Where Science, Technology and Cannabis Meet
Written on 19 February 2023
by Ruth Fisher, PhD
- The Evolution of Science and Technology in Society
- Brief History of Cannabis in the US
- Cannabis Science and Technology in the US
The Evolution of Science and Technology in Society
In his books, The Gifts of Athena, Joel Mokyr distinguishes between science and technology (see figure 1). Science is the set of information that characterizes natural phenomena (propositional knowledge). Scientists, then, are learned people (savants) who seek to understand nature. Technology, on the other hand, is the set of know-how, tools, and methods (prescriptive knowledge). Technologists (makers or fabricants) seek to manipulate nature to our advantage.
Figure 1: Science vs. Technology
In today’s world, the interplay between science and technology is so fluid. It seems so natural to combine science and technology and use them to inform one another to achieve our goals. For example, when the coronavirus appeared in society, scientists worked with technologists to determine which measures might best help against the spread of the virus. Scientists who understood the size of covid particles and the way they spread from person-to-person helped technologists determine which types of mesh fabric would be best for making masks, which parts of the face should be covered, and how the masks could best be shaped and secured to the face to serve its purpose.
Yet, for most of human history, science and technology were entirely distinct entities and existed in vastly different realms of society. To better understand how science and technology remained completely separate, let’s take a step back in time and consider the nature of human societies from their inception through the Middle Ages (ending in the 1500s). Ancient societies generally consisted of social hierarchies that were strictly defined by class (see Figure 2).
Figure 2: Class Structure of Ancient Societies
The Upper Class was a tiny group of people, comprised of kings, nobles, and clergy. The king had absolute authority over everyone in society, and his say-so determined what the truth was. People in the upper class considered any type of physical work or production to be a low prestige activity associated with those in the lower classes. The elites generally devoted their time to greater prestige activities, such as philosophy, poetry, history, music, and hunting. And it was the educated elites who practiced science. The attitudes of the time led these scientists to focus their fields of inquiry on abstract matters, that is, areas that had no particular application to daily life.
The Middle Class was also small in size and consisted of professionals, military officers, and wealthy tradesmen. The technologists of the time were generally middle-class, self-taught entrepreneurs, inventors and engineers, supported by highly-skilled craftsmen and mechanics. Technological improvements tended to appear as accumulations of small changes created by anonymous tinkerers that diffused across networks of artisans.
The Lower Class comprised the vast majority of society. These were uneducated farmers and workers, who lived at the mercy of those in the upper class. They had no freedoms and couldn’t challenge what the upper class established as the truth.
Given the nature of these strictly defined social hierarchies, scientists and technologists never interacted with one another – their worlds simply did not touch. As a consequence, there was no feedback between science and technology: Scientists did not inform technologists about how to build better weapons and tools, nor did technologists inform scientists about natural forces. There did exist some areas of applied science used in service to the state, such as irrigation, construction, accounting, and astrology (calendars, navigation). But generally speaking, science and technology were separate realms that did not inform one another (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Science vs. Technology
Aside from understanding the nature of this hierarchy of classes and cultures, it’s also important to understand that in ancient societies, the forces of nature were not understood: People did not know why the sun shone in the sky, why the seasons changed, or why an object thrown into the air quickly dropped back down to the ground. Without an understanding of how the world worked, it didn’t occur to people to try to harness natural forces and use them to their benefit. It wasn’t until Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) established that there were laws of nature governing the way the world worked – there was actually a method to the madness, so to speak – that people could conceive of the idea of manipulating and controlling nature to serve their needs.
This description of the historical nature of social hierarchies and the inherent separation of science and technology then begs the question: If science and technology inhabited separate realms of society for thousands of years, how did they come to merge?
The unification of science and technology was a long process, spanning roughly 300 years, that slowly occurred as society experienced a long series of events (see Figure 4). Each event brought about significant transformations in society – changes in attitudes, beliefs, cultures, markets, and government. The transformations realized during each period paved the way for changes during the next period. By the end of the successive transitions, science and technology had become integrated. This union provided the foundation that enabled the Industrial Revolution to occur, together with its associated development of society.
