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Forming a Society for Cannabinoids

Scientists had been investigating cannabis more and more in the second half of the 20th century, and as this research accelerated there was a clear need for an international society to help share data and spark collaboration. The International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) was formed in the early 1990s – and continues to grow.

Roger Pertwee is Emeritus Professor at the University of Aberdeen, UK, Director of Pharmacology at GW Pharmaceuticals and one of the founders of the ICRS. Today, he is International Secretary of the ICRS and has served twice as the society’s president. Here, he tells us how ICRS began.

How did the ICRS begin?

In July 1990, during a scientific cannabinoid meeting in Kolympari, Crete, which had been organized by Richard Musty, Paul Consroe and Alex Makriyannis (1), a few cannabinoid scientists, including myself, decided to set up the ICRS. Those involved in this discussion were based in various parts of the world, including the US, Australia and Europe, and we decided there was a need for an international scientific society that would hold annual meetings in North America where genuine scientists, including PhD students, could present their latest, as yet unpublished, scientific cannabinoid data orally, or as a poster. Further and final discussions on this idea took place the following June in Palm Beach, Florida, during another cannabinoid meeting that I attended – the fourth meeting of the International Cannabinoid Study Group, which was held during the 1991 meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence (CPDD). As a result, we decided to have the first meeting of the ICRS in Keystone, Colorado, in June 1992, in parallel with, but separate from, the 1992 CPDD meeting which was also to be held there. Meetings have been held annually since 1992. The latest ICRS meeting (the 26th meeting) took place June 22-27, 2017, in Montréal, Canada. Initially, ICRS stood for “International Cannabis Research Society”, but this was changed to the “International Cannabinoid Research Society” in 1995.

(Incidentally, the year that the ICRS was born (1990) is also the year that a cannabinoid receptor was first cloned (CB1). The first meeting was held in the same year that an endocannabinoid (anandamide) was first discovered (1992)).

How has the ICRS changed over time?

Over the years, the ICRS has evolved into an excellently run and well-funded democratic society, with an ever-growing number of members, great leadership from the executive director, and with vital input and great service, both from the managing director/webmaster, and from the ICRS board of directors – the latter are all elected by ICRS members to serve for a limited period of time. It is also noteworthy that the ICRS has a set of Bylaws that, for example, ensure that only genuine cannabinoid scientists can become “Regular” or “Associate” members of the society, and only genuine undergraduate or postgraduate students who have been sponsored by an ICRS member, can become Student/Fellow (Trainee) members. ICRS members constitute a fantastic reliable source of scientific information about cannabis, cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system.

What topics are covered at the ICRS annual meetings?

The specific cannabinoid topics addressed at the meetings are wide ranging, including the basic pharmacology of synthetic, endogenous or cannabis-derived cannabinoids, the role of the endocannabinoid system in health and disease, actions and effects of drugs that target this system, results from human cannabinoid studies, and the therapeutic potential of synthetic, endogenous or cannabis-derived chemicals for the treatment of, for example, cancer, obesity, epilepsy, or drug dependence, as well as mental, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, hepatic or renal disorders. There is also a session on career and cannabinoid research funding advice, and plenty of time to interact with other scientists in a friendly and productive manner – several important cannabinoid research collaborations of mine have certainly been initiated or strengthened during previous ICRS meetings. Abstracts for the meeting are assessed by an unbiased Programme Committee – the role of which is to ensure that abstracts are judged fairly and that strongest submissions are presented orally, irrespective of whether the speaker is a PhD student, or a more senior scientist.

The meetings are always located in venues that are not only attractive, but that are also not too expensive, and easily reached by travellers from around the world.

How else has the ICRS changed over time?

Over the years, we have also added a few invited lectures to some meeting programs. These lectures are given by outstanding cannabinoid scientists as a Memorial Lecture (e.g., Kang Tsou Memorial Lecture) or following their receipt of one of the following special awards: 

  • Mechoulam Award (2). This was first given in 2000 to Dr Allyn Howlett who, in the late 1980s, obtained convincing evidence for the existence of cannabinoid receptors, which led on to the discovery in 1992 of the endocannabinoid system. I received the Mechoulam Award myself in 2002. 
  • Young Investigator Award (3). 
  • Lifetime Achievement Award (4).

In 1997, we made the decision for the ICRS to meet in North America and Europe (including Scandinavia) in alternate years, instead of always in North America, since there were (and still are) many cannabinoid scientists in Europe. The first European meeting was held in the South of France in 1998, when I was serving as ICRS President.

Anything else to add?

I have attended every ICRS meeting since 1992, have often been elected/re-elected to serve on the ICRS Board of Directors, and have also been elected twice as ICRS President (I was President in 1998, the year of the first European meeting, and in 2008, the year that the ICRS first met in the UK (in Aviemore, Scotland).

The final decision about the naming of the first endocannabinoid (as “anandamide” – since “ananda” is the sankrit word for bliss or happiness, and this compound is an amide) was made during a private conversation I had with Raphael Mechoulam and some of his colleagues during the June 1992 ICRS meeting, which was held in Keystone, Colorado (high enough, in my experience, for altitude/mountain sickness). The first paper on anandamide was published by us in Science in December 1992 (5).

A Career in Cannabinoids

Cannabis Complex

Smashing the Stigma with Science

A View From the Biosynthetic Bridge

Forming a Society for Cannabinoids

Enhancing Endocannabinoid Signalling

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  1. Special issue of “Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior,” 40 (1991). Edited by RE Musty, P Consroe, A Makriyannis.
  2. The Mechoulam award is given to a distinguished established scientist who has made continued meritorious, significant, and widely recognized contributions to cannabinoid and endocannabinoid research that have moved the discipline forward. Recipients are invited to deliver a lecture describing their work at the annual ICRS Symposium on the Cannabinoids the year after they receive the award.
  3. The Young Investigator Award is given to a researcher, within 15 years of receiving his or her terminal degree, who has demonstrated a dedication to cannabinoid and endocannabinoid research and has developed a cohesive research program of excellence in the field. The recipient should have a strong publication record, contributions to the society, and the potential to become a leader in the field of cannabinoid or endocannabinoid research. Recipients are expected to deliver a lecture describing their work at the annual ICRS Symposium on the Cannabinoids the year after they receive the award.
  4. The Lifetime Achievement Award is given to a senior individual who has dedicated his or her career to furthering cannabinoid and endocannabinoid research. A record of enduring high-impact publications, awards, and committee membership exemplify such dedication. The recipient may currently be retired, and the contributions may have occurred in the past. Awardees are expected to have had broad impact on more than one aspect of the field.
  5. WA Devane et al., “Isolation and structure of a brain constituent that binds to the cannabinoid receptor,” Science, 18, 1946-1949 91992).
About the Author
Roger Pertwee

Roger Pertwee is Emeritus Professor at the University of Aberdeen, UK, Director of Pharmacology at GE Pharmaceuticals and one of the founders of the ICRS.

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