The science behind the munchies - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather

The science behind the munchies

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PULLMAN, WA - Marijuana has been legal in Washington for several years now - more and more states are following suit, and it's the "bud" of most pot jokes: when you get high, you get hungry.

But did you know that scientists are actually studying that phenomenon, and they say they've found the reason.

Rats are friendlier than you might think, and there's a reason why they scurry through the dark in a Safelight room. Assistant Professor John Davis at Washington State University has been studying how our stomach talks to our brain for the last 15 years. Specifically, how chemicals can control eating behavior.

"And so what we've found, basically thumbnail sketch, is when you give animals marijuana there is an appetite," said Davis. "Our lab is really interested in understanding things that stop and start feeding so we can help people who are obese and anorexic."

Davis's current research has him getting rats high.

"So we've built vaporizers to study how medical marijuana stimulates appetite and we use lab rodents to do that," said Gabe Ferguson, a photojournalist.

To do this, Davis measures a small amount of marijuana using a scale. After placing the dried plant into a vaporizer, he connects it to a clear plastic box using a hose. He calls it a vapor chamber.

Then, he hotboxes and waits.

"There's always a delay in feeding such that the animals won't initiate feeding until about two hours after they've been given marijuana," Davis explains.

He says the results are a lot clearer than the smoke that fills the chamber.

"Animals that are completely stuffed when we give them marijuana, two hours later they start to overeat. Animals that have been deprived for a day or so we give them marijuana, two hours later they start to eat," he said.

While the rats eat, and eat often... this study isn't for them.

"Our hope is that in the future you could go into a dispensary and say 'I have cancer, I need to eat, it's been this many days since I've eaten,' and the person that's helping you can say 'Okay, go to this selection of products, these are going to make you eat within an hour, these will make you eat within 30 minutes, these will make you gain body weight.' "

"So that's the first goal is to help cancer patients that are already using medical marijuana; to stimulate appetite, to refine that for them, to say this is the type of marijuana that you would need to use that would stimulate your appetite."

While the goal is to eventually help cancer patients who lose their appetite during treatment, Davis says marijuana could possibly be used to help people lose weight.

"And that was something that was completely unexpected," Davis said. "If we can understand how the delay in feeding occurs maybe we can use that information to help people that are overeating and help them stop eating and reduce their body weight."

Davis's research is currently in a pre-clinical state, meaning he can't test it on humans, just rats. But he's confident his findings will convince any doubters that maybe the munchies are a good thing.

Davis's research is partially being funded by tax dollars paid at all of the state's marijuana retailers. The marijuana he uses for his lab comes from the Drug Enforcement Agency.