Lack of Funding and Support Leaves Cannabis Research In the Dark

We need to focus on whole-plant marijuana studies.

Even though marijuana still remains classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as a Schedule I drug, alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, medical marijuana has been studied more than many other drugs on the market, including Tylenol. The MEDLINE/PubMed resources guide from the National Library of Medicine, a data base of 26 million citations from biomedical literature, life science journals, and online books, contains more than 24,000 entries for the word marijuana. Conversely, a search for OxyContin, a schedule 2 drug with known addictive qualities, turns up only around 2,800 hits.

Given this plethora of mentions, how do so many cultural and professional misconceptions surrounding medical marijuana still persist?

In her talk at the 2016 Cannabis Science Conference, neuroscientist Michelle Ross, MD, PhD, president of IMPACT Network, addressed the complexities of changing the perception of marijuana as an illicit drug so that it’s viewed as a medical treatment. This Denver-based, women-centric nonprofit seeks through research, education, and advocacy to identify the problems in cannabis research, and to launch studies, secure funding, enroll patients, and publish the results. 

So far these studies focus on synthetic cannabinoids or liquid THC.

As someone who has researched medical marijuana for more than ten years, Ross observes, "Never have we had such an amazing new field of medicine and so many potential treatments that could replace what we have on the market." Unfortunately, the vast majority of the studies posted on PubMed do not address whole plant research. 

Currently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) remains the largest funder of biomedical research in the United States. Its website states that the NIH funds medical marijuana research, but so far these studies focus on synthetic cannabinoids or liquid THC. 

There simply are not enough studies done on marijuana as a complete plant. Many obstacles stand in the way of making that happen.

According to Ross, only 17 studies have been conducted since 1999 that focus on whole plant research, and even fewer of these studies were exploring the positive benefits of medical marijuana. Consequently, the flood of marijuana research cited on MEDLINE are not in line with how most medical marijuana patients consume cannabis, which is via smoking, vaping, or digesting edibles. Many of these studies serve to reenforce a public misperception that patients are addicts who use marijuana as a harmful, illicit chemical.

The U.S. government is reluctant to fund research on a Schedule I drug; so the bulk of the current cannabis studies have been independently funded. Many of the studies have been conducted at the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of San Diego. The University of San Diego received funding as the result of California state legislation that "calls for a three year program overseeing objective, high quality medical research that will 'enhance understanding of the efficacy and adverse effects of marijuana as a pharmacological agent' (SB 847)."

The Center for Medical Cannabis Research is currently focused on the analgesic efficacy of cannabis on various forms neuropathic pain, as well as evaluating the efficacy of cannabis for the treatment of spasticity in multiple sclerosis. Additional research will focus on the effects of cannabis on driving, and prescribing practices.

Further studies will be needed to ascertain the most effective ways of using medical marijuana in a myriad of cancer treatments.

So far, no clinical trials have verified the efficacy of medical marijuana in treating cancer. The modalities employed for addressing various forms of cancers and their symptoms are based on solely on anecdotal observations. Patient testimonials indicate that medical marijuana can be an effective tool for addressing certain cancers; however, further studies will be needed to ascertain the most effective ways of using medical marijuana in a myriad of cancer treatments.

Currently, the University of Mississippi houses the only legal farm where researchers can purchase cannabis that can be transported to other states. The quality of this weed is not on par with cannabis produced by current commercial medical grows. Furthermore, since federal law prohibits cannabis crossing state lines, individual states are confined to keeping their research in state. Research labs are inhibited from conducting joint research endeavors, a common practice for basic clinical trials. Even if a research entity was given permission to establish a Schedule 1 weed grow, these grows can be prohibitively expensive due to mandatory security measures that must be implemented.

Researchers in academic settings can find themselves in conflict with rules that dictate drug-free campuses. Since some students are under 21, colleges may not want cannabis present on their campus. Furthermore, an academic institution's legal advisors and donors might suggest the institution should avoid conducting research studies using a substance that remains illegal on the federal level. And lastly, most researchers who want to get into cannabis research don't have a Schedule 1 license. While a researcher with a PhD can order Schedule 1 drugs for research, with cannabis, the researcher almost always has to have an MD assigned to the research project.

"I know this sounds crazy but I believe cannabis will disrupt healthcare. This is the new healthcare."

Despite these obstacles, Ross observes signs of progress over the past 16 years, and the IMPACT Network intends to become a grant-receiving network to help researchers overcome hurdles in obtaining the funding needed to conduct research.

Currently, IMPACT is fundraising for Scientists for Legislation (SFL), the first organization of scientists and clinical researchers advocating for cannabis policy reform in the United States. By 2018, the IMPACT Network hopes to expand its national advocacy to the global level. In Ross's estimation, it will take a village of patients, advocates, universities, and scientists to create a new healthcare system that seeks to find alternatives to pharmaceutical therapies.

As Ross reflects, "I know this sounds crazy but I believe cannabis will disrupt healthcare. This is the new healthcare."