Table of Contents
Long gone are the days when cannabis research focused on risks, addiction, and impairment. Global cannabis research initiatives have shifted their attention to medicinal applications. International cannabinoid research centers are popping up in surprising places, and hundreds of clinical trials are underway. It’s 2020, and the world is experiencing a green wave of scientific study.
While the U.S. remains problematic thanks to a patchwork of legislation, other countries are quickly dedicating both public and private dollars towards the study of cannabis and cannabinoids. Even if American policymakers refuse to accept the potential, international researchers are well into the later phases of clinical trials.
Israel, Canada, and Thailand are some of the biggest centers for global cannabis research today. An outsider may notice there are few similarities between how each country regulates the cultivation, production, and consumption of the plant within their state borders. Yet, each country has created a unique, supportive, and relatively open environment for the scientific study of cannabis.
There are other areas around the world with cannabis-focused research centers, yet these three countries are the most notable as we head into a new decade.
Israel, A Long-Time Leader in Global Cannabis Research
When it comes to the study of medical cannabis, Israel is head and shoulders above the rest of the world. Some journalists have even written about Israel as “The Holy Land of medical marijuana.” Interestingly, Israel has the highest number of medical cannabis patients per capita, but cannabis still isn’t as widely accepted as it is in places like Canada. Although there may be a hesitation to legalize the plant completely, the Israeli government has a long history of support for cannabis research.
There are already several large centers founded in the country, and some of the most exciting publications come from Israel-based researchers advancing the field of cannabis research. For example, in 2017, the School of Pharmacy at Hebrew University launched the Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research. In 2019, the Tel Aviv Cancer Biology Research Centre also announced the study of cannabis for cancer treatment. There is an influential network of Israeli medical research centers turning their focus to the potential of the plant in medicine.
Because of the decades of governmental support in Israel, there are also several participating hospitals supporting preclinical and clinical trials of cannabis among their patients. Thus far, some of these hospital-supported studies have examined the medical value of the plant for pain, chemotherapy, dementia, and geriatric care (among others).
Israel also has a booming private medical research sector, with Tikun as the star player. Starting in 2011, Tikun began pumping out preclinical work on cannabis for the treatment of a wide variety of conditions, including Crohn’s, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, cancer, and more.
An Overnight Success Story, Thailand
Thailand went from a country with some of the strictest punishments for cannabis to a country ready for the medical cannabis revolution. Seemingly overnight, the country has transformed its legal stance and social opinion on cannabis use. It’s an incredible transformation.
Since the legalization of medical cannabis in 2018, the Thai government has maintained strict control over production and cultivation. As the market matures, this regulation is expected to change.
The primary source of cannabis in the country today is Kasetsart University in Natakorn Thasnas. However, other universities like Bangkok’s Rangsit University have launched their own research centers to add to the national supply.
In 2020, the government also made the announcement it was planning on opening a network of cannabis clinics. Only two of the 77 proposed clinics are open today, with one in Bangkok and another in Chiang Mai. According to reports, demand is so high, that each clinic is completely booked out until further notice.
If market predictions are anything to go by, the Asian market may “challenge or surpass” the American market within five to ten years. As the only state on the continent with legal access, Thailand is poised to become the cannabis leader for the entire region as more countries come online in the coming years.
Canada, The First Recreational Market
With Canada as the first developed nation to introduce recreational legislation, it perhaps should come as no surprise to see it as a leader in global cannabis research. The Canadian government has a long history of federally funded cannabis research, which has only grown in a post-legalization environment.
In 2019, the government announced the latest round of funding, a total of $24.5 million divided among 26 projects. These research initiatives, all in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, looked at cannabinoids for the treatment of pain, and anxiety, and several on harm reduction.
Beyond the substantial federal support for the study of cannabis, private organizations are working towards cannabis-focused research goals. The Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids, which started in 2000, is one such organization. It serves as a source of funding as well as a crucial research network, connecting like-minded experts.
Several universities within Canada have built robust faculties dedicated to the pursuit of cannabinoid sciences. One of the most prominent examples is the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University. So far, its projects have examined cannabis from addiction and mental health perspectives, cannabis for pain, and a few other assessments of the biochemical properties of cannabis.
Regulatory Barriers Preventing Progressive Research in America
According to The National Academies Press 2017 report “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research,” several barriers are preventing American scientists from studying the controversial plant — or at least making it unreasonably difficult.
At the state level, a majority of Americans now have access to medicinal or recreational cannabis, but the federal government remains staunchly in opposition to changing its policies. Marijuana remains on the Controlled Substances Act under a Schedule I Classification with cocaine and methamphetamines. This regulation prevents many federally connected research facilities, medical centers, and academic institutions from pursuing cannabis in any meaningful manner.
As per the authors of the 2017 report, “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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), institutional review boards, offices or departments in state government, state boards.” Layers of paperwork are creating a lengthy bureaucratic mess, which has reportedly prevented many from investigating the therapeutic value of the plant.
In the U.S., there are also problems with the supply. As the National Academies Report detailed, there is a single source for all cannabis research material in the country. The NIDA Drug Supply Program has contracted the University of Mississippi with the production of the nation’s research-grade cannabis material, which is a problem. Not only are there shortages, but the product itself is a poor representation of what’s available on the market.
At the time of writing, there were only five varieties of marijuana cigarettes (plus a placebo) and 11 bulk options (again, plus a placebo). The highest THC is either 6.7 percent (cigarette) or ten percent (bulk), neither of which represents the highly potent strains that consumers have access to.
The added frustrations caused by the anti-cannabis opinions of the current administration, make for an incredibly challenging research environment in America. Unfortunately, this has meant American researchers are falling behind the scientific advances of their international peers.
The Slow March Toward Knowledge
The green rush of global cannabis research has only just begun, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating time to live in. According to Clinicaltrials.gov, there are over 700 clinical trials using cannabis in one stage of research or another around the globe. While many have a more conservative focus (harm reduction, addiction, and impairment), there has been a notable shift toward therapeutic applications in recent years.
Countries with a supportive legal environment, easy access to funding, and a hub for global cannabis research will solidify their competitive advantage over the coming years. It will be curious to see what happens when other countries come online over the next decade. Who will be left behind?