In an official statement issued earlier this month, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (“NIDA”) released a notice of special interest on public health research priorities with specific regard to cannabis. Published on August 14, NIDA’s announcement provides a written statement of purpose that encourages the submittal of grant applications on the effects of shifting cannabis policies on public health. Although the NIDA has previously issued notifications for marginally similar studies, the agency’s new statement creates an opening in NIDA research for thirteen separate research categories.
Explaining the rapidly evolving laws on cannabis in the US, the document notes that the currently available information is unable to keep up with the rate of cannabis’ legal changes, leaving a number of public health and safety concerns unanswered or undisclosed. “Recognizing this widening research gap,” the agency explains, “NIDA solicited input from an Advisory Council Workgroup to identify cannabis policy research areas with the greatest urgency and potential for impact.” As a result of the workgroup’s data, new NIDA research objectives include creating standard dose and intoxication measurements for cannabis and hemp products, analyzing the effects of industry practices – such as taxes, marketing, etc. – on use and health outcomes, and exploring the effects of maternal cannabis use while pregnant or breastfeeding, among others. The complete list is provided below:
- Develop standards for measuring cannabis (including hemp and hemp product) dose, intoxication, and impairment.
- Enhance existing epidemiology research to study trends for cannabis use and cannabis use disorder (“CUD”); including new products, patterns of use, and reasons for use in different populations.
- Characterize the composition/potency of cannabis, methods of administration, cannabis extracts/concentrates, and cannabis of varying constituents (e.g. cannabinoid or terpene content), as well as how those factors impact physical and mental health.
- Determine the physical and mental health antecedents of use, as well as outcomes of use.
- Explore the impact of polysubstance use on health outcomes, including interactions (substitution/complementation) with alcohol, tobacco, and prescription and nonprescription opioids;
- Examine reasons for initiation and continued use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes.
- Investigate the effects of different patterns of cannabis use on brain development, educational attainment, and transition to work and adult roles.
- Identify the effects of maternal cannabis consumption during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
- Develop effective roadside tests for cannabis impairment that can be practically deployed by law enforcement.
- Determine the prevalence of cannabis-involved vehicular crashes and other types of injury or property damage.
- Investigate how cannabis industry practices, including research on marketing, taxes, and prices, impact use and health outcomes (e.g. how different price points impact consumption patterns across different levels of use).
- Determine the impact of federal, state, and local marijuana policies and their implementation on use and health outcomes.
- Explore the heterogeneity of regulatory schemes (e.g. models for retail distribution of cannabis) to understand which combinations or components minimize harm to public health.
NIDA’s news may not come as a complete surprise given the seemingly steady stream of state laws permitting cannabis in some capacity across the country, however, it is one of the more significant steps towards possible, broader federal drug policy reform to date. Cannabis is categorized as a Schedule I substance by the Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), and because of this Schedule I status, it has been nearly impossible to study the plant legally. Speaking at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing in April, NIDA director Nora Volkow noted some of the challenges in studying drugs placed higher on the list of federally controlled substances. “Indeed, the moment that a drug gets a Schedule I, which is done in order to protect the public so that they don’t get exposed to it, it makes research much harder,” Volkow explained. “This is because [researchers] actually have to go through a registration process that is actually lengthy and cumbersome.”1
NIDA’s announcement is monumental in that it signals a significant departure from its previous views on cannabis, as the agency’s research has predominately been dedicated to discovering negative outcomes associated with the drug, such as abuse and addiction. To illustrate, in a NIDA video from 2014, former Deputy Director Wilson Compton discusses the relationship between cannabis legalization and the community, but only provides details on the substance’s potential effects on adolescents and the risk associated with increased legalization efforts. Doctors For Cannabis Regulation (“DFCR”) board member Dr. Peter Grinspoon spoke with Forbes on cannabis research, citing an almost cyclical bias against it, “The majority of addiction doctors show a cultural bias of ‘cannabis is bad. Let us prove it.’” Arguing that the NIDA has only funded research on the plant’s risks rather than potential benefits for over 40 years, Grinspoon continues stating, “This mind frame is harmful. What is even worse, is this study reinforces the whole ideology of Nixon’s War on Drugs.”2
While several of the new research objectives still carry a similar tone of primary risk evaluation, the development of items such as standardized measurements and effective roadside tests – not to mention the proposed industry analysis – suggest that the NIDA is less concerned with the prohibition of cannabis, and rather is dedicated to creating solutions to the questions left unanswered by its legalization.
Starting October 5, 2019, the NIDA will begin accepting grant applications related to the new cannabis research objectives, most with a deadline of early January 2020, although some are extended through early 2022. For more information on grants through the NIDA & National Institutes of Health (“NIH”), click here.
- Jaeger, Kyle. “Top Federal Drug Policy Expert Says Marijuana’s Schedule I Status Inhibits Research.” Marijuana Moment. April 02, 2019. Accessed August 22, 2019. https://www.marijuanamoment.net/top-federal-drug-policy-expert-says-marijuanas-schedule-i-status-inhibits-research/
- Somerset, Sara Brittany. “Potentially Flawed University Study Reports Adults Who Mix Cannabis With Opioids for Pain Relief Experience Higher Anxiety And Depression.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, August 23, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarabrittanysomerset/2019/08/23/potentially-flawed-university-study-finds-adults-who-mix-cannabis-with-opioids-for-pain-relief-report-higher-anxiety-depression/#6bc4c68415a6