Colorado has launched the largest state-funded investigation into the health benefits of marijuana.
Last month Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a law that will provide about $9 million in grants to researchers for cannabis studies over the next five years. Scientists will study the benefits of weed as a medication.
“Our intent is to be rigorous scientifically, but to also act with some expediency because there are products that a large percentage of our population is using today,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the state health department. “We want to make sure that what’s happening out there in everyday practice isn’t harming people.”
Colorado was one of two states, along with Washington, that legalized marijuana in the 2012 election. Colorado adopted medical marijuana 14 years ago.
Federal Law Blocks Marijuana Research
Most researchers studying pot turn to the federal government for grant money. But weed is illegal under federal law, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse tightly controls access to the only federally sanctioned supply of the drug.
NIDA has a political agenda: stopping the advance of marijuana. So the agency rarely approves studies seeking to explore the positive side of weed. Without federal funding, there is no way to conduct these studies.
That was true, at least, until state-level research began to pick up. It started in California in 2008, with the founding of the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research. Among the organization’s findings: Weed is effective for pain relief, vaporizing is safer than smoking, and multiple sclerosis patients reported reduced symptoms when using pot.
State funding in Colorado, like that in California, offers an important research benefit: Scientists will have access to the kind of weed people actually use on the ground. The federal supply, grown by bureaucrats afraid they would create a marijuana monster, is notoriously impotent and unpleasant to smoke.
Funding for the studies will come from patient registration fees. Wolk said the health department should start accepting applications later this year and providing the money to research teams by early 2015.
Feds Refute Evidence of Marijuana Benefits
The scientific proof behind medical weed is strong but fiercely contested. Several major studies have found the drug is useful in fighting chronic pain, nausea, tremors, and inflammation, among other medical conditions. These finding are supported by widespread anecdotal evidence.
Yet the federal government insists the drug has no therapeutic value. A June survey by NIDA, which reviewed studies into the negative effects of cannabis, concluded there is little evidence of medicinal benefit.
“Some physicians continue to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes despite limited evidence of a benefit,” the review says. “This practice raises particular concerns with regard to long-term use by vulnerable populations.”
The studies funded by Colorado will focus mostly on medical conditions that are approved for treatment with marijuana. But Wolk said officials are open to other kinds of trials.
“We’re trying to turn over all the stones on this,” he said.