Massachusetts Could Become Marijuana Research Hub

By Kelly Burch 06/15/18

"My vision is Massachusetts could be the number one leading cannabis research state in the world," said one public health official.

Scientist examining hemp flower

After Massachusetts voterslegalized marijuana for adult use in 2016, sales of the drug are slated to start this July, leaving many Bay State businesses scrambling to position the state as a leader for marijuana research.

"My vision is Massachusetts could be the number one leading cannabis research state in the world," Marion McNabb, a doctor of public health and former global health worker who co-founded the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network in January 2017, told MassLive.

The law that legalized cannabis in Massachusetts contains a research clause, which allows institutions like colleges, nonprofits and even corporations to buy or grow marijuana for research.

This isn’t wholly unique—other states including Colorado and Pennsylvania have similar provisions—but with many biomedical and academic establishments in Massachusetts, people in the industry are hopeful that this will open the door to more research.

"Given the investment in technology, the staggering array of biotech and scientific expertise, it virtually ensures Massachusetts will be an important player," said Staci Gruber, director of MIND (Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery) at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

However, while marijuana remains classified as a Schedule I drug under federal law, researching it will remain difficult even in states that have legalized the drug. Funding is one of the biggest challenges for marijuana research.

It is very rare to get federal funding for marijuana research. And institutions like universities and medical schools are hesitant to fund research because they could risk losing their federal funding, especially under an administration that has been vocal in its opposition to marijuana.

Currently, the only way to study marijuana with federal approval is to obtain samples that are specifically grown for research. However, Gruber said that these samples are different from what is being used by the vast majority of people who consume marijuana.

"The products the government grows and oversees for research may not have any bearing on products patients are using in the real world," said Gruber, who has been researching marijuana for 25 years.

Even without a change in federal policy, the Massachusetts legalization of recreational pot will open new research opportunities, she said. For example, she can ask questions of people who buy cannabis at dispensaries and consume it, without providing the drug herself.

She hopes that this will help advance marijuana policy, and take the nation out of a gridlock where quality research is prevented by the policy toward marijuana research. 

"It's difficult to change laws without empirically sound data, but you can't do clinical trials that represent what most people are taking," Gruber said.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.