- During the Scientific Revolution, the basis of truth transitioned away from being established by authority (the king’s say so) to being establish by scientific experiments.
- During the Glorious Revolution, the power of the king was limited (i.e., no longer absolute), and a foundation for a pluralistic society representing more heterogeneous interests was established.
- During the Enlightenment, the educated elite started believing that nature could be adapted to improve our standard of living. That is, acquiring, disseminating, and benefitting from useful knowledge attained new prestige.
Figure 4: Social Upheavals that Paved the Way for the Industrial Revolution
The integration of science and technology created feedback loops, in which science was now able to inform technology and, likewise, technology could now inform science (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: Feedback Loops between Science and Technology
Feedback loops between science and technology enable vast new realms of understanding. More specifically, without the knowledge technology brings, science had previously lacked a basic understanding of the frictionsassociated with reducing abstract ideas to practice. For example, in theory, using a bicycle is a quick and easy way to smoothly ride from one point to another. In reality, when the path upon which the bicycle must travel is not paved, or it’s otherwise covered with rocks and debris, then using a bicycle is no longer the quick and easy means of transportation originally envisioned. At the same time, without the benefits of science, technology had lacked much of the efficacy and efficiency enabled by understanding the fundamentals of natural phenomena. In the bicycle example, without an understanding of the trigonometry behind the drivetrain powering the bicycle, technologists could not design an optimally efficient bicycle.
Furthermore, the feedback that each realm (science and technology) provides the other enables rapid evolution of ideas. For example, consider the development of the germ theory of disease. Ancient Greeks held the notion that disease was spread by “infectious ‘seeds’ in the air,” yet the notion of magnification and the invention of the microscope did not come about until the 16th century. Imagine how quickly the germ theory of disease must have evolved once scientists could benefit from use of the microscope to further their ideas and understandings.
The ability for the integration of science and technology to enable rapid – and sustained – advancement of society also required that enough people have: the requisite knowledge, access to existing information on which to build, and rights to profit from their own creations (see Figure 6). Once established, this new environment paved the way for the Industrial Revolutions, which launched the growth that the modern world has sustained over the past 250 years.
Figure 6: Integration of Science and Technology Enables Sustained Growth
Brief History of Cannabis in the US
Just as science and technology in the West had finally started to become integrated and inform one another, cannabis for medical and recreational uses was introduced into Western society. Yet, just as social and legal barriers had historically relegated general science and technology to different realms of society, social and legal barriers during the 19th and 20th centuries similarly relegated cannabis science and technology to different realms of modern society, until just recently. And just as the integration of general science and technology created feedback loops enabling tremendous amounts of sustained growth in society, the same type of integration in cannabis has just recently started creating feedback loops supporting tremendous advancements in cannabis that will surely continue into the future.
Hemp came to the US with the Puritans in the 1600s. In fact, hemp was so central to life in the colonies that they were “compelled by law” to cultivate it in America, due to the important role it played in providing rope and sails for British sailing vessels.
Up until the mid-1800s, most clothing was made from hemp. Both cotton and hemp were extremely labor intensive to process, but the cotton gin, introduced during the late 18th century, reduced the relative costs of processing cotton. Around the mid-1800s, then, cotton started to overshadow hemp for use in clothing.Nonetheless, hemp oil and fiber continued to be used in the manufacture of other products. During the 1930s, new technology for processing hemp was invented that drastically reduced hemp’s costs, making it once again “available and affordable.” In fact, “According to the February 1938 issue of Popular Mechanics … hemp was then on the verge of becoming ‘the billion-dollar crop.’”
Unfortunately, hemp posed a threat to several large industrialists, namely the DuPont Family, William Randolph Hearst, and Andrew Mellon:
In the early 1900’s DuPont was manufacturing pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that were used extensively in the production of cotton... DuPont also held patents for the processing of oil and coal into plastics... If hemp was to see another big surge in demand it could have surely spelled disaster for the company’s bottom line.
William Randolph Hearst also understood the threat that popularized hemp production could have on his paper industry. His business manufactured paper from tree fiber, and … hemp grew much faster and could be manufactured cheaper than the product he was producing. In order for Hearst’s company to thrive, he knew he must be the main producer of paper in the USA and had to do something to prevent the production of hemp.
