannabis for medical uses, despite the fact that cannabis remained illegal at the federal level. The tide had changed. Over the next decade and a half, between 1996 and 2012, 17 states legalized cannabis for medical use. [7]

Reunited and It Feels So Good

With the discovery of the Endocannabinoid System in the early 1990s, a scientific basis for the workings of cannabis was finally established. This new-found legitimacy kick-started the industry onto the road toward destigmatization and served as the basis for the worlds of cannabis science and technology to finally start to inform one another. During the mid-to-late 2000s, cannabis activity really started to blossom (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2

2 mj patents

Figure 3

3 clinical studies

New breakthroughs are now being reported daily, for example, in cannabis plant genetics; human genetics related to cannabis activity; processing techniques to extract, emulsify, and deliver cannabis more effectively to meet medical and recreational needs of users; and techniques to ensure the safety, integrity, and efficiency of supply chain operations. Projections of cannabis sales revenues are continually revised upwards; more recent estimates predict sales of cannabis to exceed $20 billion by 2022 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

4 MJBizDaily2018

The cannabis industry is simply one of the more recent examples to illustrate the supreme power of science and technology synergism.




[1] James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn (2015, Dec 15). Science and Technology in World History. Johns Hopkins University Press.

[2] Joel Mokyr (2005, April). The Great Synergy: the European Enlightenment as a factor in Modern Economic growth. Retrieved from

[3] Chris Conrad (1997). Hemp for health: The medicinal and nutritional uses of Cannabis sativa. Retrieved from

[4] (2017, Jan 30). History of Marijuana as Medicine — 2900 BC to Present. Retrieved from

[5] Michael Pollan (1995, Feb 19). How Pot Has Grown. New York Times. Retrieved from

[6] Paul Weingarten and James Coates (1990, Apr 1). U.S. Ingenuity Breeds Potent Marijuana Crop. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from

[7] Wikipedia contributors. (2019, Sep 24). Timeline of cannabis laws in the United States. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

[8] Marijuana Law Reform Timeline. NORML. Retrieved from