Colorado is on the verge of doing something unlike any other state: fund research into the health benefits of marijuana.
Researchers, who’ve long struggled to raise money to study the drug, welcome the news but some also wonder will it be enough to make a difference?
A couple of months ago CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta profiled a Colorado family using medical marijuana to treat seizures experienced by their young daughter. They used a unique strain called Charlotte’s Web.
“More than 41 children are using Charlotte’s Web here in Colorado,” said Gupta in the report. “All of them are reporting significant seizure reduction and there are dozens more on a wait list hoping, praying that a plant could change their lives.”
Dr. Gupta, a neurosurgeon, mentioned on CNN that more research was needed. Some in the medical community feel that’s an understatement.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Larry Wolk, Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Because it does lead to false or potential false expectations.”
Wolk is pushing state lawmakers to allocate $7 million from medical marijuana patient registration fees to be used to study the medical properties of the drug, something he says is sorely needed in light of reports like CNN’s.
“The impetus was to try and move from anecdotal to evidence-based” information about the drug, Wolk says.
Today, medical marijuana is approved for only a handful of illnesses in Colorado including cancer, AIDS and severe pain.
The list of ailments wasn’t vetted by doctors but instead approved by voters back in 2000 when the right to use medical marijuana was added to the state’s constitution.
Over the years, pot advocate Brian Vicente has petitioned the state health department to add other conditions like Tourette’s syndrome or PTSD. But he always ran into the same roadblock: pushback that not enough U.S. studies prove effectiveness and safety.
“We actually presented the department with studies from other countries,” said Vicente. “And every time, they said those people with those conditions can continue to suffer and not have access to what they’re saying helps them.”
Now, the state health department is changing its tune. If the gold-standard, top-of-the-line research isn’t there, Colorado wants to fund it.
Vicente says that shift is now possible because pot is fully legal in Colorado.
“Now it’s exciting because we’re seeing a mainstreaming of marijuana where the government’s to understand that if marijuana is out there, people are using it medically, we should research, figure out what’s really going on,” Vicente says.
If the legislature approves the $7 million for research the funding could be available after July 1st, 2014.
That’s welcome news to Rick Doblin who runs the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies based in Santa Cruz, Calif.
“It’s an extreme challenge,” said Doblin, when asked about the current landscape of funding for medical marijuana research.
For the last three years, Doblin has tangled with the federal government while trying to study marijuana and PTSD in veterans.
“And I understand that that’s an issue in Colorado,” said Doblin. “So that if we were able to get permission from the Public Health Service our next challenge is raising the money for it.”
Doblin was excited to hear his organization could be eligible for some of the state’s $7 million for research. But while that seems like a lot of money, it pales in comparison to the big research budgets enjoyed by most pharmaceutical companies.
And state health department chief Larry Wolk admits it’s probably not enough to definitively prove the drug’s worth.
But, Wolk adds, “I’m a believer that something’s more than nothing.”
Wolk also hopes the state money can attract matching dollars from other funders and thinks Colorado’s unique situation could make it a kind of national research lab for marijuana.