Medical Research News

Part I: Barriers to Cannabis Research Slow Breakthroughs

Written by Loren DeVito, PhD

The red tape that plagues cannabis scientists

Scientists are some of the most eager, passionate (read: nerdy) people on the planet. And I of course say that as being part of this group who spent nearly a decade in the lab. Unfortunately, when we’re not buried deep in the literature, writing manuscripts (or blogs), or running experiments, some scientists are writing grant applications, which are essentially research proposals begging the government or other agencies to fund experiments.

It’s no secret that the federal government has been cutting funding for research over the past several years, making the grant process even more grueling. But there is a special added barrier to those brave scientists who study cannabis.

Despite progress in state-level legalizations over the past few years (and the recent full legalization in Canada; happy one-year anniversary friends of the North!), cannabis remains a Schedule I substance in the US and cannabis research remains regulated under those policies. So that means, if you want to study cannabis, not only do you have to secure some funding, but you also need to cut through some serious red tape.

Scientists who study cannabis must endure a series of reviews by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other state regulatory committees. [1] These reviews take time—the kind of time that many patients just don’t have.

But let’s say that you somehow manage to navigate this process successfully. The next step involves getting the plant into the lab. And the only source of research-approved cannabis in the US is from the University of Mississippi. [1]

It doesn’t take a cannabis expert to know that this makes zero sense from a scientific perspective. If you live in a legal state, you likely enjoy a great variety of cannabis chemovars, as the plant is vastly diverse. If your cannabis always came from the same source, it would lack that range of rich genetic variations that greatly influences its effects. [2] Therefore, it is quite the understatement to say that the cannabis available to researchers is limited.

Due to these restrictions, researchers often default to using cannabis-like analogs such as synthetics or known agonists or antagonists, which increase or decrease activity of the cannabinoid receptors, respectively. While it has been argued that these methods should allow for adequate study of the endocannabinoid system in pre-clinical models, this gets us farther from answering basic questions about how cannabinoids themselves affect physiological processes in the body and brain. [3]

If you have gotten this far and are feeling extremely frustrated, don’t worry, the feeling is mutual. However, recent policy changes have indicated that scientists may soon have greater access to cannabis for research purposes. Stay tuned to Part II to find out more.

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  1. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research.” Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017. (impact factor: N/A; cited by: 49)
  2. Schwabe, A.L., et al. “Research Grade Marijuana Supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse Is Genetically Divergent from Commercially Available Cannabis.” BioRxiv, Posted March 28, 2019. (impact factor: N/A; cited by: 2)
  3. European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “Medical Use of Cannabis and Cannabinoids.” December 2018. Available at: (impact factor: N/A; cited by: N/A)

About the author

Loren DeVito, PhD

Loren DeVito, PhD is a neuroscientist and science writer with expertise in cannabis science and medicine. She is committed to communicating evidence-based information about cannabis and its healing properties. Learn more about her work at

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