Journal of Cannabinoid Medicine

What is Driving the Future of the Industry? Cannabis Research Initiatives in the US

by | Dec 10, 2019

Journal of Cannabinoid Medicine

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.

While significant discrepancies between national and state legislation towards cannabis may still exist, recently, there has been a boom in the study of the plant. Cannabis research initiatives in the US are popping up across the country, no matter the current scheduling of the plant. Thanks in part to state-level opportunities, investments from private sources, and a societal push – cannabis research is finally flourishing.

In the past, federal restrictions and bureaucratic roadblocks slowed down the pace of research. In many cases, it also dictated the topics under study. As of only a few years ago, federally funded studies focused exclusively on the negative impacts of the plant and left little room to explore cannabinoids for medicine or technological advances.

At the end of 2019, which organizations and research facilities are focusing their efforts on the study of cannabis and cannabinoid research?

UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative

In 2017, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), established one of the first academic departments in the world entirely focused on the study of cannabis and hemp. Nestled under the umbrella of UCLA Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, UCLA's relatively new initiative is headed by Director Jeff Chen, M.D./M.B.A.

Dr. Chen and his team have worked to create a center dedicated to studying the therapeutic benefits of the plant. UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative's mission is “to advance scientific understanding of the impacts of cannabis and hemp on body, brain, mind, and society.” One of the primary goals behind the creation of this organization is to guide policy decisions with accurate and peer-reviewed science.

Several of UCLA's active research topics concern the impacts of adolescent cannabis use, which has been linked in previous studies to a higher risk for mental health conditions later in life. As a few recent examples, Dr. Alison Burggren is working on “Effects Of Heavy Adolescent Cannabis Use On Brain Morphology In Aging;” Associate Research Dr. Dara Ghahremani is looking at “Craving Regulation in Heavy Adolescent Cannabis Users: Brain, Behavior, and Interventions;” and Assistant Clinical Professor Dr. Kate Taylor is examining, “Targeting Maladaptive Responding To Negative Affect In Adolescent Cannabis Users.”

Recently, the Cannabis Research Initiative announced a research director, Dr. Ziva Cooper, and was awarded $3.5 million from the National Institutes of Health to study how cannabis affects men and women differently. As per Dr. Cooper in an interview for News Medical, “This is an ideal first project as it probes significant public health questions related to the potential medicinal and adverse effects of cannabis and cannabinoids, a central mission of the Initiative.” This funding lanches the first funded clinical research project at UCLA.

Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research

Another research center founded in California, the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR), has been around since 2000. The CMCR is supported by the California State Legislature to “enhance understanding of the efficacy and adverse effects of marijuana as a pharmacological agent.” With nearly 20 years of research under its belt, the CMCR has been breaking down barriers and dispelling misconceptions about the plant well before today's heightened level of interest.

Since its founding, Dr. Igor Grant, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, has been the director. Dr. J. Hampton Atkinson and Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry, Thomas D. Marcotte, Ph.D., join Dr. Grant as co-directors.

Currently, the CMCR focuses on two research goals: the effects of cannabis for pain and a more general focus on public safety issues of cannabis and cannabinoids.

In 2019, the center published several scientific papers, including “Validation of a liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry method for analyzing cannabinoids in oral fluid” in the International Journal of Clinical Chemistry; “Regulatory barriers to research on cannabis and cannabinoids: a proposed path forward,” in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research; and most recently, “A cost-effectiveness model for adjunctive smoked cannabis in the treatment of chronic neuropathic pain,” also from the pages of Cannabis And Cannabinoid Research.

CSU Pueblo's Institute of Cannabis Research

Launched with funding from the state of Colorado and Pueblo County, the Institute of Cannabis Research (ICR) at Colorado State University, Pueblo came to life in 2016. According to their website, the ICR “is the nation's first multi-disciplinary cannabis research center at a regional, comprehensive institution.”

The objectives of the ICR are not only to conduct multi-disciplinary unbiased research but to promote the responsible development of the industry and advance our scientific, legal, and socioeconomic understanding of the plants. Unlike many of the other research initiatives in the country, which are exclusively focused on the therapeutic potential of cannabis, the ICR has an expanded scope of interest covering agriculture, technology, and industrial applications.

The ICR works closely with several state departments, including the Department of Public Health and Environment and the Department of Agriculture. They have connections with the Industrial Hemp Research Foundation and the Hemp Farmers Association. The center is responsible for the publication of the Journal of Cannabis Research.

A few of their most exciting active studies include “Understanding Genomic Constituents of Cannabis and Genetic Regulation Underlying Cannabinoid Production,” led by Dr. Sang Hyuck Park, and “Exploring Factors to Mitigate Customer's Perceived Risk of CBD Oil Usage,” through Dr. Laee Choi.

An Industry Now Supported with Research Initiatives

Until recently, a common argument against the legalization of cannabis was the lack of research into the social, political, and health implications. Although this research was desperately needed, it was nearly impossible to pursue these avenues of study, thanks to the strict regulatory environment. 

Today, this environment is finally shifting as well-established and respected organizations launch cannabis research initiatives. There is much to learn about cannabis, and finally, there are places capable of peer-reviewed, unbiased research.