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Cannabis Research Can Be a Battle but Dr. Jeff Chen Is Determined to Fight

Cannabis medical research exists in a catch-22.

Because cannabis is a Schedule-1 drug, anyone attempting to study it scientifically has to climb a mountain of federal regulations and restrictions to conduct even limited research. At the same time, this lack of scientific evidence is often used by regulators and legislators as one of the reasons that cannabis should continue to be so heavily regulated.

There aren’t many people in the world who understand this paradox as well as Dr. Jeff Chen. While Dr. Chen is now the Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, one of the first academic programs in the world dedicated to the study of cannabis, he began as a humble medical student skeptical of cannabis’ medical benefits. However, after seeing firsthand how cannabis benefited an epileptic patient he was inspired to dig deeper: 

Because cannabis is a Schedule-1 drug, anyone attempting to study it scientifically has to climb a mountain of federal regulations and restrictions to conduct even limited research. At the same time, this lack of scientific evidence is often used by regulators and legislators as one of the reasons that cannabis should continue to be so heavily regulated.

There aren’t many people in the world who understand this paradox as well as Dr. Jeff Chen. While Dr. Chen is now the Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, one of the first academic programs in the world dedicated to the study of cannabis, he began as a humble medical student skeptical of cannabis’ medical benefits. However, after seeing firsthand how cannabis benefited an epileptic patient he was inspired to dig deeper: 

“I started coming across some really interesting animal studies on a variety of medical uses for cannabis. The light bulb went off that this was an area that clearly needed more science and research and that’s when I felt compelled to throw my hat in the ring and see what I could do to move the ball forward.”

That early epiphany set him on a path towards the forefront of cannabis medical science, and along the way he’s become thoroughly acquainted with the unique obstacles cannabis researchers face.

As mentioned above, cannabis’ Schedule-1 status means that researchers can’t touch any cannabis made inside the U.S. and instead have to rely solely on imports. And not only does this cannabis have to come from outside the US, it has to be produced as a pharmaceutical grade drug for the express purpose of research.

While this method of importing pharmaceutical grade cannabis has the benefit of passing the DEA’s restrictions, allowing for research to be done at all, Dr. Chen pointed out that it has several significant downsides. 

First, because they’re forced to use only cannabis extracts instead of entire plants, it’s extremely difficult for researchers to study areas like the much discussed but so far unproven idea of an “entourage effect.”

The presumption of the “entourage effect” is that consuming THC, CBD, and the other cannabinoids found naturally in the cannabis plant together versus separately results in a greater effect. It’s an idea that has the potential to shape the future of the cannabis industry and provide enormous benefit to patients, but proving it to be scientifically true would require direct comparisons of whole plants and isolates that current restrictions make nearly impossible.

And second, because the cost and bureaucracy involved in studying cannabis is so immense, Dr. Chen fears that only big pharmaceutical companies will be able to carry out crucial studies and that the potential benefits of the entire cannabis plant could be lost in the regulatory aftermath.

“There’s been very little to no research done on the cannabis plant. That’s why it’s really easy from a regulatory standpoint to say, why do we need the plant? Let’s just synthesize it and sell it in an FDA-approved fashion. 

 

So you could have a situation where over the next five years we have FDA-approved pharmaceutical versions available and they start phasing out every other use of the cannabis plant itself. I really hope not, because that would leave consumers stuck with limited, more expensive options.”

As Dr. Chen stressed, avoiding that limited future is going to require continued and substantial support for non-profit research, and it’s going to require cannabis scientists and manufacturers to work hand in hand. In his view, the more science drives the direction of the industry, the more benefits consumers will see, and the more comfortable regulators and legislators will be in allowing cannabis to be sold in a variety of forms, not just as a FDA-approved pharmaceutical.

As he said, “The more the industry can learn from newest science coming out and create products accordingly, the more beneficial and stable the industry will be over the long-run.” 


To hear Dr. Chen speak more about his work and vision for the future of medical cannabis in his keynote address, join us in Los Angeles on July 27 for a day devoted to exploring the intersection of cannahemp medical research and manufacturing technology.