If you’re a cannabis lab, researcher, or scientist, the NIH is interested in hearing your thoughts! Last week, the National Institute of Health (NIH) posted a request for information (RFI)* regarding identifying the barriers to cannabis research.
Through this RFI, the NIH aims to address the problems that researchers face in attempting to study cannabis. Although a lot of scientific research exists on cannabis, most government funded research focuses on misuse and negative effects, rather than on using cannabis and cannabis-derived chemicals as a therapeutic drug.
Today, many states have medical cannabis programs and the Food and Drug Administration has approved some cannabinoid-based drugs for certain conditions. Enabling more study of the cannabis plant may also play a role in convincing other states and the Federal Government to decriminalize or otherwise regulate it. For all of these reasons, this move by the NIH is a step in the right direction.
What barriers prevent cannabis research?
For starters, we all know that cannabis is still a schedule I controlled substance. This creates a number of problems for researchers attempting to study the plant, notwithstanding the Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (We gave our views on that one back in March. See: Not All Cannabis Reform is a Good Thing.)
As a refresher, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) conducts the licensing process that enables researchers to gain access to cannabis product. The DEA still views cannabis as a controlled substance with “no known medical uses.” Thus, cannabis researchers applications for licensing are often ignored or otherwise disregarded by the agency. This might seem oxymoronic, given that the purpose of such research is to identify medical uses to the plant, but the War on Drugs is nothing if not oxymoronic.
The DEA has previously been sued by organizations seeking greater access to cannabis, outside of the one facility authorized to grow it for research purposes. The infamous cannabis that’s grown at this facility in the University of Mississippi in no way reflects what product exists in legal markets across the country. So one of the other main barriers researchers face is getting their hands on some product that’s actually worth researching.
What information is the NIH looking for?
In releasing this RFI, the NIH intends to gather broad public input from the scientific community to identify the barriers researchers face in studying cannabis. The RFI is entitled, “Investigators’ interests in and barriers to research studies on the health effects of cannabis and its constituents.” The solicitation states:
“NIH is interested in gathering information about barriers, scientific interests, and needs associated with therapeutic cannabis or cannabinoid research from investigators conducting or interested in conducting research on cannabis, cannabinoid phytochemical constituents, and related compounds (synthetic compounds, terpenes, etc.).”
In layman’s terms, the NIH wants to know what cannabis researchers are studying or are interested in studying, and what challenges they face in doing so. Researchers around the country already study cannabis. The NIH wants to better understand the ongoing research and what hurdles exist that delay or impede that research. It also wants input from the research community about what research questions and interests they cannot address given those hurdles.
To that end, the NIH listed six primary areas of interest:
- a broad overview of what kinds of cannabis studies scientists want to explore;
- the existing and “desirable” scientific infrastructure for such studies (i.e. they’re asking how cannabis studies are currently conducted and with what resources, and how might this system improve);
- identifiable research barriers like the Schedule I status of the plant;
- recommendations for NIH activities that might “help expand the field” of medical cannabis research;
- what resources researchers need to carry out the studies, for example: more access to a greater number of different varieties of cannabis products and strains; and better access to regulatory, clinical and scientific information about the plant.
Perhaps the NIH realizes that we can’t wait around for federal legalization to usher in a body of scientific research and a more clinical understanding of the plant. Regulated cannabis is already here, millions of Americans are using it, and there is no reason to continue to impede scientific inquiry into the plant.
*The RFI was removed from the NIH website shortly after publication. An NIH representative stated that the RFI was published prematurely and will be republished with roughly the same content later this month. I was fortunate to review it before it was taken down.