…Andrew Melon was the owner of Melon Bank which was the financial backer of both DuPont and Hearst … [As Secretary of the Treasury under President Herbert Hoover, Melon] created the Bureau of Narcotics and chose none other than the husband of his niece, Harry Anslinger, to head the department.” 
Anslinger was instrumental in legislating the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which effectively banned all use of cannabis – for industrial, medical, and recreational uses alike – in the US. While restrictions on producing hemp were relaxed during WWII, they were firmly reimposed once the war was over. Hemp bans remained in place until the end of the 20th century, at which time restrictions began to loosen.
In 1842, WB O'Shaughnessy, “a young professor at the Medical College of Calcutta, who had observed its use in India” was the first person to introduce medical cannabis (Cannabis indica) to the West. O'Shaughnessy was impressed by cannabis’s effectiveness as an analgesic, a muscle-relaxant, and an anticonvulsant.
Cannabis tinctures came to the US by way of England, but they continued to be imported from India, until supplies were interrupted during WWI. In 1913, “the US Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry announced it had succeeded in growing domestic cannabis of equal quality to the Indian,” and “by 1918, some 60,000 pounds were being produced annually” in the US.
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.”By the end of the 19th century, physicians were using cannabis tinctures for:
tetanus, neuralgia, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), convulsions, the pain of rheumatism and childbirth, asthma, postpartum psychosis, gonorrhea, and chronic bronchitis … [a]s a hypnotic (sleep-inducing drug) … to stimulate appetite … to subdue restlessness and anxiety and distract a patient's mind in terminal illness .. [as] a pain reliever … for senile insomnia … [for] various forms of neuralgia, including tic douloureux (a painful facial neurological disorder), and … [for] preventing migraine attacks.
Eventually, however, physicians started replacing cannabis with “hypodermic morphia” and newly developed synthetic drugs, such as aspirin, chloral hydrate, and barbiturates. Relative to the newly available drugs, cannabis was found to be too variable in its potency, erratic and unpredictable in its effects, insoluble in water (opiates could be dissolved and injected for fast relief), and less chemically stable than the alternatives. Yet, these alternatives to cannabis had “striking” disadvantages, including aspirin-induced bleeding and barbiturate-induced coma and death. Consequently, physicians and researchers might very well have found safer and more stable chemical variations on THC to replace the other analgesics. But, cannabis — and associated research — was effectively banned under the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act and “Cannabis was removed from the United States Pharmacopeia and National Formulary in 1941.”
Medicinal cannabis remained illegal until 1978, when the U.S. Government was legally forced to make medical marijuana available to select patients, initially for use in treating glaucoma, and later for treatment of HIV/AIDS. This compassionate use program was shut down in 1991. But soon thereafter in 1996, due in part to being deluged with requests by AIDS patients, California legalized cannabis for medical uses. Over the next two and a half decades, 32 more states, together with the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands have followed California’s lead in legalizing cannabis for medical use.
Chinese and Middle Eastern immigrants to the East Coast brought hashish to the US during the late 1800s. Cannabis use in hashish houses is not discussed much in the literature. Instead, most sources pinpoint early cannabis use for recreational purposes as having been introduced into the US by Mexicans and Jamaicans: immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) spread cannabis (Cannabis sativa) use for recreational purposes throughout the local (Latino) populations, whereas Jamaicans immigrating into New Orleans introduced jazz musicians and artists to creational cannabis, from where its use spread northward to Chicago.
During the first half of the 20th century, recreational cannabis was generally concentrated within the Latino and Black communities. Despite the banning of cannabis under the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, cannabis continued to be used recreationally in underground communities. Recreational cannabis use became more mainstream during the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, as young, white Americans embraced it.
During the 1970s, pro-cannabis advocates convinced states that cannabis was less harmful than many had claimed, leading state governments to decriminalize it. The subsequent decriminalization at the state level led to more widespread – and more overt – use of cannabis. But the proliferation of drug culture frightened parents, whose renewed lobbying against its use resulted in recriminalization of cannabis at the state level during the early 1980s. At the Federal level, President Richard Nixon declared a War on Drugs in 1971, which Ronald Reagan reinitiated during the 1980s.
