(Joe Amon, Denver Post file)

Sue Sisley: This is why medical pot research needs state cash … for now

Two weeks ago, the Colorado Board of Health awarded grants totaling $8 million to research marijuana’s medical potential. The studies funded by these grants will help evaluate marijuana’s safety and efficacy in treating epilepsy, brain tumors, Parkinson’s disease and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The money is coming from Colorado’s medical marijuana patient fees and new taxes on recreational pot.

Medical marijuana researcher Dr. Sue Sisley
Dr. Sue Sisley, a medical marijuana researcher, speaks at the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office in Phoenix in April 2010. (Matt York, Associated Press file)

Under the umbrella of non-profit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (whose founder Rick Doblin helped me with this column), I am one of the two investigators funded by the Board of Health to test marijuana on veterans with PTSD. Our allotment of Colorado’s funding: $2 million.

I was thrilled on behalf of patients suffering from all of those diseases because we need more research to evaluate the risks and benefits of marijuana — not just the risks. Only when marijuana is approved by the FDA as a prescription medicine will insurance companies pay for medical marijuana, a major benefit to patients.

On the day of the Board of Health meeting, a group of medical marijuana patients announced a lawsuit challenging Colorado’s funding of marijuana research. They claimed that Colorado’s medical marijuana law required excess cash to be refunded to patients who paid the fees, not diverted to scientific research. They were joined in their opposition by a number of activists who gathered to protest government funding for marijuana research.

More on the grants: Colorado approves $8 million in medical pot research grants, studies

More on the lawsuit: Pot patients sue state of Colorado for using registry fees for research grants

One of them yelled to me, “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

After the vote, this same protester approached me with a mitigated apology. Remarkably, he told me not only that he is a veteran but also that he understood how desperately we need this PTSD research. However, he felt strongly that this research should be funded privately, not by any government body. 

I fear that this may be a common opinion. And I would like to explain why public funding is the only way we can reasonably hope to advance medical marijuana research and obtain approval for its federally-legal use in treating patients.

First, while the Board of Health awarded “public funds,” these funds have been collected from those who will benefit most from these studies – the patients.

The dire need to implement meaningful, real-world marijuana research immediately is so clear. Yet if the studies were funded by the companies who benefit most from increased marijuana research, the results would be discounted by the medical community needed to prescribe marijuana in appropriate doses.

We doctors are dubious of research sponsored by major, for-profit pharmaceutical companies who bestow great endowments and incentives on the “independent” investigators hired to study the efficacy of a new or off-book drug.

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Government money (even if it’s been collected from marijuana patients/licensing fees, etc.) has the best chance of providing an unbiased and unpressured research environment. For example, the State of California allocated $9 million to medical marijuana research that was conducted by California’s Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, and they produced a body of credible and promising research.

I strongly believe that one of the reasons our study was chosen for funding is because it is a triple-blind, randomized, controlled trial. Nobody in the lab will know what any of the study subjects are getting, which will reduce the influence of bias on that data.

There are so many issues that really do need to be addressed as they relate to medical marijuana research. The biggest of these is how to get more research done so doctors can effectively treat their patients in the 23 states (and the District of Columbia) that allow them to prescribe medical marijuana.

Federal approval to study marijuana’s medical potential requires permission of the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration and either the National Institutes of Health or the Department of Health and Human Services. And there’s only one legal source of the marijuana used for these studies: Ironically, it is the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which contracts with the University of Mississippi to grow marijuana for use in research studies.

My research is intended to address some of the unanswered questions surrounding medical marijuana, particularly the proper dosage for patients. Yet despite receiving FDA approval and the generous grant from Colorado, we continue to wait for access to NIDA’s marijuana from Ole Miss.

To put patients rather than politics front and center, there is a desperate need to expand cannabis research. To this end, and I told this to the protester I spoke with in Colorado, medical marijuana researchers must be allowed to utilize state funds received from dispensary and patient application fees to fund more peer-reviewed research so that doctors can make scientifically grounded decisions when treating their patients with cannabis.

State funding is a much-needed first step. Ending federal roadblocks like the NIDA monopoly and the associated protocol review process by the Public Health Service (PHS) would be a good second step. I’d like to see more medical marijuana patients getting behind that cause — allowing doctors to explore viable new options that work to serve the best interests of those in need, our patients.

Sue Sisley is a doctor, scientist and former professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, from which she was fired after discussing her intentions to study the efficacy of medical marijuana.