Federal support for cannabis research continues to rise.
A first-of-its-kind “request for information” issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Wednesday is the latest example. It aims “to solicit information from the scientific research community about its interest in and barriers to research on the health effects of cannabis and its constituents.”
For more than fifty years, cannabis has been placed in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which is for substances with “no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse,” according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). It is the most restrictive category and therefore makes for the most cumbersome research protocols.
But a lot has changed in fifty years. Dozens of states have legalized cannabis for medical use – and so have many countries. In 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its first pharmaceutical derived directly from the cannabis plant in the form of Epidiolex. And in the past year, the DEA has started to issue licenses to entities to grow cannabis for research, whereas there had for decades only been one sole entity approved.
Despite federal law remaining unchanged, the federal tune slowly has.
“Cannabis has been used medicinally for over 3,000 years,” reads the opening line of the RFI’s “background” section, which continues by noting the “growing interest from health care providers and the public in the potential medicinal properties of cannabis-related products.”
But, as a result of states having to bushwhack on medical cannabis without top-down guidance informed by robust research when it comes to everything from qualifying conditions to quality control, the NIH notes that “there is a need to strengthen the scientific evidence underlying the clinical impact and potential harms of cannabis products for specific diseases and conditions.”
Of particular note is the NIH’s inclusion of both cannabis and cannabinoids, whereas years ago, there tended to be a federal emphasis on cannabinoids alone.
NIH notes that it “supports rigorous investigator-initiated research on many potential therapeutic uses of cannabis and cannabis-related compounds, but there is a need to expand the number of studies and strengthen the scientific evidence related to the clinical uses of cannabis products.”
The barriers that NIH notes it has heard reported range from “availability of and access to appropriate cannabis and cannabis products/constituents” to “inadequate scientific infrastructure to support research studies.”
NIH will accept responses to its request through October 15. It provided six topics, one of which specifically notes Schedule I: “Barriers to initiating and conducting cannabinoid/cannabis-related research including but not limited to the Schedule I license process.”
There are eight “participating NIH Institutes and Centers,” including: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH); National Eye Institute (NEI); National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); National Institute on Aging (NIA); National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA); National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR); National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Many of these individual entities within NIH have ramped up their own cannabis-related work in recent years.
NIAAA, for example, has developed a “cannabis policy taxonomy,” while NCI hosted a Cannabis, Cannabinoids, and Cancer Research Symposium in late 2020, as Cannabis Wire reported.
And NIDA, which is at the center of the federal cannabis research universe, has particularly doubled down, from rising levels of funding to issues notices of “special interest” in “public health research on cannabis” to “encourage grant applications on the effects of changing cannabis laws and policies in the US and globally on public health.”
A 2022 notice emphasized that “policies around … cannabis products (including whole plant cannabis and cannabis constituent compounds) in the United States (and globally) continue to evolve, and far outpace the knowledge needed to determine the public health impacts of these changes.”