The AIDS epidemic and Gulf War ushered in the 1990s and shifted America’s focus away from recreational cannabis and toward medical cannabis and also to problems in the Middle East.  Medicinal uses of cannabis started to gain a toehold with California’s 1996 Compassionate Use Act, which legalized cannabis for medical use. More recently, over the past two decades, cannabis has slowly become more accepted for medical uses and, to some extent, for recreational uses.
Cannabis Science and Technology in the US
Cannabis Science vs. Technology
Based on Joel Mokyr’s distinctions between science and technology, I propose the following distinctions between cannabis science and technology.
Cannabis science includes information and know-how about how cannabis works in the body to generate effects for users. With this characterization, cannabis science includes, for example:
- Information about the nature of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and how it affects the body. This includes information about cannabinoids (endo-, phyto-, and synthetic), cannabinoid receptors, and enzymes that synthesize and metabolize cannabinoids.
- Information about the nature of the endocannabinoidome and how it affects the body. This includes information about all the neurotransmitters, receptors, and pathways that interact with the ECS.
- Factors affecting functioning of the ECS, including human genetics, lifestyle, and the environment.
- Factors affecting the impact of cannabis on the ECS, including combinations of cannabinoids, bioavailability, consistency of products, form of use, and dosing.
- Information about which cannabis or cannabinoid products address specific health and wellness symptoms and conditions.
Cannabis technology includes tools and techniques for manipulating any of the factors that affect the impact of cannabis or cannabinoids on users, so as to achieve specific effects. With this characterization, cannabis science includes, for example:
- Cultivation tools and techniques to enhance or engineer plant viability, yield, or profile of constituent compounds.
- Processing tools and techniques to enhance or engineer the preservation, extraction, formulation, bioavailability, consistency, or dosing of cannabis products.
- Selection and consumption tools and techniques to enhance the experience users generate from cannabis products, including delivery mechanisms, tracking tools, and rating systems.
- Product management tools and techniques to more effectively or efficiently manage the supply of cannabis products, including product testing and detection systems, inventory management systems, seed-to-sale tracking systems, payment, security, and delivery systems; and pricing, sales, and market analysis systems.
From the time of its introduction into US society (mid 19th century) until the early 1990s, cannabis science and technology existed and evolved in distinct realms of society. Cannabis science was conducted in labs and clinical settings by scientists who investigated the types and causes of effects that cannabis induced in the body. Cannabis technologies, on the other hand, were developed by recreational user-growers – most of whom lacked formal training in science – in underground settings.
The discovery of the ECS in the early 1990s served to legitimize the potential for therapeutic applications of cannabis. At the same time, during the 1980s and 1990s society witnessed increasing grass roots support for legalizing medical cannabis use for AIDs patients. These events culminated in the legalization of medical cannabis use in California in 1996. Within a decade, a dozen other states had followed California’s lead in legalizing medical cannabis use. Over the subsequent decade, states early to legalize medical cannabis use also began legalizing recreational use, while other states opened up to legalizing medical cannabis use (see Figure 7).
Figure 7: Legalization of Cannabis Activity by US States
The discovery of the ECS, together with state legalization of medical and recreational cannabis use, enabled underground cannabis activity to finally emerge and participate in the legal community. Since then, scientists from a variety of fields, such as chemistry, genetics, neuroscience, bioscience, and agricultural science have eagerly entered the cannabis industry and use their formal training to inform cannabis science and technology.
The new science and technology environment now contains both an understanding of the basis for cannabis’s effects in the body, as well as a desire to exploit that understanding to improve consumer well-being, that is, to supply the market with new and improved cannabis products. It was this new environment that finally enabled cannabis science and technology to integrate and inform one another. Since then, new scientific and technological advancements have been bursting forth from the cannabis industry.
These three segments in the path of US cannabis science and technology evolution – the introduction of cannabis into the US, the banning of cannabis in the US, and state-level legalization of cannabis in the US –are described below and summarized in Figure 8.
