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Database Reveals U.S. Cannabis Research Focuses on Harms Rather Than Benefits

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We’re all curious about how much money is pushed towards cannabis research. But what about how this research progresses specific sectors of the industry?

For most, the allotment of resources to research cannabis for its potential therapeutic benefits is the obvious choice. Considering the severe side effects of many pharmaceuticals that could be replaced by medical cannabis—specifically, opioids—should be enticing enough to demand most cannabis research funding be allocated towards the therapeutics branch of the cannabis industry’s advancement.

But this isn’t the case.

Science reports that between 2000 and 2018, cannabis research funding projects in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom—totaling around $1.56 billion—directs around half of this funding towards understanding the plant’s potential harms.

The Research

Jim Hudson, a consultant for government organizations and medical research charities, performed the first quantitative analysis to understand which research is best funded. He claims that the areas with the most funding are the ones most likely to progress.

Hudson categorized 3,269 grants from 50 funders to uncover where cannabis research is focused, publishing the broad findings on his website to explain how research funding works.

“The government’s budget is a political statement about what we value as a society,” Daniel Mallinson, a cannabis policy researcher at Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, told Science after reviewing Hudson’s funding analysis. “The fact that most of the cannabis money is going to drug abuse and probably to cannabis use disorder versus medical purposes—that says something.”

This data confirms where government grants to cannabis research really go—towards research focusing on the harms instead of uncovering the benefits.

Even with this being the case, the overall state of cannabis research funding in the U.S. is rising.

Science reported that in the U.S., we’ve gone from less than $30.2 million in 2000 to exceed $143 million in 2018. While the funds allocated towards analyzing cannabis medical treatments has grown, the portion of funding spent on cannabis harm research is growing faster.

The analysis also highlights some legal hurdles that come with cannabis research. $34 million spent on cannabis medical treatment research was primarily put towards analyzing cannabinoids rather than the plant.

This could primarily be the result of practicality since it’s typically easier to work with the isolated cannabis compounds and make regulated doses than using the whole plant, psychoactive compounds (THC) and all. However, in the U.S., government permission to use the entire plant for research purposes isn’t so easy to obtain.

At this point, the only legal producer of cannabis for scientists in the U.S. is the University of Mississippi. This is problematic because the cannabis that’s grown there isn’t as potent as the flower that’s distributed for recreational purposes.

Limitations and Obstacles to Overcome

While the analysis doesn’t paint a complete picture of cannabis research worldwide, it showcases public data from several countries. However, it omits some key players in this elevated research.

Five years ago, Newsweek Magazine did a feature on Israeli scientist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam—the man who first fully synthesized tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) after a police officer gave him an 11-pound bag of confiscated Lebanese hashish. Since then, Dr. Mechoulam and his colleagues were also the first to decode the exact structure of cannabidiol (CBD). Yet even with Israel’s researchers significantly contributing to cannabis research, the country hasn’t been featured in the data. 

The analysis is also somewhat limited as it doesn’t differentiate between the funds for outside scientists and the institute’s own researchers. Also, it doesn’t take the private research funding increase we’ve seen in recent years.

For instance, Harvard Medical School’s International Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute has been provided funding from Atlas Biotechnologies—a Canadian cannabis producer—along with other companies.

Other examples exist, which is why Hudson would like to expand this list of included countries and funders. However, the main issue here is that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) perpetuates funding limitations for therapeutic cannabis research.

Since the DEA still has cannabis listed as a Schedule I drug, it’s deemed a substance with high potential for abuse and no evidence of medical benefits. But the restrictions on the research that would highlight the evidence of medical benefits continue to bottleneck funding and progress in this research field.

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