The modification of plants using selective breeding, phytohormones which change how cells react or perceive themselves and their environment, for instance allowing an older plant to bloom or grow new roots, and even genomic editing are nothing new to the world of agriculture.
The use of selective breeding and phytohormones in the growth of cannabis is also very common: without it we would not be seeing the high levels of THC that we see almost universally today. The professional (laboratory) modification of cannabis using targeted genetic modification has only really become possible since its legalization, although at least one exception exists. Drug cartels routinely have the capacity to use phytohormones and selective breeding, but there is a huge jump from there to the technology needed to modify the genes for a specific protein (either in its form or rate of expression) and then reintroduce this into the population. A compromise can be found in using genetic analysis to most effectively cross-breed.
When cannabis was legalized for licensed growth in Washington State in 2013, certain pesticides were also approved for use on the plants, including Bt: bacillus thuringiensis. There already exist a number of lines of genetically modified crops that themselves express Bt, helping them protect themselves from pests by killing the bugs that dare to eat the plants. Along with pesticides, other forms of targeted modification of cannabis are also certainly underway. Pesticide resistance, or expression, is one of the more questionable uses of genetic modification, and although it will likely spread fastest: it is not the most exciting prospect.
The most exciting, and potentially less ethically questionable, prospect of genetically modified cannabis is BC Seed’s development of a long-living cannabis tree. Yes, a cannabis tree which they call “Forever Buds,” and which is capable of growing to almost 10′ (10 feet or 3 meters) in 2 years. The mother plant is now more than 8 years old (still alive and actively producing buds), producing over 21 pounds per year (approximately 10 kg), and reaches up 30′ ( 30 feet or 9.1 meters) into the sky. Its seeds will be publicly available for purchase within the next 6 months (February, 2015), and threatens to uproot a business model based primarily on clones.
Thus genetic modification is not particularly new to cannabis, and indeed today’s consumers are smoking and baking with plants containing more THC than at any point in history. Now that it is legal, the issues become more transparent but also more complicated. Although many will oppose the use of pesticides both on ecological and health grounds, how will the public feel about a cannabis tree?
Are people so polarized that they will oppose genetic modification in every form, even without any proof of danger? What kind of regulation is needed, and how will the safety evaluation process look? As this new field emerges into the daylight, these are questions that need to be answered.