It was just announced by the Associated Press that Colorado will be the first state to fund cannabis research, in one of the largest state-funded efforts ever. But they are actually not the first state to do this, merely the first to offer grants to researchers for cannabis research.
California has had the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) since 2000 conducting research on cannabis through various state Universities, such as UCLA and UCSF. These are different ways to fund research, one only allows researchers with ties to state universities to get funding, and the other offers funding to anyone, regardless of their affiliation.
For example, if you are doing independent research on cannabis, without being a member of a university, there is no way to get your study funded by California through the CMCR, but if you are in Colorado, you do have the chance to get funding. Offering grants is arguably a more fair method to determine what studies get funds, because it doesn’t give preference to those already privileged enough to be within the gilded walls of academia. In that sense, Colorado is a first, but to say they are the first state, or even the first government agency to fund cannabis research, is not accurate.
Center for Medical Cannabis Research: A History Lesson
It has been fifteen years since the CMCR was founded, and in that time they have authored at least fifteen studiesshowing the therapeutic, positive effects of cannabis. A whole generation has grown up using cannabis since Prop 215 was passed in 1996, whose passage prompted the California legislature to pass SB 847, creating the CMCR.
The CMCR’s stated purpose was to find the therapeutic benefits of cannabis. Igor Grant MD is the Executive Vice-Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the UCSD School of Medicine and the current director of the CMCR. Dr. Grant had this to say about the research done by the CMCR, “[our] findings provide a strong, science-based context in which policy makers and the public can begin discussing the place of cannabis in medical care.”
Federal Research Embargo
What makes the CMCR unique is that, until their founding, there was no government funded agency with the express purpose of studying the benefits of cannabis. The National Institutes of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has the final say on any cannabis research that is being federally funded or using the federal stash of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi, and NIDA will only approve studies of the negative effects of cannabis use. Despite that, the Federal government has funded more cannabis research than perhaps any other person or group in the world, to the tune ofhundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade alone.
The Catch 22 of all those federally funded studies is that in order to get funding and access to NIDA grown cannabis, one’s hypothesis must be something negative about cannabis. If one wanted to do a study showing that cannabis prevented the damage of lung cancer, they could never get approval.
It is possible to conduct a study with a negative hypothesis and find positive outcomes, and NIDA cannot do anything about it. Dr. Donald tashkin from UCLA conducted “the largest case-control study ever done” on cannabis smoking and lung cancer. He found that it didn’t cause lung cancer, and actually lowered the rate of lung cancer to be less than the rate of non-smokers.
Though his study was not funded by CMCR, Dr. Tashkin is a member of their National Advisory Council and one of their researchers. Tashkin’s groundbreaking study was one of the many funded by the federal government through NIDA and their parent federal agency, the National Institutes of Health.
Not every researcher is as lucky as Dr. Tashkin.
Dr. Sue Sisley, was recently fired from the University of Arizona for her research on cannabis. Dr. Sisley fought for years to get federal approval for her study on veterans with PTSD, and when she finally got access to NIDA grown cannabis, the university that approved the study fired her for it. She now plans to go into private practice to continue her research, perhaps with a grant from Colorado. NIDA’s chokehold over which studies get approved and which do not, creates a chilling effect on cannabis research, driving many would-be researchers to study other topics. The few that remain may get fired for their research topics, left to fend for themselves without funding or institutional support.
Despite the Embargo, The Feds Grow More Cannabis for Research
While it is still near impossible to get federal approval for a study, NIDA is clearly preparing for an influx of new studies demanding access to Federally grown medical cannabis for research and has upped their production quotas from 21kg last year to 650kg this year. That 650kg is still much lower than the 4,500kg production quota that was originally proposed in 2007, but at least it is a start.
Despite the current quota being lower than what was proposed in 2007, and lower than the totals from 2002-04, it still represents a nearly 3,000% increase over 21kg. Of that 21kg that has been grown yearly since 2010, over half has gone to the four remaining participants in the Compassionate Investigational New Drug Program. Now, with that much higher quota, there should be much more cannabis to go to research. Hopefully this will include some CBD-rich strains, as well as the THC-rich cannabis they normally grow.