Cannabis Science and Technology: Late 1800s - 1936
Early settlers brought hemp to the US, where it was widely used to make rope, textiles, paper, and fuel oil. Early hemp research involved two basic areas of (technological) development: selective cross-breeding to improve fiber quality and crop yields, and machinery aimed at reducing the costs of extracting fiber from hemp plants. Research on hemp largely disappeared when industrial hemp was banned along with medical and recreational uses in 1937. Hemp activity re-emerged in 1998, with newly allowed imports of food-grade hemp seed and oil, and growth of hemp plants was formally re-introduced in 2007, when two farmers in North Dakota received grow licenses.
Soon after the introduction of medical cannabis into the US during the mid-19th century, physicians began prescribing cannabis to patients for a wide variety of therapeutic applications. Despite the fact that doctors did not understand cannabis’s mechanisms of actions (MOAs), they continued to prescribe cannabis to patients because it worked. Physicians stopped prescribing cannabis after 1937, when legal restrictions made continued use untenable.
Cannabis Science and Technology: 1937 - 1995
Early research on medical cannabis focused on trying to discover which of the many compounds in the plant were responsible for creating effects — particularly its psychoactive effects. Once CBN, CBD, and THC were identified, subsequent research involved extracting, isolating, and synthesizing these compounds.
In 1972, the Shaffer Commission Report found cannabis to be much safer than many had previously thought. In 1974, the US National Institute on Health (NIH) established the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) with a mission “to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.” Despite the findings of the Shaffer Commission Report, the founding of NIDA (with its funding endowment) surely re-directed much cannabis research away from investigations of the therapeutic properties of cannabis and toward investigations of cannabis as a harmful drug of abuse. Yet, despite the regulatory barriers, some researchers did continue to pursue therapeutic potentials of cannabis, such as that for glaucoma and chemotherapy-induced nausea. Since the underlying MOA of cannabis had not yet been discovered, research during the 1970s and 1980s on therapeutic uses of cannabis were generally inspired either by clinical observations of cannabis’s effects on users (as in the case of glaucoma) and/or or by patient-reported benefits associated with their use of cannabis (as in the case with chemo-induced nausea).
Notably, there is a persistent area of research in cannabis straddling the medical vs. recreational classification that is perhaps the first to integrate cannabis science and technology: cannabis detection. Patents on technologies for detecting (i) cannabis in the body, (ii) cannabis impairment, or (iii) cannabis in product samples start appearing in 1970 and continue through to the present (see Figure 9).
Figure 9: Cannabis Detection Technology
In short, early research on medical cannabis generally involved (i) scientific studies focusing on extracting, isolating, and synthesizing cannabinoids and understanding their pharmacology; together with (ii) clinical observations of cannabis’s effects on users. The technology associated with medical research was largely already established or becoming established from other non-cannabis research. In other words, other than detection technologies, pre-2010 research on medical cannabis involved scientists furthering the science on cannabis, without much (if any) associated technological development.
Until the 1970s, most cannabis consumed for recreational purposes had been imported into the US (mostly from Columbia and Mexico). Homegrown cannabis (sativa) was low quality and sparsely available. During the late 1960s – early 1970s, the US government established the War on Drugs and undertook to stop the flow of drugs into the US. Supplies of imported cannabis dwindled, which served to stimulate a new industry of underground domestic cultivation. Growers discovered new varieties (indica) and new methods (sinsemilla), and they engaged in cross-breeding (sativa x indica) to generate new richer varieties of higher quality cannabis that would grow in colder/northern (i.e., US) environments. As cannabis culture became more pervasive, cannabis paraphernalia proliferated: “By 1977, sales of pipes, bongs, rolling papers and drug-oriented magazines and toys were generating $250 million a year (equivalent to $1 billion today).”
During the 1980s, the War on Drugs continued. Government efforts to shut down outdoor cultivation pushed growers indoors. Cultivators responded by developing new technologies to cultivate smaller cannabis crops with higher yields and potencies using indoor growing technologies and techniques. Government efforts to shut down indoor cultivation by monitoring electricity usage and odors then pushed growers to create new methods to minimize electricity usage and odors. During the 1990s, growers continued to hone methods for increasing yield and potency, which led to an increasing prevalence of sinsemilla.
