Landmark Cannabis Study Could Shape Medical Marijuana Business Regulations in Future

A five-year study on medical cannabis use spearheaded by a federal government agency could have lasting repercussions for the MMJ industry, both positive and negative.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Drexel University a $3.3 million grant to examine the impact of medical marijuana on young adults in Los Angeles, including whether it leads to higher levels of drug use among that demographic.

A big part of the study will focus on the MMJ business community, with researchers looking into how dispensaries affect the physical and psychological health of locals between the ages of 18 and 26.

“Dispensaries are a relatively new and unusual institution, and they haven’t been studied much,” Dr. Stephen Lankenau, an associate professor in Drexel’s School of Public Health, said in a release announcing the grant.

It’s a landmark development, marking the first time that a US government agency has funded a large study on the affects of cannabis and the MMJ industry in general. This in itself shows that attitudes about cannabis are starting to change in the halls of power. The federal government has largely shunned marijuana research in the past, as officials aren’t too keen on spending money to study a Schedule I controlled substance.

That’s put the cannabis industry at a major disadvantage: With a lack of solid research about the positive aspects of MMJ, the feds can keep falling back on the old refrain that marijuana has no valid medical use and is a dangerous drug.

The NIH-funded study could therefore give cannabis advocates some much-needed data to help pass medical marijuana laws and strengthen the credibility of the industry. It also might open the door for more government-funded research, which could in turn bolster the cannabis cause.

Lankenau said he hopes the study will have an immediate real-world impact and “can guide medical marijuana policies at local, state and national levels to result in the most positive health outcomes for young adults and communities.”

Many cannabis supporters have been calling for federal research on marijuana for years, convinced that such studies will prove once and for all that the benefits of the plant to patients, communities and the country in general far outweigh any negatives. Thorough studies could also prove that the potential downsides trumpeted by MMJ opponents (more crime, more teen use, etc.) are overblown or completely false.

But be careful what you wish for: The study could also harm medical marijuana efforts if the findings reflect poorly on the industry and MMJ in general. If, for instance, the study finds that medical marijuana laws lead to increases in drug use among young adults, then it becomes a powerful weapon for cannabis opponents across the country. Communities with existing MMJ laws could look to introduce new operational limits on cannabis businesses, while states considering legalization could shoot down such proposals. And Los Angeles isn’t exactly the best place to conduct a study about the impact of MMJ laws, given that there haven’t been regulations on the industry.

So far, though, there’s reason to be optimistic. It seems the research team is approaching the study with a very open mind.

“One study hypothesis is that dispensaries, which often provide social support in addition to medical marijuana, may provide the basis for better physical and psychological outcomes for medical marijuana users, compared to non-medical users who purchase the drug on the black market,” Drexel University said in a news release announcing the grant.

If the study verifies that hypothesis, the cannabis industry will surely benefit.