Follow the Funding: Cannabis Research Biased Against Cannabis

by | Sep 28, 2020

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

The pursuit of cannabis research has never been an easy endeavor. For decades, ongoing restrictions on cannabis in both the US and abroad have burdened researchers with unnecessary regulatory barriers, slowing down or outright preventing scientific exploration. Furthermore, access to publicly available funding for cannabis-based research has also been difficult, if not impossible, to access.

A new analysis of the last 18 years of cannabis research tells us these restrictions and funding barriers have dramatically reshaped the study landscape. The focus of publicly funded cannabis research has overwhelmingly investigated the harms over the therapeutic potential.

Despite the rapidly evolving social and political space for cannabis, up until the end of this analysis in 2018, research into the harms of cannabis received 20 times more funding than the medicinal effects. This lopsided approach continues to influence the legal trajectory of the plant as well as its incorporation into modern medicine.

Frustrating Findings in Analysis of Funding for Cannabis Research

In 2020, Dr. Jim Hudson, founder of Hellth, a consultancy specializing in health research classification, analysis, and strategic development, launched a new initiative to explore funding sources and targets. The goal for this initial research analysis was “to get an overview of cannabis research funding by research area in the US, UK, and Canada over the last 2 decades.”

Hudson's end goal is to apply this same tool toward cancer research, but the cannabis ecosystem offered a “bite-size test drive,” as Science reported. Hellth collected funding information from 50 funders in three countries (Canada, US, and the UK) between 2000 and 2018. The assessment categorized the funding into four topics:

  • Cannabis affects – the effects of cannabis use
  • Endocannabinoid function – the form and function of the endocannabinoid system
  • Cannabinoids as-treatment – isolated cannabinoids as treatment options
  • Cannabis treatment – cannabis as a whole, as a treatment option

In total, the assessment compiled $1.56 billion worth of funding into these categories. The kicker? Almost half of this funding was doled out to studies looking at the potential harms of cannabis, including exposure, prevention, effects, tolerance, withdrawal, and other related negatives.

While the tool tells us that more funding than ever before is getting funneled into cannabis, there are still disparities between research into the benefits and the harms. As of 2018, funding is still more focused on the adverse effects of cannabis than the therapeutic potential.

Hudson's Research is Nothing New for Researchers

In 2017, the National Academies Press released “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research.” In this extensive review, the authors spelled out the problematic legal, political, and financial terrain researchers face in studying the plant.

As per chapter 15, there are regulatory barriers: “Investigators seeking to conduct research on cannabis or cannabinoids must navigate a series of review processes that may involve the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), institutional review boards, offices or departments in state government, state boards.”

Layered on top of this are the barriers to supply. The University of Mississippi remains the sole supplier for all US-based research. But this supply does not reflect the changing marketplace, with hundreds of different products, strains, and potencies now widely accessible. Recent research has even determined that the federal research supply of cannabis is more akin to industrial hemp than to medical or recreational cannabis available in legal markets.

Finally, the Hellth assessment confirms what the National Academies Press reported in 2017: the funding is limited for cannabis research and specifically for pro-cannabis research. The review detailed how, in 2015, most funding supplied through the National Institute of Health fell under the NIDA's mandate, which traditionally views cannabis as a drug, not a medicine. Out of all the NIDA-directed funding, only 16.5 percent supported investigations into the therapeutic properties of cannabinoids. 

Hudson's assessment tool affirms what researchers have known for decades: the landscape of cannabis research is working against the advancement of cannabis as medicine. It's unequivocally biased against the plant, despite the therapeutic effects it's already known to have.

The Immediate Future is Private and State-Funded

As the piece in Science pointed out, limited pro-cannabis funding is a vicious cycle. On the one hand, “research is restricted because the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration lists marijuana as a Schedule I drug, meaning it is considered to have a high potential for abuse and no evidence for medical benefits.” On the other hand, “the threshold needed to demonstrate evidence of medical benefits is hard to reach because the research is restricted.”

But as many professionals may realize, federal funding isn't the only way forward. Because of the continued restrictions and negative focus of federal funding, many organizations now work with private funders and state-based programs.

With the slow pace of most political change, it may be years yet before federal funding shifts its focus to the medicinal potential of cannabis. Until then, private funding is filling the gap and making critical breakthroughs about the therapeutic potential of both cannabis and the isolated cannabinoids.