(This story is part of the cover package in the July issue of MJBizMagazine.)
Long restricted by the federal government and stigmatized by the medical and scientific communities, cannabis has been involved in only a handful of studies carried out in the United States over the past several decades.
The overwhelming majority of cannabis studies undertaken by universities, pharmaceutical companies and other entities – and frequently funded by the canna-skeptical National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health – have focused on addiction and impairment, impact on teens and other potentially negative consequences of cannabis.
But federal agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration – while not exactly smoking blunts with NORML on the frontlines of legalization – are not the anti-marijuana zealots they were only a decade ago.
DEA expands licenses
The DEA, for example, has in the past year increased the number of entities licensed to cultivate cannabis for federally approved research from one to six. The agency also has awarded cannabis research licenses, including some for companies with state-issued marijuana business licenses, such as Colorado-based MedPharm Holdings.
There has been a modest increase in federal funding opportunities for cannabis research, and at least one state-licensed marijuana company, CT Pharma in Connecticut, has federal approval to provide cannabis for a study in partnership with Yale University. Such research funding likely will increase, thanks to a provision in the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill passed last year allowing researchers to use cannabis from state-licensed businesses.
Additionally, many federally approved cannabis growers and researchers say the DEA and FDA have been supportive partners.
“The DEA has actually been very good to work with. They’re slow, I’ll say that. But for the most part, they’re very responsive,” MedPharm CEO Albert Gutierrez told MJBizDaily earlier this year.
“The DEA has been an extremely collaborative supporter … ever since I started working with them 15 years ago,” said Dr. Sue Sisley, executive director of the Scottsdale Research Institute, one of the six entities to receive federal cannabis cultivation approval. “We have had an excellent rapport with the DEA.”
At the same time, U.S. medical, scientific and pharmaceutical circles have been slow to accept the therapeutic benefits of cannabis – though that, too, is changing.
Indeed, a few universities are studying cannabis’ potential therapeutic effects, such as one study into pain management coordinated by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York in partnership with Minnesota-based multistate operator Vireo Health, a subsidiary of Goodness Growth Holdings.
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“There has been a marked change in terms of buy-in from physicians and providers,” said Dr. Stephen Dahmer, chief medical officer at Vireo. “I’ve seen a tremendous shift in bias.”
Despite this progress, marijuana’s status as a Schedule 1 drug still makes it very difficult to get research approval. Many research institutions find the amount of time, effort and money needed to get federal approval to study cannabis remains too much squeeze for the juice in return.
Other cannabis executives eschew the federal framework by surveying their own consumer database for information about product efficacy, as California-based infused products maker Papa & Barkley has done with its so-called in-home-use tests.
While research into the harms of cannabis still make up the bulk of studies on the plant, there are an increasing number of studies into marijuana’s impact on specific ailments, such as pain management, opiate replacement, brain inflammation and sleep problems, among others.
This is critical at a time when the cannabis industry is maturing to a point where consumers who once were content to jump from product to product will increasingly select items that provide consistent relief, Dahmer said.
“There is a very marked amount of attrition for new patients that come into any market,” Dahmer said. “One way to combat attrition is to find a therapy that truly works for patients.”