It’s time to get serious about marijuana for human space flight and planetary colonization

How asking to re-run the MIT Mars One Analysis with cannabis as a potential crop for human space flight uncovered how prohibition limits scientific inquiry.

Credit: Mars One/Brian Versteeg

The fast growing cannabis/marijuana plant offers much for space travelers. From fibrous material to make everything from concrete to plastics, the ability of cannabis to provide food through its seeds, medicine and recreation through its flowers, all while producing breathable air in high quantities. One would think the cannabis plant might be at the top of the list as an essential tool for humanity to use to journey to Mars and other celestial bodies throughout the solar system, but it is not. The reason it is not I came to find out involves the unintended consequences created by prohibiting science from engaging in free inquiry.

Re-Running the Mars One Analysis with Cannabis

Understanding the wide variety of uses including how valuable a crop it is nutritionally through its seeds, I contacted the Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Engineering Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Olivier Ladislas de Weck. While I was happy he responded to my inquiry and even considered re-running cannabis in their Mars One analysis his response left me quite disappointed.

We discussed your request to rerun our MarsOne analysis with cannabis as an additional crop in the Biomass Production System (BPS) when you first inquired about it late in 2015. We decided against it for a couple of reasons.

Reason 1: Not enough data

His first point for not running the analysis was that all the crops in Table 3 of the paper have all had a substantial amount of data from plant growth experiments at different levels of CO2 and other factors. Cannabis does not have the extensive research done on all those factors. It appears prohibition and its chilling effect on scientific inquiry has left scientists with absolutely no idea as to its Biomass Production. While the plant may have helped the British Colonists reach the United States with sails, rope, clothes, and paper; modern science has no clue what this crop produces for Biomass at least from the perspective of MIT.

Reason 2: Not a food source

Oliver’s second point was that he did not believe cannabis would be chosen because the objective functions are to achieve a well balanced calorically sufficient diet while minimizing crop growth area. He continued that cannabis is not known to be a particularly advantageous crop from a dietary perspective. This is not actually true and he presented no scientific data to back his statement up. The truth is that cannabis seeds, otherwise known as hemp seeds, are one of the most nutritious and caloric food items we have on Earth. They’re found easily in your local health food store and can be made into a variety of dishes added to salads and more. Hemp seed oil exhibits the highest total phenolic content and antioxidant activity compared to all other plant-based oils. All it takes is a quick search of Google to find all the health information on hemp seeds as food. Yet because of stigma towards marijuana created by prohibition this scientist did not even check Google to see if cannabis was a useful food source. Even with the long list of results in Google much of the claims about hemp as food need to be substantiated by science and skepticism both. Because we are under the regime of scientific prohibition on the cannabis plant it becomes practically impossible to know anything with great certainty even around its nutritional values.

Reason 3: My agenda

The third and final reason for not running cannabis in the analysis is that my agenda for the request was to promote cannabis preferentially over other crops. This was once again false. My request was to run the analysis with cannabis the same way they approached other crops to see if cannabis might be a good plant to bring on the Mars One Mission. I’m a skeptic myself and lover of scientific inquiry, so my intention asking to run the Mars One Analysis was never for it to take preference over another crop, but simply as a way to shed light on the possible importance of a super crop like cannabis in future manned space missions.

Excuses Excuses

All three reasons given above by one of the leading scientific minds in human space flight for not re-running the analysis on the Mars One Mission were because of cannabis prohibition. The first excuse was because cannabis illegality has left a major gap in our scientific understanding of the plant. Second excuse had to do with the lack of knowledge around cannabis as a food source, and the third had to do with my “agenda” to promote cannabis over other crops. Science has been hampered here and free inquiry was silenced by lack of knowledge and stigma.

It should be noted that I don’t blame Oliver for his perspective because I understand that modern science lacks much data as to the value of this crop due to its continued prohibition. Its illegality has nearly eliminated all research and inquiry into the value of the plant for nearly a century. Scientific studies conducted for decades mainly focused on finding the harms caused by ingesting cannabis and not on topics like the biomass production of the crop. Society’s belief that cannabis is harmful led to a huge gap in our scientific understanding of marijuana that continues its legacy today through MIT and the Mars One team lacking the scientific data to re-run their analysis with cannabis.

