UC Irvine is in the early stages of developing what would be one of the world’s first interdisciplinary cannabis research institutes.*

Former Democratic State Senator Joe Dunn, who now lectures at UCI’s School of Law, announced the plans at a roundtable talk on cannabis at the university Friday evening.

The institute is the brainchild of Dr. Daniele Piomelli, an anatomy and neurobiology professor, who studies how cannabis works in the body.

“My plan is not to waste any time,” Piomelli said, with a goal to have the institute up and running within 12 months.

The School of Medicine and School of Law will lead the way in creating the institute, he said.

Former California senator Joe Dunn, center, joins a “meet and greet” at the Bud and Bloom dispensary in Santa Ana on Friday, May 5, 2017. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

When Dunn approached Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UCI’s law school, about their department getting involved, he said he was a bit nervous as to the reaction he’d get.

“He said, ‘Well, that’s long overdue,’” Dunn recalled, quickly giving him the green light.

The former senator said they’re now in talks with the schools of business, engineering, communications, the UCI Applied Innovation program and others, who have all shown interest.

Piomelli said the idea is to study how cannabis intersects with every facet of life, from the environment to criminal justice to culture. Even the university’s film studies program is eager to get involved, he said.

They’re also in the process of creating a “large and diverse” advisory board to head up the institute.

 Dunn stressed that the institute will be independent and entirely research-based, not advocating for any particular position related to cannabis. And he said its interdisciplinary nature is what will set it apart from other research institutes.

UC San Diego has a Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which receives state funding to study marijuana as medicine. Piomelli said he’s good friends with that program’s director, Dr. Igor Grant, and hopes to work with him on this project.

Piomelli said there are potential university funds available, which he’s hoping to secure. He’s also hoping to get funding from the state through provisions in the voter-approved recreational marijuana measure, Proposition 64, which sets aside a portion of tax revenue to cover cannabis research.

It’s been incredibly challenging to study cannabis due to its federal status, Piomelli said, with the Drug Enforcement Administration still classifying marijuana as being in the most dangerous category of drugs, alongside heroin.

That makes it difficult for him to provide a concrete answer when he gets emails like one he read during the talk at UC Irvine, with a desperate father writing to ask whether medical marijuana could help with his daughter’s severe autism.

“Emotions are wonderful,” Piomelli said. “But we need data. We need evidence-based answers.”

Within five years, with help from his planned research institute and evolving marijuana laws, he said he hopes he’ll be able to answer that father’s question.

*An earlier version of the story overstated the uniqueness of such an interdisciplinary program. Humboldt State University launched its own interdisciplinary cannabis research institute in 2012, and Colorado State University Pueblo created a similar one in 2016.