Scientific research enriches minds but drains wallets. In the US and globally, public and private funders have directed more money to cannabis research in recent decades—but the research that gets funded is primarily focused on marijuana’s potential to harm, rather than heal.
This is according to a new analysis by medical research consultant Jim Hudson. Hudson reviewed over 3,200 publicly available grants from 50 funders from 2000-2018. He focused on three countries—the US, Canada and the UK—and found that a combined $1.56 billion was spent on marijuana research during that time.
Hudson sorted the grant data into five categories based on which subjects studies broadly covered: the harms of marijuana; the human body’s endocannabinoid system; isolated cannabinoids like THC or CBD; social and political issues around marijuana; and medical use of the cannabis plant.
Funders seem to have been far more eager to support some types of work than others. Studies focused on the harms of marijuana altogether received 20 times more money than those studying medical use of the plant. Over 19 years, half of all money spent on marijuana research in the three countries went toward studying its harms.
Hudson’s analysis showed that funding for cannabis research has increased rapidly in the US, reaching $143 million annually by 2018. The largest single funder was the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which awarded over $1 billion total across the time period, and accounted for about two-thirds of all US spending on marijuana research. As Aliza Cohen has described for Filter, NIDA funds an incredible 80 percent of global drug research, with a stated focus on “drug abuse and addiction.”
But not all funders share NIDA’s goals. While US and UK research heavily focused on marijuana’s harms, Canada’s funders focused more on the endocannabinoid system.
Canada, unlike the other two countries, has of course legalized marijuana, and the current state of cannabis research in the three countries heavily reflects the drug’s legal status. While all three saw a combined $34 million spent on cannabis medical treatment research in 2018, it’s also interesting to consider why that research was heavily focused on isolated cannabinoids, rather than the plant itself.
In the US, federal agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) maintain strict barriers to researching marijuana. Filter has reported on how the DEA requires researchers to purchase their cannabis from the University of Mississippi—the only institution in the country licensed to grow and sell it for research use. But issues with getting enough cannabis from U Miss—and its alleged poor quality—have fueled a years-long campaign of political and legal challenges. The DEA finally relented in March 2020, and promised to review dozens of license applications from institutions that want to grow their own research marijuana.
Of course, the DEA is separate from NIDA, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. But it is federal drug law—which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I, “highly addictive” and “not medically useful” drug—that has helped get us here.
Because so little medical marijuana research gets funded, the science continues to skew heavily in the direction of tring to demonstrate marijuana’s dangers. This in turn provides policymakers with pretexts to keep it illegal. And keeping it illegal continues to restrict research on its benefits.