Federal legalization of cannabis seems like an inevitability at this point. The drug has been legalized for adult use in 18 states (including New Mexico), Washington D.C. and Guam. A November 2021 Gallup poll found that 68 percent of American voters support the full legalization of cannabis. But despite pro-cannabis rhetoric from the current administration, federal agencies seem to be cooling their heels—nonchalantly sitting back and waiting for states to decide their own policies around the drug.

But a promising announcement from the nation’s top drug agency may signal a new era in cannabis law reform. Last month the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) published a notice of special interest that announced that it would be providing funding for research into a number of key areas related to cannabis. The notice is to inform scientists that the agency is accepting applications for research grants to bolster certain projects. NIDA said it’s issuing the notice “to encourage grant applications on the effects of changing cannabis laws and policies in the US and globally on public health.”

Necessity for Better Research

“Policies around of cannabis products (including whole plant cannabis and cannabis constituent compounds) in the United States (and globally) continue to evolve, and far outpace the knowledge needed to determine the public health impacts of these changes,” wrote NIDA in its announcement. “Recognizing this widening research gap, in 2018 NIDA sought input from a National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse (NACDA) Workgroup to identify cannabis policy research areas with the greatest urgency and potential for impact, and many of these questions and concerns remain.”

The 2018 report recommended a number of research areas that needed special attention before regulators will be able to weigh in on policies from an informed position. “In approaching our charge, we were agnostic on the issue of cannabis reform,” reads the report. “Instead, we focused purposefully on identifying a policy research agenda that will advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction.”

In 2019 the agency released an announcement that was very similar to the one published last month, but it expired in January. While it might be somewhat disheartening that the agency failed to follow through on the previous notice, it’s renewal should be taken as a positive gesture of goodwill from NIDA.

Areas of Interest

NIDA lists a number of examples of research topics that it wants to see addressed with this funding.

The agency is interested in research that will develop standards for measuring cannabis dose and impairment. This research should include data on THC and CBD as well as other cannabinoids and terpenes. It’s also looking for studies into potency and methods of administration—including differences flower and extracts—and how those factors “impact physical and mental health.” Studies that examine cannabis use trends, patterns of use and reasons for use as they relate to cannabis use disorder are also in demand. The agency is also requesting research to “determine the physical and mental health antecedents of cannabis use as well as outcomes of use.”

NIDA is looking for research into the impact of polysubstance use (the use of cannabis alongside or in place of other drugs) on health outcomes. The agency specifically lists interactions with with alcohol, tobacco and prescription and nonprescription opioids as areas of interest.

Health officials want to investigate the effects of different marijuana use patterns on brain development, educational attainment and transition to work and adult roles. They also want to see data relating to cannabis use during pregnancy and breastfeeding and its effects on developing babies.

NIDA is also seeking studies that help to develop better roadside testing standards to determine levels of cannabis impairment and develop products that can be “practically employed” by law enforcement agents.

Notably, the agency is also looking for data on the reasons for “initiation and continued use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes,” possibly signaling a willingness to recognize the medically therapeutic potential of the drug.

Even more notable are the handful of requests for research related to the regulation of cannabis markets. One such request says NIDA is seeking investigations on how cannabis industry practices like pricing and marketing impact consumer trends and health outcomes. Another seeks to determine the impact of federal, state, and local cannabis policies on health outcomes.

Perhaps the most important request to note is for researchers to “explore the heterogeneity of regulatory schemes (e.g. models for retail distribution of cannabis products) to understand which combinations or components minimize harm to public health.” This means NIDA is looking for competing regulatory schemes to compare.

NIDA said researchers will be required to use the agency’s standard THC unit—any formulation of cannabis plant material or extract containing five milligrams of THC—when involving human participants.

Seachange

The road to legalization has been arduous and fraught with peril, but the wheels behind the scenes have begun turning, and it appears that the federal government is preparing itself for the inevitable reform of cannabis laws. Even the nation’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has initiated a program that will provide consumer-grade cannabis to researchers looking to study the drug. It seems clear that legalization is around the corner and we need way more research before healthy policies can be put into place. Cannabis advocates would be right to accuse our leaders of making these decisions way too late in the game, but the gears of government have always been known to turn at a snail’s pace. At least the beast of bureaucracy appears to be turning in the right direction.