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Cannabis Research Has Attracted $1.56 Billion in Funding Since 2000

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Sep 03, 2020   
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Funding given to cannabis research in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom totaled more than $1.5 billion US dollars between the year 2000 and 2018, a new analysis has found.

Under close review, analysts found that significantly more funding was given to research into the negative effects of cannabis and cannabis misuse than on its medical and therapeutic uses. 

More than $1.4 billion goes to American research projects

The analysis stems from a newly released database of grant data compiled by Jim Hudson, a consultant expert specializing in health research. Hudson collected and collated publicly available data from 50 major funders, including the likes of the US National Institutes of Health, the European Research Council, and a number of charities such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

They found that the total amount of cannabis research funding made available increased substantially year-on-year over the course of the last two decades. In the year 2000, less than $31 million went towards cannabis research projects. But by 2018, this annual figure had grown to over $151 million.

While the vast majority of that funding came in the form of project grants, several hundred million was spent on career grants, program grants, training, and assorted infrastructure over the analysis period.

The lion’s share of research funding went to research projects based in the US; American researchers received a total of over $1.4 billion between 2000 and 2018.

British research projects were the next most funded, attracting a total of $39.9 million. This figure was narrowly followed by the Canadian research project total of $36.1 million.

The database does look at some funding data for other countries; the European Research Council gives out grants Europe-wide and the EuropePMC’s open-access repository includes data on other European funders. But due to the limited data coverage for these other countries, the analysis chose to stick with a focus on the US, UK, and Canadian projects.

In terms of funding sources by organization, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) lead the way, contributing a massive $1.47 billion in funding for cannabis-related research. Other big contributors included the Canadian Institutes of Health (CIHR), which gave $24.8 million, and the UK Medical Research Council (MRC), which raised $24.8 million.

What is being studied?

One important piece of nuance to keep in mind is that not all cannabis research is one hundred percent focused on cannabis; cannabis can be relevant to wider studies on drug use, addiction, health, and physiology.

In order to properly determine what should count as cannabis research and which cannabis research areas are receiving funds, the database analysis assigned a weighting score to each relevant funding grant. These weights reflected whether a study was:

  • Completely focused on cannabis.
  • Cannabis featured as one of two or three major focal points.
  • Cannabis was one of many topics or not of central importance.
  • Cannabis was a very minor focus or only mentioned in passing.

The analysis found that between 2000 and 2018, the top-funded categories of cannabis research were, in descending order:

  • The effects of cannabis use.
  • The function of the body’s endocannabinoid system.
  • Specific cannabinoids as potential medical treatments.
  • The treatment of cannabis abuse/misuse/dependence.

Upon closer analysis, it was seen that significantly more funding was given to researching the negative effects of cannabis and cannabis misuse than on the medical and therapeutic use of cannabis and its derived cannabinoids. As the majority of total funding came from the US NIH, this focus could be interpreted as a bias of the federal organization.

“The government’s budget is a political statement about what we value as a society,” wrote Daniel Mallinson, a cannabis policy researcher at Pennsylvania State University, who reviewed the funding data for Science. “The fact that most of the cannabis money is going to drug abuse and probably to cannabis use disorder versus medical purposes – that says something.”

Research topic funding for the UK, like in the US, was similarly dominated by topics surrounding the potential harms of cannabis. However, in Canada, the top-funded research category was endocannabinoid research, which accounted for around 43 percent of all Canadian funding. There was also interesting variation in funding focus noted between different organizations and national institutes; more than one-third of the funding provided by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council went towards research focused on improving the commercialization of cannabis.

There were also some interesting geographic variations in cannabis research funding uncovered within the US. While the overall funding patterns in the US were very similar to the general patterns observed due to American projects receiving most of the funds, there was some notable state-level variance. For example, states which had fully legalized cannabis by 2019 were more likely to have received funds for the study of cannabis as a medical treatment.

The analysis also found that relative overall funding levels for projects focused on preventing cannabis use/abuse decreased over the years, while relative funding for those looking at cannabis and cannabinoids as a treatment for specific medical conditions increased.

Barriers to cannabis research

Notably, the analysis found that research on cannabinoids as a medical treatment received over 15 times more funding than research into treatments using cannabis itself.

The analysis does not speculate on any possible causes for this, but the nature of the data would imply that current American restrictions on cannabis research are playing a large part in this imbalance.

Cannabis’ status as a Schedule I drug means that researchers must go through a long and burdensome application process to get the necessary licenses to study the drug. By being a Schedule I drug, cannabis also comes with the associated assertion that the plant has “no currently accepted medical use.” And so, despite the existence of many state-level medical cannabis programs, it can be difficult for researchers to secure funding for medical research projects.

Even if a license and funding could be guaranteed, under current rules, researchers would only be permitted to use cannabis supplied by a singular authorized cultivation site, based within the University of Mississippi. The cannabis material supplied by this site has been criticized for being genetically closer to hemp than the cannabis strains currently available in state-legal markets and for its alleged poor quality.

But since the US Food and Drug Administration issued new draft guidance aimed at encouraging cannabis-related clinical research, and the Drug Enforcement Administration is seemingly on the path to improving cannabis access for researchers, there is cautious optimism among the research community that the tide could be changing.

“I have a lot of hope. The need is so clear,” Dr Joshua Levy, an assistant professor of otolaryngology and director of resident research at Emory University’s Department of Otolaryngology, told Analytical Cannabis last month.

“I am not aware of any compound in the history of drug development that is so widely used for medicinal purposes, yet still regulated [in this way]. I think the need and the market will, in its own right, push for reform.”


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