Blockchain: Ready to revolutionise medicinal cannabis research?

Close up of marijuana - herbal cannabis

Robert Galarza outlines how blockchain technology can be utilised to verify, validate and standardise the efficacy of medical cannabis and other plant based therapies in clinical trials. 

The Chinese surgeon Huo Tuo first mixed powdered cannabis with wine to make an anesthetic sometime between 140 and 208 CE. Indeed, the Chinese term for "anesthesia" (mázui 麻醉) means "cannabis intoxication." Therefore human beings have known the medicinal properties of cannabis since Emperor Marcus Aurelius was jotting down pithy advice for stoics between battles on the Rhine.

Yet we are only now truly exploring what this amazing plant can really do. Of course modern medical science has just begun unlocking the potential of many naturally occurring substances; however, most of these had their benefits and potential breakthroughs suppressed by nearly a century of prohibition before their medicinal uses could be unearthed.

As cannabis legalisation spreads, so too does medical research into all the benefits we can derive from THC, CBD, and the various terpenes to be found in the cannabis flower. Potential uses could alleviate everything from day-to-day pain to symptoms of epilepsy, and that’s without considering the many psychological and wellness benefits we could derive from mastering the endocannabinoid system.

There are numerous ways in which the controlled and purposeful use of cannabis can improve our health and welfare. As the research expands and improves, scientists can use the unrivalled power of blockchain to verify, validate, and standardise their results, perfect new approaches to cannabis usage, and speed new cannabis products to market through clinical trials.

What is blockchain?

Blockchain has been the talk of the tech industry ever since it emerged as a solution for tracking and securing the exchange of cryptocurrency online. A digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed to every computer in a network, blockchain creates an unbreakable cryptographic signature called a hash which stores data in a form that cannot be disguised or tampered with, creating perfectly trackable records of all interactions in a project’s lifespan. Thus a blockchain can track anything from the sale and ownership of a few dogecoins to the entire life cycle of a sensitive clinical trial. Everyone involved in the project has full visibility into an ironclad and transparent account of every change — no matter how minute — an asset has undergone.

Cryptocurrency was the first industry revolutionised by blockchain and though it may not seem so on the surface, medical research and crypto have a lot in common, especially in their need for ironclad trackability, transparency, and security. Just as crypto miners and traders know any trace of fraud or mismanagement will undermine the value and trust in the currency itself, likewise medical researchers must maintain traceable and reliable records to support their findings, lest they lose credibility by being improperly recorded or mismanaged. In research as in cryptocurrency, even the slightest inconsistency could be disastrous. Blockchain offers the security, redundancy, and transparency needed to prevent any such discrepancies ruining an important research project.

Security, redundancy, transparency

Security forms the cornerstone of blockchain’s value to medical researchers in the cannabis field. Because every new development in a research project is saved in its own encrypted block of data, the validity and authenticity of that data is never in doubt. Any finding is recorded permanently in its own discrete line-item, which cannot be tampered with, overwritten, or lost for any reason. As projects evolve, blockchain keeps a perfect record of every phase in that evolution, accessible at any time to verify a result or confirm a conclusion is correct. As our knowledge of cannabis therapies expands, blockchain records that knowledge where it cannot be misrepresented or marred.

Blockchain’s security is partly the result of its redundancy, as copies of the ledger are distributed to every single computer in the appropriate network. This gives all stakeholders equal access while preventing the data from being lost if it is deleted in one or even a few places. Moreover, if anyone alters a piece of existing information in the blockchain, everyone with a copy of the ledger is made aware of the change, and depending on their permissions, must specifically approve the change for it to be confirmed. And even if approved, the change is always recorded, making an undetectable overwrite or alteration completely impossible.

Redundancy and security come together to create another major advantage blockchain provides to cannabis researchers: transparency. Throughout prohibition, our understanding of cannabis had been held back by an inability to share and secure information, defined by hearsay and unreliable data. Scientific research was limited, and parties were discouraged from elucidating the beneficial uses of chemicals found in the cannabis plant. As we move forward into legalisation, by providing a ledger that can be easily shared, with findings that cannot be altered or misrepresented, and where all changes are recorded, blockchain offers researchers a way to both protect and distribute their findings with one another as well as the world at large without fear of suppression or misrepresentation

"Clinical research depends on more than just the science of cannabis and how it affects the body. The growth, distribution, and sale of cannabis carry all sorts of implications for how the plant and its extracts can affect both individual consumers and entire populations"


Leveraging blockchain’s benefits to adjacent industries

Blockchain has many uses and will soon appear across many industries adjacent to medical research. Integrating blockchain usage will improve researchers’ access to useful data which can be plugged directly into clinical trials, reducing the need for painstaking verification as the digital ledger already provides watertight authenticity.

For example, researchers have long desired access to a comprehensive database of electronic medical records (EMRs). Previously, a lack of security, transparency, and standardisation has kept such a system from being fully viable in the market or safe to protect patient privacy. Fortunately security, transparency, and standardisation are exactly what blockchain does best. The Mayo Clinic already unveiled a blockchain system in which to store their patient records, while software developer Alternate Health is building a blockchain EMR database tailored to the medicinal cannabis industry. With access to a secure and comprehensive collection of patient records, researchers will have a much easier time populating trials with both data and potential test volunteers as blockchain could also track patient permissions in terms of access to data.

Clinical research depends on more than just the science of cannabis and how it affects the body. The growth, distribution, and sale of cannabis carry all sorts of implications for how the plant and its extracts can affect both individual consumers and entire populations. Cannabis remains illegal on the federal level in the United States, which makes tracking distribution difficult, and leaves billions of dollars in cash-only transactions at dispensaries fraught with potential errors. Blockchain allows for much easier and more reliable record-keeping for cannabis business logistics, providing statistics that are invaluable not only to the operations that grow, process, and sell these products, but to researchers who need distribution and sales data for studies.

The right tool for a big job

The global market for cannabis-related clinical trials is expected to reach $31.4 billion by 2025. Distributors and manufacturers will require researchers to provide clinical trials for the many products they plan to bring to market, to make sure these products are safe and efficacious in treating various illnesses and symptoms.

Only blockchain has the utility needed to perform these trials efficiently. The transparency of blockchain makes it possible to verify test results and certify consistency across many studies. The ledger’s unparalleled security and immutability ensures results can be validated and free from tampering or user error. Because blockchain is distributed among many systems, test results are easy to standardise and reproduce across an entire network. This new technology allows scientists to make up for lost time in finding out what cannabis and other plant-based therapies can do for human health and wellness.

About the author

Robert Galarza is CEO of TruTrace Technologies.