Ivy league collaborations leading the fight for marijuana research

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Harvard Medical School and MIT are among the leaders in a new wave of medical cannabis research.

By Emma Richards 

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Marijuana isn’t quite the taboo subject it once was. The shift in public perception towards the cannabis plant has been long, slow and grinding, but the tables are finally starting to turn as more Americans recognise the potential benefits of the ancient drug.

But while Americans overwhelmingly support legalising cannabis – 84 percent according to the latest poll – there are many questions that remain unanswered when it comes to the famous drug.

Despite being so widely used, research behind cannabis is still troublingly scarce with few solid answers on the health benefits. For something that is now legal in over 33 states for medical use, you may wonder why this is? Surely, comprehensive medical research is a must for such a recently divisive subject? But that is sadly not the case.

The US government has placed so many restrictions on the study of marijuana that universities are struggling to gain the resources and the funding to carry out the much-needed studies.


While not technically illegal, the obstacles and hoops that need to be jumped through mean the research rarely happens. And when it does, it is carried out on sub-quality cannabis issued and monitored by drug enforcement agencies.

While legislation and policy have provided much of the barriers to comprehensive research, they are not the only obstacles standing in the way. In many cases, there are far more insidious forces at work that have forced universities to look beyond the government to find corporate saviours of medical marijuana research.

The history

More than almost any other drug, marijuana has been linked to politics; from xenophobic attitudes to the injustice of mass incarceration. This highjacking of the plant for political and power-driven reasons continues today.

As Emily Dufton explains in her book Grass Roots, cannabis is a stand-in for the political issues of the times. It is the only drug with a legal status that has slipped back and forth over the decades.

We’ve all heard of the War on Drugs. Many of us grew up in the “Just Say No” generation made famous during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

In 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, allotting US$1.7 billion to the fight against narcotics and establishing mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug offences. First Lady Nancy Reagan became the poster child for this anti-drug campaign, which encouraged children to reject experimenting with or using drugs by simply saying the word “no.”

US Representatives Tulsi Gabbard (R), Democrat of Hawaii, and Don Young, Republican of Alaska, announce bipartisan legislation on marijuana on Capitol Hill March 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. Source: Brendan Smialowski / AFP

But before Reagan, before the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, and before Nancy, there was Harry J Anslinger.

Anslinger, Dr Peter Grinspoon of Harvard University tells U2B, is where it all began.

As head of the Federal Narcotics Bureau (a precursor to today’s Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA), Anslinger implemented stringent drug laws and unreasonably long prison sentences during his three decades in the role.

The fearmongering that was central to Anslinger’s approach has persisted to this day and has directed the focus of research done in the field.

The only studies the government has been willing to fund have been into the dangers of cannabis, never the benefits, explains Grinspoon. Given that most of the research money is controlled by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), they only fund research that supports the government’s hardline stance.


“This has gone hand in hand with a culture of active propaganda against cannabis by the United States government,” Grinspoon says.

“Most doctors have been fed this propaganda hand in hand with the funding of only the negative sides of cannabis, so most doctors are much more anti-cannabis than they should be.”

Beyond the “brainwashing” of medical practitioners, on a baser level, it simply doesn’t pay to be a cannabis researcher.

When there’s only one route to fundable research, few are going to choose the alternative path. Ultimately, there’s no money in proving cannabis is beneficial; plenty, however, if you want to prove it’s bad.

The legislation

A major problem in accessing funds and carrying out research is that cannabis is incredibly heavily regulated.

Despite being more widespread and socially acceptable these days, marijuana remains on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. As far as the law is concerned, cannabis is classified as no different from heroin and methamphetamine, all of which have been labelled as having “no currently accepted medical use in treatment” and posing “a high potential for abuse.”

Few would argue with this definition when it comes to meth, but for many people we are far beyond questioning if cannabis has potential for medical use. For many regular users and experts in the field, it is clear that medical marijuana holds the potential to do great things and ease painful suffering – if only the research was there to find support these claims.

Cannabis does not have a high abuse level, and is about as addictive as caffeine, Grinspoon tells U2B. As a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Instructor at Harvard Medical School, we’re inclined to believe him.


The charge of having no medical utility is even more baffling. Grinspoon points to Epidiolex, a cannabis-based drug that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2018, as proof of the already accepted benefits the plant holds.

More and more people are turning to cannabis to medicated a range of disorders, including generalised anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), as well as physical ailments, such as pain and the symptoms of cancer treatment.

Much of this is based on anecdotal evidence as opposed to hard scientific fact, given the scarcity of research in the area. But the medical utility is obvious, even without the figures to back it up, Grinspoon says.

Regardless of this experiential evidence, cannabis’s listing on the CSA means it remains incredibly difficult for researchers to get a licence to study the plant.

