Medical cannabis research growing, but hurdles remain

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By Omar Sacirbey

Scientific researchers are increasingly interested in studying the medicinal properties of cannabis, and breakthroughs have been achieved that could lead to additional uses for medical marijuana.

The moves could bolster the MMJ industry and boost sales. But marijuana’s status as a federally prohibited Schedule 1 drug remains a serious obstacle to research.

That status undermines the medical community’s acceptance of marijuana, which is crucial for the MMJ industry to thrive. Dispensaries depend on doctors to write recommendations for patients. But few researchers have a so-called Schedule 1 license that allows them to conduct research on cannabis.

“It hinders science,” David Schubert, a professor at the Salk Institute and the lead author of a new study into MMJ’s ability to combat Alzheimer’s disease, said. “It’s important for these guys (the DEA) to loosen up.”

Researchers said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration could help cut regulatory red tape by downgrading marijuana’s status to Schedule 2. The agency has said it is weighing such a move, and a it is expected to announce a decision soon.

In the meantime, states including California and Colorado are ponying up money to fund medical marijuana research. And marijuana industry advocates hope the creation of new academic and medical cannabis research institutes – coupled with the recent success marijuana has had in private sector clinical studies – will spur additional research.

That would help marijuana establish scientific respectability and gain credibility in the medical profession so more doctors would be willing to write MMJ recommendations.

Salk Institute Study

Consider the Salk Institute, where researchers found that THC and certain other compounds in cannabis are able to fight the Alzheimer’s-causing protein which occurs in brain cells. Their findings were published in June in the journal Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world.

How did Salk scientists conduct the research, given that federal law bars cannabis research without government permission? Rather than testing on humans or animals, the scientists turned to lab-grown tissue cultures requiring only “microscopic amounts” of THC, Schubert said. “That was enough for the studies.”

If further studies bear out findings that cannabis compounds can combat Alzheimer’s-inducing proteins, there would almost certainly be commercial applications. “This ability to remove these proteins from cells has a profound effect,” Schubert said. “But the only way to find out is to get good clinical trials.”

The problem is that human or animal studies would require the Salk Institute to get Schedule 1 research permission. But applying for that could take more than a year, Schubert said, consuming administrative time and funds. Besides, there’s no guarantee Salk would receive permission.

“I’ve talked with Salk. They don’t want to do it because it’s a huge amount of paperwork,” Schubert said.

Rescheduling Impact

That’s why researchers and marijuana industry officials are awaiting word from the DEA.

Even so, cannabis researchers are tempering expectations on what impact rescheduling could have.

“The consensus is that moving cannabis to Schedule 2 will make research a little bit easier,” said Mowgli Holmes, chief scientific officer at Phylos Bioscience in Portland, a plant research laboratory. “It’s not clear how it will make research easier but most people think that it will.”

Marcel Bonn-Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, agreed the impact of rescheduling cannabis to Schedule 2 would be modest for researchers.

“If cannabis gets rescheduled to Schedule 2, all that it will do is save some time and a little cost,” said Bonn-Miller, the principal investigator on a recently NIH-funded study into whether cannabis can alleviate PTSD symptoms.

Bonn-Miller – who serves as the executive director of the Institute for Research on Cannabinoids, a nonprofit scientific organization in Colorado Springs – noted there would be fewer regulatory hoops to jump through, especially with the DEA, and security at cannabis research facilities could be eased.

He estimated it takes 12-18 months to get a study off the ground in which cannabis is administered. Much of that involves paperwork and awaiting DEA permission, Bonn-Miller said, which a Schedule 2 classification wouldn’t require.

However modest, rescheduling would be a welcome improvement for researchers, Bonn-Miller added.

“Right now it’s difficult but not impossible to do controlled experimental research on cannabis, where you’re actually touching the drug and giving it out, which is the science that is lacking the most,” he said. “We have lots of observational studies but what we really need are controlled clinical trials.”

State Action

While federal change for now is uncertain, researchers said states are taking steps to enable cannabis research. California and Colorado both allocated one-time sums of about $10 million that can be doled out to universities and independent research institutes. Delaware’s MMJ law calls for funding the local Fraunhofer Center for Molecular Biotechnology, while Pennsylvania and Hawaii are among states with medical marijuana laws that provide financial support to cannabis research.

In 2015, the Oregon Legislature created the Oregon State Cannabis Research Task Force. Its goal: Determine how to conduct public health research into cannabis.

Its conclusion: There needs to be a “free-standing research institute that is quarantined from the university system and has a sustainable source of funding,” said Holmes, the group’s chair. “Only that way would we be able to get this work done.”

Oregon lawmakers are drafting a bill for the next legislative session that would create such an institute, Holmes said.

A number of scientific institutes – including Bonn-Miller’s Institute for Research on Cannabinoids in Colorado Springs – have been launched to study cannabis, although not all of them touch the plant.

Philadelphia-based Thomas Jefferson University recently unveiled the Center for Medical Cannabis Education & Research, housed within the private health sciences university. In April, the Harvard School of Medicine was the site of a medical marijuana conference, “CannMed 2016,” sponsored by two private Massachusetts companies, Courtagen Life Sciences and Medical Genomics. Private companies conducting cannabis research include GW Pharmaceuticals, Catalent, and Kannalife Sciences.

The American Medical Association has jumped into the debate, too, recently passing a resolution calling for the DEA to enable cannabis research.

“I don’t think I’ve spoken to anybody who is opposed to more research,” the Salk Institute’s Schubert said.

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at