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.

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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.

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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.

Other drug industry consultants have been vocal advocates for cannabis legalization and permissive cannabis policy.

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.

  • There is no such thing as “disinterested public funding agencies”.
    Pot has been illegal for 80 years due to “disinterested public funding agencies”. We have reefer madness and no data thanks to “disinterested public funding agencies”. We need this to counter the governments anti-marijuana campaign and its very obvious biases.

  • There has NOT been enough studies to suggest cannabis can treat chronic pain as well as morphine. Yet they (whoever they are) has taken affective pain medication from all of us who were able to have a qualitive life. Is it because the cannabis industry brings big bucks to taxes. So we should suffer because of greed and stupidity. Wake up America. I am so tired of being told to use the oil or edibles or smoke pot to kill my pain. My dog’s veternarian says there is not enough proof to suggest the effectivness of cannabis use for my dogs seizures. I am 74, used to have a life, now my golden years are shaded by ignorance and greed. I tried everything there was before finding relief from opiods. Guess what America, in the 20 years of being at the same dose I never overdosed, sold, gave away or any of the many ignorant news agencies suggest. So put that in your pipe, smoke it, and show MERCY to all of us that suffer from chronic pain.

    • Your story is the most important one about opiates- they have immeasurably reduced pain and suffering. This often gets swept aside when discussing the second most important story about opiates, which is that they are addictive and can destroy lives.

  • Pharm companies don’t spend huge mounts of money on research to prove the effectiveness of their products? Of course they do so why single out cannabis? Ah yes, because the prohibition lobby want sot keep it illegal. Now ask yourself how much money is tied up with the prohibition lobby? Thinks enforcement, testing, prisons…

    • Exactly!

      Research in the ’70’s showed marijuana to have an impact on cancer, yet “disinterested public funding agencies” made sure the study and its data never saw the light of day. Its a rigged system.

  • Whereas before their was a nascent cannabis industry, NIDA focused almost exclusively on approving and funding studies intended to find harms, and the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t interested in researching whole plant medicine.

    If the cannabis industry is willing to fund research, the usual, albeit imperfect safeguards to avoid bias in academic research should be sufficient, or industry-funded research should be forbidden, wiping out most research funding.

  • In a state where medical marijuana is legal, it is very clear that the marijuana industry, is distorting science and facts, for marketing purposes. Unfortunately none of this is against the law, the FDA and FTC refuse to regulate the deceptive marketing. Academia is being used to give an air of credibility to bad science and dangerous, misleading ideas. The media constantly misreports the findings of industry funded, deceptive studies.

    Academics use their positions as fund raisers, seeking cash donations for their biased studies. Misinformation is not only profitable it is a serious public health issue. Marijuana marketers, like other frauds and quacks, are marketing marijuana as a solution to the so called opioid epidemic, as people die. These craven profiteers, even marketed marijuana as a cure for mental health conditions, causing people to stop taking their medications. Of course none of the negative impacts were “studied” or reported. The healthcare system is too corrupt to measure any of that. These incidents would not have been counted in healthcare settings like ER visits, they would only be attributed to “drugs.” Marijuana marketers use the lack of credible research, to make false assertions, and mislead the public. They have even enlisted the state employees administering these medical marijuana programs in spreading misinformation, and marketing. https://nmhealth.org/about/mcp/svcs/

    New Mexico added “opioid use disorder” to the qualifying conditions, based on the amplification of these studies at UNM. They claim there are no financial ties, but that is simply not true. Members on the state opioid board, have plenty of financial ties. Here is one of the board members marketing Kinesio Tape, while fundraising for UNM. http://hscnews.unm.edu/news/unm-pain-center-holds-ribbon-cutting-for-center-for-kinesio-taping-methods Kinesio tape is a proven scam, yet she recommended it for opioid abuse. They also seek funding from big corporations, like this, https://www.dea.gov/events/2019/03/06/new-mexico-youth-summit-opioid-awareness There is no industry created public health issue, that they will not use for marketing purposes. Walmart was one of the biggest contributors to the nations Epidemic Of Despair, driving businesses out of communities, low wages, and sending jobs to China.

    No academic researchers anywhere are researching the effect on public health. Some of this biased industry funded “research” was done only for marketing purposes, and targeted desperate and vulnerable, patients.

    In academia, marketing, journalism, and research are all considered the same thing. Any kind of media attention from sensationalized, misreported science, can bring attention and funding. So called researchers use their positions for fundraising, so the “research” has to please potential funders. Since it was illegal to research marijuana, there are significant gaps. These gaps in scientific research are used by marketers to make false assertions and for marketing.

    For a real glimpse into academia/marketing, and its use in deceptive marketing, look no further then here, https://news.unm.edu/news/innovative-study-shows-medical-cannabis-effective-in-treating-a-wide-range-of-health-conditions This deceptive “study” uses an App to give it credibility. A pre selected group of marijuana aficionados, with qualifying conditions, essentially use marijuana for everything.

    “Innovative study shows medical cannabis effective in treating a wide range of health conditions”

    This is the kind of “research” we get, when a marketing psychologist teams up with an economist. This “researcher/marketer is seeking funding from the marijuana industry. http://www.cannabisnewsjournal.co/2018/02/pay-it-forward-in-supporting-unm.html

    There is no evidence that marijuana, reduces opioid addiction, yet this “researcher” made this dangerous statement. Conflating patents in controlled clinical pain settings with seriously addicted people on illegal street drugs. This false narrative has been profitable, but not scientific. The point is to stigmatize people with serious painful conditions, that are being treated with opioids, which are the gold standard for pain relief. https://painmed.org/about/position-statements/use-of-opioids-for-the-treatment-of-chronic-pain

    ” Study Finds Medical Cannabis Is Effective At Reducing Opioid Addiction.”

    “Effectiveness of Raw, Natural Medical Cannabis Flower for Treating Insomnia under Naturalistic Conditions” Cannabis seems to help some people , with insomnia, even in people with intractable pain.

    Eye catching but deceptive headlines that misreport and distort science! A corrupting mix of toxic industry funding, deceptive marketing, and vulnerable sick people. The FTC no longer regulates the deceptive advertising, now it is buyer beware, even for vulnerable patients. It is no wonder Americans believe in alternative facts, distortions and lies. They no longer trust science, and do not trust their physicians. Distrusts and doubt are good marketing tools, so they can freely peddle Snake Oil!

  • This is misinformation. All research is funded by the companies who stand to profit from it. This includes tobacco and big pharmaceutical companies. To say that the marijuana industry is the only one doing this is a blatant lie. I have spent years in pharma research, and there is nothing more conflicted than big pharma. Marijuana has fewer side effects than most drugs used to treat the same disorders. What health background do you have to say what is an appropriate treatment? Have you spent years working with mental health patients? Cancer patients? Pain patients? This whole article is disgusting. I can’t believe people are still spreading this fear mongering over marijuana. You should be ashamed.

    • Amen! This article has many false claims. Cannabis is habitual to some, but not physically addictive at all. It can and does help many with opioid addiction. It helps with chronic pain and nausea (my chronically ill family member with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome has found it’s the only safe solution for nausea due to gastroparesis (along with an Rx) and chronic joint pain (no pun intended).

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