A woman talks to a showgoer next to a marijuana plant at a grow light booth at the INDO EXPO cannabis trade show on January 27, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Source: Rick T. Wilking/Getty Images/AFP

Marijuana is subject to its own regulations separate from those governing other Schedule I drugs. While LSD researchers can acquire products from private manufacturers licensed to produce and dispense controlled substances, those studying cannabis can only acquire their products from NIDA and the University of Mississippi, the lone legal marijuana grower and distributor in the US since 1968.

The marijuana produced is also not up to the quality needed to produce reliable results. “Muddy, grey powder” is how Grinspoon describes it, and not reflective of the cannabis that is consumed by the public.

While the DEA has repeatedly said it plans to improve on this and expand the number of suppliers, years have passed and nothing has changed.

The lobbyists

Finding a reliable supplier is one hurdle, but it is far from the only one.

As with so many industries in the United States, where there are commercial interests, there are lobbyists. And in this case, incredibly powerful ones at play.

While researchers and universities – along with cannabis companies – can make the case for increased access and better research, they are going up against powerful people. These people are not be directly involved in the cannabis industry themselves, but they have certainly made a pretty penny out of its illegality and are showing no signs of wanting that gravy train to stop.

“The tentacles of the pharmaceutical industry, the rehab industry, the private prison industry, and the alcohol industry are everywhere,” Grinspoon explains.

“They influence ever ballot initiative on whether we should legalise medical cannabis. They influence the medical groups, like the American Medical Association, and they influence all of the specialty groups – they just have a very big influence. So cannabis is just fighting this uphill battle.”


Once you look at the statistics, it’s not hard to see why some are looking after their own interests.

In 2017 alone, almost 660,000 people were arrested in the US for a marijuana law violation. Of those, 91 percent were arrested for possession only.

While cannabis isn’t the major culprit behind America’s mass incarceration rates, it’s significant enough for its legality to rattle those in charge.

The for-profit prison lobby was dubbed “the biggest lobby no one is talking about” by The Washington Post.

Although private prison companies say they don’t lobby on policies that affect “the basis for or duration of an individual’s incarceration or detention,” journalist Michael Cohen suggests otherwise.

“Several reports have documented instances when private-prison companies have indirectly supported policies that put more Americans and immigrants behind bars,” Cohen said.

Some of the policies Cohen alludes to include California’s three-strikes rule and Arizona’s highly controversial anti-illegal immigration law. Lobbyists are donating to politicians who support them and attending meetings with officials who back them.

With such powerful enemies in high places, it’s perhaps little surprise cannabis funding can be hard to come by.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference to announce a new policy that they say will reduce unnecessary marijuana arrests, June 19, 2018. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP

The saviours?

“They put up so many barriers to research that of course industry is going to try to step in to fill the gap,” says Grinspoon. “The US government has essentially brainwashed doctors and researchers, cut off the money, and put up almost insurmountable barriers to treatment, so how else is the research going to get done?”

Where government is faltering, private enterprise is stepping into the breach. There have already been some significant investments from private companies into academic research that are slowly turning the tides and opening up this still elusive area of study.

In May, Bob Broderick, the founder of a Manhattan-based global equity firm, donated US$9 million to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study the effects of marijuana on the brain. It is believed to be the largest private donation yet to go towards research and will fund the universities’ study into the basic biology of cannabis.

Later the same month, Harvard received another donation from Canadian medical marijuana grower, Atlas Biotechnologies.

Atlas, as a founding partner of the partnership, have contributed C$3 million (US$2.2 million) to the programme and will be the university’s sole supplier of marijuana for the research. The partnership aims to give credible evidence as to the efficacy of marijuana in certain medical treatments and settle the debate on whether it is harmful.


But while the funding finally coming in is good news, it isn’t without problems of its own

Using the example of smoking, Grinspoon points out that if a tobacco company funds research into cigarettes, people are immediately sceptical of the results.

“If the money comes from an industry, people will never view it as entirely untainted,” Grinspoon explains. On the flip side of that, of course, is the distrust that people also now have in government funded research. Politicians for so long have been touting the dangers of cannabis, any research that comes from that same government has to toe the party line.

This, in part, is where all the disagreement and confusion come from – no one really knows the truth, Grinspoon says.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. With a new crop of Democrats in Congress and a big question mark over who will be the next president and which party will control the Senate, the time could be approaching for cannabis research to go mainstream.

Democrat House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed for the removal of cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

In early June, Ocasio-Cortez filed legislation to remove a legal barrier to make it easier for scientists to study the medical benefits and end a provision that prohibits spending federal money on research that promotes the legalisation of drugs and substances outlined in Schedule I.

While this is reason to be optimistic, Grinspoon warns that he has seen this all before. The dance back and forth, the House to the Senate, the real acceptance of marijuana expressed in private against the hardline anti-cannabis stance touted in public. As he says:

“It’s all politics.”