WITH WORLD CLASS medical facilities and universities, and a highly educated workforce, Massachusetts is a national leader in medicine, life sciences, and biotech. Could the state leverage those assets to also become a leading light of cannabis research? 

As President Biden pledges to explore changing federal restrictions on cannabis, some researchers and policymakers hope to position Massachusetts at the forefront of the nascent field of marijuana research. “We have embraced research forever. It makes sense we’d be a cannabis research hub,” said Dr. Staci Gruber, director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) program at Harvard’s McLean Hospital. “We have all the requisite pieces — biotech, academia.” 

While researchers say the potential is there, there are still many barriers to conducting cannabis research, both on a federal and a state level.  

Today, marijuana research is heavily regulated, and there is a lack of available funding. Even if the federal barriers are removed, those involved in the industry said the state would need to do more to encourage research, by providing money and changing regulations. 

Gruber, who consults with other states on their programs to publicly fund marijuana research, said that is one important way Massachusetts is behind. “It’s stunning to me that my own state doesn’t have this yet,” she said of public funding for cannabis research. 

The federal government today classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, the most dangerous classification, even though many states have legalized it. That means it has historically been difficult to get federal funding for research on marijuana. Until recently, researchers had to obtain marijuana for federally funded projects from one specific source, which precluded research on the myriad products like edibles or extracts now available on dispensary shelves.  

Because universities get most of their research funding from federal sources like the National Institutes of Health, they have been reluctant to authorize cannabis research on their campuses out of fear that it will jeopardize that funding. 

Biden in early October ordered federal agencies to review how marijuana is scheduled – a potential first step toward removing some marijuana restrictions. 

At a recent meeting of the state Cannabis Control Commission, executive director Shawn Collins suggested that federal rescheduling could be a boon to Massachusetts, given the state’s educational institutions, hospitals, biotech, and the commission’s commitment to issuing cannabis research licenses. “I’d argue Massachusetts would be the premier location for any cannabis research to occur,” Collins said. 

Dr. Staci Gruber in an MRI suite at McLean Hospital. (Courtesy McLean Hospital)

There is no doubt that there is a need for cannabis research. The marijuana plant is complex, with hundreds of chemical constituents. It impacts multiple body systems, and there are different ways of ingesting it.  

Peter Grinspoon, a primary care physician working for Massachusetts General Hospital in Chelsea who is also a cannabis clinician and author, said due to federal restrictions, 85 percent of the research that has been done on marijuana has looked at its harms, not benefits, since those are the projects that get funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “A lot of research started with a prior assessment of this is harmful, let’s prove its harmful. That’s not really science, it’s ideology,” Grinspoon said. 

Grinspoon argues that now is the time to research how marijuana can be used to enhance health and happiness – studying the impact marijuana has in areas like pain, sleep problems, pediatric autism, or increasing human connection. “We’ve been looking in one direction not the other direction,” Grinspoon said. “There’s an urgent need to see what we can do with a plant that’s so diverse and so multifaceted.” 

But for now, the opportunities for research are slim and the path to conducting research is complex.  

There are two ways someone can do research using cannabis plants.  

One is to obtain a federal Schedule I license. Gruber, who holds a federal license, said it comes with lots of restrictions. She cannot do clinical trials that involve administering edibles or extracts to patients, since she can only get marijuana from federally approved suppliers. She must store her drugs in a large safe with its own key in a separate part of the building. 

“When we think of the ways people find themselves entering research or dedicating time to research, we can understand why the difficulties and hurdles and complexities are sometimes challenging and limit enthusiasm,” Gruber said. 

The second path is to obtain a state-level license from the Cannabis Control Commission. The commission says it has seven pending applications for research licenses, but none have obtained even initial approval. A public database of license applicants shows that almost all the applications submitted have been deemed incomplete or reopened to obtain more information. 

The commission says while the license has been offered since 2018, there were operating requirements and cross-jurisdictional issues that needed to be addressed, many of which were resolved in regulations promulgated in January 2021. 

