(Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Colorado research grants face federal uncertainty

Colorado will begin handing out money for a ground-breaking medical-marijuana research grant program early next year. But the first meeting of a group that will review applications for the grants shows there’s doubt over who will be able to accept the funding.

Next week, Colorado’s health department will release the program’s official request for applications. Starting in early 2015, the state expects to distribute $9 million for research on the medical effects of cannabis, making it the largest-ever state-funded effort to study medical marijuana.

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The department’s new Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council will review applications in November and make recommendations to the state Board of Health over which studies should be funded. Who will receive that money, though, is an ongoing question because of marijuana’s strictly illegal status at the federal level.

At the council’s first meeting Friday, several members raised questions about whether university-based researchers would be able to participate in the program without first getting complicated approval from the federal government. Some members said university review boards might pull approval for projects seen as too controversial or a threat to the university’s federal funding even after the state grants money for the research.

“It’s going to be a challenge for the applicant,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, the health department’s executive director. “Part of our work is going to be to make sure we have reserve awards if something falls through.”

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Dr. Paula Riggs, a council member who is an addiction medicine specialist at the University of Colorado, said researchers can reduce that concern by getting approval from the Drug Enforcement Administration. But such approval typically takes a long time.

“You can do it,” she said, “but you have to jump through the hoops.”

The bill that created the grant program also directs Colorado’s attorney general to work with the federal government to get approval for research on marijuana. It is unclear what the attorney general’s office has done to pursue that goal.

John Ingold: 303-954-1068, jingold@denverpost.com or twitter.com/john_ingold

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