State health officials want to offer $7.1 million in research grants to scrutinize growing claims about medically beneficial properties of marijuana and its derivatives. State medical leaders feel urgency to tackle what could be a fast-spreading movement of patients and families to Colorado, seeking untested marijuana-derived cures. Families with seizure-plagued children have pursued purified cannabidiol from a legal Colorado Springs dispensary after anecdotal reports of success.
Most cannabis research has been blocked by federal laws that largely prohibit scientists from obtaining or handling marijuana products. The state health department believes years of legalization of medical marijuana in Colorado give researchers the chance to responsibly investigate claims of what it can do to heal illness.
"Our role is to ensure it's evidence-based and that good science is being used to protect patient safety," said state health director Dr. Larry Wolk. The department wants the state legislature to approve a new use for the money. The $7.1 million is a surplus built up from registration fees at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment under the legalization of medically prescribed marijuana.
An even brighter national spotlight on the hopeful medical claims lit up as the expansion to recreational marijuana sales became legal in Colorado Jan. 1, the first state to do so. The marijuana trade is "beyond supportive" of the idea, said Michael Elliott, executive director of Colorado's Marijuana Industry Group. Medical "refugees" are arriving in Colorado, with miraculous stories of recovery, "but we need to know how to do this right, scientifically," Elliott said.
"It's important, it's timely, it's cutting-edge," he said. "The most significant thing we could do is spend the money to further the research," said Wolk, a pediatrician who has been state health chief for four months. He said he has been learning along the way about the department's role in marijuana laws, including gaps in medical justification for patient requests to get higher doses in marijuana prescriptions.
With parents seeking cannabis for child-seizure treatments, and other claims about what marijuana derivatives can do for health, "it's becoming a bit of a community standard without research to back it up," Wolk said. "Both on the safety and the effectiveness of it." So far the evidence for seizures in kids is "anecdotal," Wolk said. "And what are we doing to these kids long term? Are we trading one malady for another? Because no one has studied the side effects."
The health department prepared a white paper backing the proposal to present to the legislature's Joint Budget Committee, Wolk said. JBC member Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, said legislators are intrigued by the chance for Colorado to conduct research no one else is doing. She added, though, that members want to make sure issuing marijuana grants to state academic institutions would not jeopardize other federal funding for those schools. "So that's the conversation; we definitely want to look at it," Gerou said.
Federal officials have said they would refrain from some enforcement of national law — which still restricts marijuana — if states carefully regulate the new trade. But researchers say past federal attitudes still cast a pall over prospects for the kind of nationwide, double-blind, control group studies that are the highest standard in academia. Should the legislature pass a bill authorizing the surplus to be spent on marijuana research grants, the health department would set up a request-for-proposals process for researchers. A team of academics, advocacy groups, industry figures and others could provide advice or review.
Final decisions on each grant might come from the department's existing public health board. Wolk said grants could come in increments between $500,000 and $1 million, allowing for a strong handful of research projects on seizures, post-traumatic-stress treatment or marijuana's impact on adolescent brain development, as examples.
If the projects produce useful work and interest remains, the department could try to develop an ongoing budget for further marijuana research after the surplus is spent, Wolk said. The state's marijuana registry fund in December had $13 million more than needed to carry out regulations. There are 113,000 medical cardholders in the state; in December their annual fee was reduced from $35 to $15.
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Author: Michael Booth