Millions of dollars pour into cannabis research each year at universities across the world. And that funding is increasingly coming from the cannabis industry itself, potentially raising conflict-of-interest questions.
Industry giants such as Canopy Growth, Curaleaf, Tilray, Cronos, and Charlotte’s Web have funded, or otherwise partnered on, university research on a wide range of cannabis-related issues. For example:
* Canopy Growth donated $2.5 million (Canadian dollars) in 2018 to the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use to establish the Canopy Growth Professorship in Cannabis Science for research on the use of cannabis in addressing opioid use disorder; they also launched the Canopy Growth Cannabis Science Endowment Fund. (UBC also partnered with another Canadian cannabis company in 2016, Tilray, for a clinical trial on cannabis and PTSD.)
* Curaleaf announced in May 2019 that it will be funding industrial hemp research at the University of Connecticut.
* In March 2020, Charlotte’s Web announced that its R&D division, CW Labs, would be “headquartered … in the Hauptmann Woodward Research Institute on the campus of the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and The Center for Integrated Global Biomedical Sciences.”
* Cronos, meanwhile, entered into a partnership in 2018 with the Technion Research and Development Foundation, a subsidiary of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, to study the use of cannabis in skin disorders.
Companies funding research on the industries they operate in is nothing new, Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University, told Cannabis Wire. The tobacco, pharmaceutical, gambling, and alcohol industries all fund research related to their industries, he said. The difference, Humphreys said, is that “people haven’t yet, for cultural reasons, thought through that the cannabis industry is going to behave like any other industry in having economic interests of its own.”
“I think there’s a lot of people who would think taking money from the tobacco industry is unthinkable or the pharmaceutical industry is unthinkable but the cannabis industry is different—the cannabis industry is just hippies and tie-dyes; they are not corporate types,” Humphreys added. “But in truth they are an industry like any other, and they are going to be more inclined to fund projects that they think will be done by people who will be more favorable to them.”
Another university that recently started a cannabis research venture with the backing of cannabis companies is Harvard. The university launched the International Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute in May 2019, in partnership with Atlas Growers, a Canadian medical cannabis company; Cannabis Science Inc., a California-based biotechnology company; and Flavocure Biotech, a Maryland-based biotechnology company. The institute has raised roughly $10 million in funding for its research so far.
The institute has “rigorous standards” to make sure there is no conflict of interest, according to Wilfred Ngwa, director of Harvard Global Health Catalyst, which houses the institute. For example, Ngwa told Cannabis Wire, the researchers can have no personal financial connections, such as shares, with the company that is funding the research.
Humphreys listed some of the precautions universities and researchers could take to avoid conflicts of interest.
For one, he said, they can ensure that the companies funding the research have no influence on the design of the study. Second, he said, the university, not the companies, should own the findings. That way even if the findings are not favorable to the company, the study can still be published.
There should also be full disclosure about who funded the research and what role they played, if any, in the research process, Humphreys said. Such information would help the research journal to which studies are submitted decide whether or not to publish the findings.
But while some universities are open about where they get funding for research, others are less than willing to divulge the sources.
For example, the University of California, Los Angeles, which houses the Cannabis Research Initiative, refused to reveal the names of the people and organizations funding its research, suggesting—in response to a public records request filed by Cannabis Wire—that such disclosures are “an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and that “the public interest in withholding donor information clearly outweighs the interest in disclosing the information.”
Other universities that similarly cited privacy clauses in their state’s public records acts as grounds for withholding donor information include the University of Colorado, Boulder, home to the Center for Research and Education Addressing Cannabis and Health; and the University of New Mexico, where researchers are conducting studies on medical cannabis through the Medical Cannabis Research Fund. Most of the Medical Cannabis Research Fund’s donors are listed on its website, however, with the exception of one who recently donated $10,000. The University aside, the Fund’s publicly announced donors or funding partners are all companies.
Meanwhile, some universities will not accept funding from the cannabis industry because of its illegal status at the federal level. The Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research at Humboldt State University in California, for example, is one such institute. Researchers are not only barred by the university from accepting funding from the cannabis industry, but they do not receive university funding either, as university administrators fear the loss of federal aid.
The funding restrictions have limited the institute’s ability to conduct research, said Joshua Meisel, co-founder of the Institute. The Institute only raised $572,269 between 2012 and 2018—from the North Coast Small Business Development Center, California’s Department of Public Health, and Colorado State University’s Institute for Cannabis Research.
Washington State University’s Collaboration on Cannabis, Policy, and Outreach finds itself in a similar place as Meisel and the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. While the Collaboration is trying to protect itself from potential conflicts of interest, part of its decision to not accept funding from the industry also has to do with concerns over breaking federal law, according to Michael McDonell, an associate professor at Washington State University and the Collaboration’s chair.
“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a university administrator who doesn’t have anxiety over federal funding,” McDonell told Cannabis Wire. “It’s not just federal funding for research that’s at stake, but it’s student loans.”
Washington State University, along with the University of Washington, receives funding from the state to conduct research on cannabis. However, both universities have only received a small portion of the funds earmarked for them, with the rest going to the state’s “General Fund” for education and other state services, McDonell said. As of the end of 2019, the Collaboration had only received $280,000 for two years.
“We’re struggling because unlike any other agricultural commodity we cannot get funding from USDA or from private donors,” McDonell said. “Our hands are tied from the private-donors side in a lot of ways because we can’t take any money from the industry.”