Collins said he thinks the opportunity for research relies heavily on the federal government decriminalizing cannabis and providing greater access to capital and grant funding. “Unfortunately, well-established research facilities may not be entering the cannabis industry at this time because they receive federal funding, which is a key capital component for these types of facilities including academia,” Collins said. “The conflict between federal and state law, and the possibility of losing funding on other important projects, is likely impacting research facilities’ decisions to participate in the regulated industry.”  

Kevin Conroy, a partner at Foley Hoag who co-chairs the law firm’s cannabis group and represents organizations seeking to do cannabis research, said his clients also see problems with the commission’s approach, and feel the regulations governing the research license “are very draconian.” The state rules require applicants to disclose the specific nature of their research with no promise of confidentiality. They also require a research institution to sign a host community agreement with their city or town.  

Conroy said companies have an interest in doing research to develop new products and understand the impact of products on customers. But they fear that if the nature of their research is publicly disclosed, they will lose a competitive advantage. “Certain aspects of research need to remain private until researchers are ready to disclose the contents of their research, and right now the commission doesn’t allow you to do that,” Conroy said. 

Marion McNabb, who heads the research subcommittee of the state’s Cannabis Advisory Board, said another challenge is financial. “There’s not a lot of profit built into this license type,” McNabb said. 

McNabb is applying for a research license, but so far she has done only studies that do not involve her using the plant. For example, she circulated surveys asking veterans to self-report about their cannabis use.  

McNabb said the big need is for money. “We have both the adult use and medical industry here, we have a lot of really smart people… I definitely think we can be a leader in the US in cannabis research,” McNabb said. “But what we need to do is really invest in it, meaning put some financial dollars toward research.” 

According to a presentation Gruber made at a recent meeting of the research subcommittee, several states that legalized marijuana also set aside research funding. Since 2018, California has allocated $2 million to $3 million a year to a center that studies medical marijuana. California’s cannabis regulatory agency has also been awarding research grants to public universities — $30 million from cannabis tax revenues in 2020 and $20 million this year. Colorado has used $9 million in medical marijuana tax revenue to approve nine research grants. Michigan’s state fund plans to award $20 million a year for two years to FDA-approved clinical trials researching the efficacy of cannabis to treat veterans’ medical conditions. Florida is giving $1.5 million a year to a consortium of universities studying clinical outcomes of medical marijuana.  

Mathew Madeiros, founder of Chrysanthos LLC in Plainville, said he is hopeful that a research industry could be up and running in Massachusetts by late 2023. Madeiros has a pending license application for a company that will research the genetic and environmental factors affecting marijuana growth to create standards that can be used by cultivators to grow consistent products.  

Madeiros is self-funding and hopes to attract marijuana cultivators as clients. The second stage of his business would involve producing medicinal marijuana products.  

Madeiros said he thinks the Cannabis Control Commission is setting Massachusetts up to become a research hub, should federal legalization occur, by creating a state licensing process that is less onerous than the federal one. Madeiros said he thinks some fine tuning of the regulations will occur simply through discussions between licensees and regulators. 

He agreed that federal legalization will be important, to end restrictions on shipping samples between states and make financing more readily available.  

Under the Biden administration, there are starting to be more federal grants available for marijuana research, including from the National Institutes of Health.  

There is some private philanthropic funding. In 2019, for example, an alumnus of MIT and Harvard gave the two institutions $9 million to research the science of cannabinoids. 

There are some national private investment firms that focus on cannabis. But Patrick Rea, managing director of San Francisco-based Poseidon Garden Ventures and a cannabis investor since 2013, said the industry is still “largely underfunded.” Rea said exploratory research is high risk because it involves researching an application that may not come to fruition. Focusing on cannabis adds additional risk, because of regulatory issues and because the plant is so complex. 

“Most of the investment dollars coming into the cannabis industry are going to growing, processing and selling cannabis, not necessarily moving forward the body of research,” Rea said.