Rising Research The importance of cannabis research in Colorado and beyond

Despite the fact that cannabis is one of the oldest plants that has been used in medical care, with evidence suggesting its use in a variety of different cultures, its positive history has not prevented it from becoming a casualty in the “war on drugs.” Without a legitimate medical use, it has become almost impossible to justify research into the therapeutic effects of cannabis. While Colorado has taken strides to help speed up the approval and expectation of cannabis research, the rest of the country still has a lot of progress to make.

The challenge of acquiring the numerous required regulatory approvals and the matter of getting a hold of cannabis to use in a study is a major and constant issue. For nearly 50 years, the University of Mississippi has been the sole facility permitted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to grow cannabis. Only in August 2016 did the DEA, as part of an announcement that squelched rumors of a rescheduling of cannabis was possible, change its position and state publicly that it would begin allowing researchers and drug companies to source cannabis from other locations.

“The nearly eight-year process it took to start the study—which aims to determine efficacy of four different potencies of smoked cannabis in veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant posttraumatic stress disorder—illustrates the difficulties of conducting cannabis research in the United States.”

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) sponsored a study that is an example of both the challenges of cannabis research and of Colorado’s pioneering role in funding cannabis medical research (the study would not have been possible without the over two million dollar grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment which was funded with cannabis business licensing fees). While a DEA application was made in 2010, it was only on February 6, 2017 that the first participant received cannabis at the Scottsdale Research Institute in Arizona. The nearly eight-year process it took to start the study—which aims to determine efficacy of four different potencies of smoked cannabis in veterans with chronic, treatment-resistant Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—illustrates the difficulties of conducting cannabis research in the United States. Approval was required to be obtained from the Public Health Service (PHS), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), local and federal DEA offices, three Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). And the researchers ultimately had to accept cannabis grown by the facility at the University of Mississippi that did not meet their exact requirements to proceed without further delay.

This is not the only funding for cannabis research that Colorado has provided. The Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council in Colorado made recommendations for almost seven million additional dollars of grant funding for medical cannabis studies. The additional studies being funded include research on the medical benefits of cannabis related to: inflammatory bowel disease in adolescents and young adults, Parkinson’s disease related tremors, pediatric epilepsy, pediatric brain tumor palliative care, adjunctive treatment for refractory pediatric epilepsy, substitutes for Oxycodone and sleep treatments.

Colorado’s government is not the only level of government in Colorado helping fund research. The Pueblo County Board of County Commissioners voted to provide additional funding of up to $270,000 to be used for cannabis community impact studies and medical cannabis research. This funding, in addition to $900,000 from the Colorado legislature, is also being used to create the Institute of Cannabis Research (ICR) at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Among the research being conducted is a study on the effects of medicinal cannabinoids on seizures in adults with medically refractory epilepsy.

Current medical research is now starting to uncover the mechanisms by which cannabis can provide relief for several ailments. Despite these hopeful signs, it remains very difficult to conduct medical research on the potential benefits of cannabis. States can help lead the way for cannabis research by providing much needed funding and by helping local institutions apply for DEA licenses to grow cannabis. By providing research funding, Colorado has once again provided an example of innovative thinking to the rest of the United States.

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