Imagine that scientists charged with doing research on tobacco’s health implications were funded by tobacco companies. (In fact, the tobacco industry used this tactic for decades to cast doubt on the adverse health effects of smoking.) But today it would be an outrageous conflict of interest — research on addictive drugs shouldn’t be paid for by people who stand to profit from selling them. Yet this is exactly what is happening with cannabis.
Contrary to common belief, cannabis is an addictive drug with several harmful psychological and physiological effects. As is the case with every such drug, not all people who use it become addicted to it. In fact, most don’t. But it does lead to addiction in a subset of people. Cannabis use disorder is a diagnosable condition that is estimated to affect around 4 million people in the United States, or around 10% of users. It’s a similar story in Canada, where about 1.3% of the population have cannabis use disorder.
To date, only a small number of compounds derived from cannabis, or related to them, have been approved by the FDA for treating seizures associated with specific conditions, chemotherapy-induced nausea, and AIDS-related anorexia. Despite numerous studies exploring the potential therapeutic uses of cannabis for other conditions, Cochrane reviews have concluded that there is no good evidence that it is beneficial for fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis, chronic neuropathic pain, dementia, or Tourette syndrome. And public perception of the utility of the plant goes far beyond the evidence, with off-label uses for everything from chronic pain and opioid addiction to morning sickness during pregnancy.
This doesn’t mean that cannabis compounds don’t have medicinal properties. The human body has an endogenous cannabinoid system with important functions in modulating signals from the nervous system, and plays a variety of roles in mood, memory, and appetite. The endogenous cannabinoid system is targeted by the active ingredients in cannabis. It’s entirely possible that new medical uses will be discovered at some of the new research centers studying cannabinoids. In many cases, these are funded by philanthropic donations or government grants.
Universities in both Canada and the United States, however, have recently accepted multi-million-dollar donations from the cannabis industry. In 2018, the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use accepted a CA$2.5 million gift from Canopy Growth (formerly Tweed Marijuana) to create a professorship and endowment fund. In 2019, Canopy Growth donated to research conducted by Fondation de l’Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montreal and to the Canadian Sleep and Circadian Network.
In the United States, the University of California San Diego accepted $4.7 million from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, and the University of Utah accepted $740,000 from the Wholistic Research & Education Foundation. Wholistic was founded by Andy Noorda and Pelin Thorogood, who also founded a company that sells products infused with cannabidiol (CBD) — a less psychoactive compound. In 2019, Pelin Thorogood was elected a trustee of the UC San Diego Foundation Board of Trustees.
Those donations were eclipsed by a $9 million donation to Harvard and MIT by Bob Broderick, an alumnus of both institutions. As detailed by the Harvard Gazette, Broderick has invested in a variety of cannabis companies, including Tweed Marijuana and Aphria, as well as Tokyo Smoke. He is currently a board member of recreational cannabis companies Superette and Vapium.
These companies clearly see marketing and public relations benefits from funding cannabis research. Canopy Growth lists its donations on its Corporate Social Responsibility page, the Wholistic foundation solicits industry donations to promote brand citizenship, visibility and advocacy, and Broderick told the Harvard Gazette that part of his purpose in donating was to “destigmatize the conversation around cannabis.”
Funding by industry is a well-established source of bias in research. A variety of studies have shown that funding from industry can bias results. This holds true whether the studies are about pharmaceuticals, medical devices, or artificially-sweetened beverages. Industry funders can keep researchers focused on questions that may yield benefits for them, such as medicinal uses of cannabis, and away from unprofitable ideas, like reining in social media bots spreading unproven cannabis-related health claims.
It comes as no surprise that academics funded by the cannabis industry have advocated for potential therapeutic benefits of the plant in medical journals and the media. The Conversation, a website that publishes news and opinion articles written by academics and researchers, has run articles by scientists funded by Canopy Growth touting cannabis for post-traumatic stress disorder, opioid addiction, and endometriosis. Unfortunately, media reports do not always disclose an academic’s cannabis industry funding.
Medicinal cannabis is an important argument for legalization or the rescheduling of cannabis. In 2019, researchers supported by the University of New Mexico Medical Cannabis Research Fund claimed the results of their study on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and CBD “justify immediate de-scheduling of all types of cannabis, in addition to hemp, so that cannabis with THC can be more widely accessible for pharmaceutical use by the general public.” Major donors to the university’s Medical Cannabis Research Fund include cannabis dispensaries, retailers of cannabis-themed cookie cutters, and developers of a tracking app for medical cannabis users.
In contrast, academics funded by public medical research agencies have a wider range of views and are often more conservative. For example, an editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal called cannabis legalization “a national, uncontrolled experiment in which the profits of cannabis producers and tax revenues are squarely pitched against the health of Canadians.” The U.S. Surgeon General has also warned that cannabis use during adolescence and pregnancy is unsafe.
An important concern from doctors and public health experts is that legalizing cannabis will increase its use and its associated harms. Industry-linked academics argue that legalization does not increase use, and that researchers are too biased with their “focus on risks of harm rather than possible benefits.” Canada’s quarterly National Cannabis Survey, however, has shown a small increase in self-reported cannabis use from between 14% and 16% in 2018 — before legalization in Canada — to 16% to 18% in 2019 after legalization. There were also significant increases in seniors, people aged 25-44, and in specific regions of the country.
With millions of users and a growing customer base, around 40% of whom use cannabis daily, the cannabis industry has a huge incentive to manipulate public opinion and policy. In New Zealand, which is considering legalization this year, there have been calls to ban the industry from influencing public policy, similar to global treaties that regulate lobbying by the tobacco industry.
Sensible regulators and university administrators should heed the call to keep the cannabis industry out of public policy and ban academics, universities, and research institutes from accepting funding from the cannabis industry. Just because cannabis is legal in an increasing number of jurisdictions does not mean it is a healthy product or that its manufacturers and lobbyists can’t have a deleterious effect on research and public health.
Of course, cannabis industry scientists should be free to conduct and publish their own research. But they should do so without the sheen of credibility from public universities and hospitals. Cannabis companies should also not be able to use public institutions to promote their brands through displays of corporate social responsibility.
Academic research on cannabis should be supported by disinterested public funding agencies, as the National Institutes of Health is doing, so researchers are not pressured or incentivized based on their ability to design industry-friendly studies.
Accepting funding from an industry that sells addictive drugs — whether that’s alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, or something else — is ethically dubious for researchers who should be working for the public interest alone. An academic receiving or seeking funds from the cannabis industry should result in an ethics scandal, as it has done for alcohol research, not a press release.
Shaun Khoo, Ph.D., is an addiction neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, Canada. He is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the Fonds de Recherche du Québec — Santé.