In short, underground research on recreational cannabis during the ban generally involved cultivation technologies and techniques to grow smaller cannabis crops indoors with higher yields and potencies. Pre-legalization research on recreational cannabis thus involved growers and entrepreneurs furthering the technology on cannabis, without much (if any) scientific development.
Cannabis Science and Technology: Post-1996
Discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) during the late 1980s – early 1990s, the system in our bodies upon which cannabis acts to create its effects, was a game-changer. (For a more complete discussion of the history of the science and technology associated with discovery of the endocannabinoid system, see Would the Endocannabinoid System Have Been Discovered Earlier without the Ban on Cannabis?) Discovery of the ECS created a foundation to support legitimate medical applications of cannabis and induced an explosion of new research. Initially, researchers focused on understanding ECS basics. As more became known, researchers widened their scope to include research on genetic influences on the ECS, together with investigations into therapeutic applications associated with targeting the ECS.
In the decades following discovery of the ECS much of the medical cannabis scientific advancements continued along the same path upon which it had been evolving. That is, scientists in labs and clinical settings continued to undertake research to better understand the nature of the ECS, delving further into genetic influences on ECS functioning, together with therapeutic applications for ECS manipulations. 
As medical scientists were just starting to understand how cannabis works in the body, recreational use entrepreneurs operated at the peripheries of the legal cannabis industry, developing early vaping and dabbing technologies – the cannabis vape gun and more contemporary butane hash oil (BHO) – that set the stage for the subsequent development of modern cannabis dabbing and vaping.
In licensed cannabis use markets, entrepreneurs developed many new technologies to help licensed suppliers comply with regulations, manage operations, and compete with rival suppliers as effectively and efficiently as possible.
At the same time, however, the 2010s saw an influx of new technologies entering the market for the first time that had been informed by science. New technologies benefitting from science include, for example, 
- Cultivation Technologies: plant genetics (to engineer plants to yield greater amounts of select combinations of compounds), tissue cultures (to increase the viability of clones), and grow environments (e.g., lighting, nutrients, and pest control to enhance yields).
- Processing Technologies: extraction (cleaner and/or higher yield methods), formulations (profiles of compounds designed to generate specific effects in users), testing and detection (profiles of compounds in products or people), forms of use (to increase the rate and amount of absorption or enhance water solubility of cannabinoids), and packaging/storage (to prevent product degradation).
- Consumption Technologies: preparation and delivery mechanisms (to increase rate and amount of absorption or increase dosing precision) and matching, rating, and tracking systems to enhance consumer experiences.
Science is needed for informing us about how the world works. But pure science doesn’t generally improve our standard of living. Technology, on the other hand, does improve our standard of living, but without being informed by science, technology can only get us so far. Only when science and technology are combined do the resulting positive feedback loops enable sustained growth, that is, sustained increases in our well-being.
Most of society benefitted from the integration science and technology during the Industrial Revolutions. Unfortunately, the ban on cannabis in the US created an environment that was not amenable to the integration of cannabis science and technology. It was only when cannabis was legalized some 60 years after its initial ban that science and technology started informing one another, leading to explosive growth that will enable vast new benefits for cannabis users into the future.
 The information in this section is compiled based on information from: Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena; Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy; James E. McClellan III and Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in World History; and Margaret Jacob, Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West
 Percentages apply to the Roman Empire. Source: gpih.ucdavis.edu/files/BLW/Roman_Empire_14.doc
 According to one source (http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/indust/INDHMPFR.HTM), it wasn’t the costs associated with the Marijuana Tax Act per se that led to the demise of the new technology. Rather, enforcement of the Act was used as a weapon to harass owners of the new technology.
Chris Conrad (1997). Hemp for health: The medicinal and nutritional uses of Cannabis sativa
 Chris Conrad (1997). Hemp for health: The medicinal and nutritional uses of Cannabis sativa
 Chris Conrad (1997). Hemp for health: The medicinal and nutritional uses of Cannabis sativa