The industry needs scientific data to develop intelligently, and that can’t happen until political and professional biases are uprooted.
Recreational cannabis markets are opening up across North America. Yet restrictions on university cannabis research remain. They prevent consumers, patients, medical professionals, the cannabis industry and policy-makers from making decisions based on scientific data.
There are numerous barriers to conducting research on cannabis, especially in countries where cannabis is illegal. But even in Canada, where cannabis was legalized in 2018, such barriers persist and include stringent restrictions on partnerships between the cannabis industry and researchers. We think these restrictions require a second look, as they are hampering governments from meeting their own policy objectives. Preserving public health and public safety while also promoting social justice and economic development requires strong partnerships among governments, universities and industry.
Impacts of legalization
The legalization of cannabis for recreational use in Canada and many US states is a significant achievement in public policy. The speed with which governments have transformed popular mandates into action is historically rare and deserving of praise. While legalization is still in its early days in Canadian jurisdictions, emerging evidence suggests that cannabis use has not increased among youth, and drug-impaired-driving arrests have not risen as a direct result of legalization. Similar findings are being reported in US states that have implemented regulated cannabis markets; evidence suggests inconsistent outcomes associated with youth cannabis use rates, drug-impaired driving and crime rates. In other words, the sky has not fallen, although many legalization opponents voiced dire warnings of increased cannabis use and harms. That said, more should be done to investigate the effects of legalization on public health and well-being. To truly understand the impacts that legalization is having across various North American jurisdictions, well-funded high-quality research is needed.
However, in the US, researchers’ access to the cannabis plant and related products that mirror those available in regulated markets is restricted by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). In both Canada and the US, funding is insufficient to support research beyond the historical focus on misuse and drug pathology. Such barriers are often found in laws or regulations, but they are rooted in persistent political and professional biases about the value of cannabis research. Just as the stigma surrounding cannabis use remains among the public, so, too, does the stigma associated with cannabis research persist within universities and governments.