Credit: Jeff King/Unsplash

Cannabis as a candle in the dark

The unintended consequences of prohibition included the end of scientific inquiry around cannabis as a crop for human use. We lack even a basic knowledge about its properties as is clear by Oliver’s first reason for not running cannabis in the analysis. Cannabis’s illegality and its chilling effect on scientific inquiry means that many facts about the plant remain hidden. Modern medical science knows relatively little about how marijuana works as medicine because of the lack of research since its illegality in 1937. Drug makers can’t compete with the “Entourage Effect”. Because of the symbiosis of hundreds of cannabinoid compounds in the human body when people consume cannabis, hundreds of thousands of people have turned to herbal apothecaries (known as medical cannabis dispensaries) for the relief they need for a variety of medical conditions, from epilepsy to crohns and pain management.

What a huge disappointment to know that a plant with so many medicinal properties has not been studied thoroughly enough by modern science to engage in the development of new sophisticated drug delivery systems. Instead very sick people have to resort to using crude plant matter to heal themselves because of the seemingly willing ignorance perpetrated by modern science and the mainstream medical community towards cannabis. What other scientific and medical breakthroughs are being held back by prohibition in some other form? The time has come for the science and medical communities to begin taking cannabis seriously as something that could provide innovative answers to questions we have never asked or have asked before but came up with lackluster solutions.

Developing sophisticated drugs that engage hundreds of compounds simultaneously to create an entourage like effect will only be possible through the careful study and research of cannabis. There are few other substances known to humans that are as harmless to the body as cannabis to engage in research. Continued study and research on cannabis as medicine is essential to unlock a future of multi-compound drugs that will lead to the development of an entirely new 21st century view of medicine.

“If we can’t think for ourselves, if we’re unwilling to question authority, then we’re just putty in the hands of those in power. But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit. In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.” — Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan in his book The Demon-Haunted World creates a framework to detect when science is being replaced with pseudoscience called the Baloney Detection Kit. He suggests using independent confirmation of facts, debate, development of different hypotheses, quantification, the use of Occam’s razor, and the possibility of falsification should be key in developing a science minded individuals view of the world. Throughout the book he highlights his belief that science is a way of looking at the world and not just a body of information and facts.

When I sought out answers from MIT on questions I had about cannabis for use on the Mars One Mission, my view of the world was with an eye of science and skepticism. I hoped because the team at MIT were not biased like myself towards cannabis that they would be able to conduct the analysis with a degree of skepticism that I could not. The trouble was because cannabis has been demonized for the past eighty plus years in popular culture, the scientists themselves at MIT were biased away from engaging in free inquiry or asking further questions. Demons are haunting the scientific and medical communities when it comes to cannabis. We should not become complacent. Our own institutions and the individuals in them are biased in a way that mirrors the society in which we live.

Credit: NASA/Unsplash

How you can encourage free inquiry and cannabis research

While we are likely a way off before a comprehensive set of data on cannabis exists for scientists to use when researching crops for planetary colonization, we do have a bipartisan Bill working through Congress in the United States which offers promise on ending the current National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) monopoly on marijuana research with the benefit of also helping Veterans and medical cannabis patients.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States Act or CARERS Act created by Americans for Safe Access is currently the most comprehensive piece of federal medical marijuana legislation that has ever been introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate. Introduced in the Senate by Senators Corey Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and in the House by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Don Young (R-AK), the bipartisan legislation would remedy the state-federal conflict over medical marijuana laws. The bill will end the Public Health service review process and NIDA monopoly that blocks research on cannabis. This monopoly is probably the biggest impediment to marijuana research. If we are going to get to the point where we can even run cannabis in a feasibility study on a mission to another planet we will need to know the basics. While de-scheduling is preferred by many in the cannabis community, CARERS is sound legislation that gives your representatives something they can do right now to support science and research into cannabis.

CARERS also has the benefit of allowing state medical cannabis programs to continue without federal inference, it would move marijuana out of Schedule I, remove CBD from the scheduling, create access to banking services for legal marijuana businesses, and allow VA doctors to write recommendations in states that have a medical marijuana program.

Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance supporting the CARERS Act in Washington D.C. featuring from left to right Jeanne Ficcardi Sauro, Michael Latulippe, Jeremiah MacKinnon, Nichole Snow

Recently the Drug Enforcement Administration failed to re-schedule cannabis again making passing CARERS even more important. Support cannabis research and contact your Senator or Congressman with a short email to support the CARERS Act. Americans for Safe Access provides a great form to contact your representatives and support CARERS in context with the recent DEA rescheduling decision.

While cannabis being taken seriously as an important crop for human space exploration is a ways off into the future, we can take action now to encourage free inquiry and scientific research at a Federal level by supporting the CARERS Act. Opening up cannabis for research will ensure the questions I brought forward to the MIT Mars One Mission analysis team about the feasibility of cannabis as a crop on human space missions will eventually be answered.