Revised January 2014
What kinds of marijuana research does NIDA fund?
As part of its mandate to study drug abuse and addiction and other health effects of both legal and illegal drugs, NIDA funds a wide range of research on marijuana (cannabis); its main psychoactive ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC); and chemicals related to THC (cannabinoids), including:
- Patterns and trends in marijuana use and attitudes, particularly among adolescents
- Short- and medium-term effects of THC on the brain and behavior; driving under the influence of cannabis
- Long-term effects of prenatal and adolescent cannabis exposure on brain development
- The development and impact of prevention programs on marijuana use
- Screening and brief assessment for marijuana abuse
- Medications and behavioral treatments for cannabis use disorder
- The working of the brain’s cannabinoid system, including its role in pain and HIV
- Potential therapeutic uses of THC and other cannabinoids in treatment of pain, HIV, and addiction
- Social, behavioral, and public health impacts of policy changes related to marijuana (i.e., “medical marijuana” and recreational legalization)
Does NIDA permit or fund studies on therapeutic benefits of marijuana or its constituent chemicals?
Yes. Research suggests that THC and/or other cannabinoids (chemicals that act on the same receptors as THC in the brain and body) may have potential in the treatment of pain, nausea, obesity, wasting disease, addiction, autoimmune disorders, and other conditions. NIDA has provided and continues to provide funding for research related to therapeutic uses of cannabinoids, as it pertains to its mission, including studies on the use of THC and cannabidiol, another chemical constituent of marijuana, for the treatment of pain (as an alternative to opioid pain relievers), addiction, and other disorders. For example, one currently ongoing study is examining the antipsychotic effects of cannabidiol which may lead to new treatment options for people with schizophrenia.
Research on therapeutic uses of marijuana or of specific chemicals in the marijuana plant could be supported by any Institute or Center at NIH where the disease, conditions, or affected organs are studied. For instance, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is supporting a preclinical (animal) study on the use of cannabinoids to reduce neuroinflammation caused by HIV and exacerbated by alcohol use. Similarly, the National Cancer Institute is funding a preclinical study on the potential benefits of cannabinoids for the treatment of breast-cancer induced bone pain.
Note that the vast majority of research proposals received and funded by NIH on therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids have examined individual cannabinoid chemicals or, in a few cases, marijuana leaves delivered through some other means than smoking. Various factors make smoked marijuana therapeutically less promising than medications derived from cannabinoids, including the potential harmful health effects both short-lasting (sedation, cognitive and motor impairment) and long lasting (addiction, respiratory effects). Marijuana leaves contain numerous poorly understood or even toxic chemicals besides THC. It is also difficult to standardize dosages of a highly variable herb delivered in cigarettes or food (see NIDA’s fact sheet, “Is Marijuana Medicine”). A few medications derived from THC, however, are now FDA approved for relieving nausea associated with cancer chemotherapy and stimulating appetite in patients with wasting syndrome that often accompanies AIDS.
Whether submitted to NIDA or another NIH institute, research proposals to study therapeutic benefits of marijuana or one of its ingredients must meet the same accepted standards of scientific design as any other proposal and, on the basis of peer review, should meet public health significance and Institute priorities and be competitive with other applications that qualify for funding.
Does NIDA have an official stand on legalization or decriminalization of marijuana for either recreational or therapeutic use?
No. NIDA is a scientific, not a policy-making agency (the same is true for the NIH as a whole). NIDA’s role is to conduct and support scientific research on drugs and drug abuse and to advise the public and policy-makers (such as Congress, the White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy, and the Drug Enforcement Administration) on the results of that research—with the goal of ensuring that the nation’s drug policies are informed by science.
That said, NIDA does closely watch legislative changes both nationally and at the state level, in order to anticipate and assess how changing drug policies—for instance laws around recreational or therapeutic use of marijuana—may affect rates of substance use and related public health issues that are our area of concern. The annual NIDA-supported Monitoring the Future survey of adolescent drug use and attitudes, for example, has over the past several years detected increasing use of marijuana by teens associated with a decreasing perception of marijuana’s harmfulness—a trend that may be linked to the public conversation about “medical marijuana” (and in some states legalization advocacy) over the same period of time. NIDA has encouraged its grantees to study effects of changing marijuana legislation, through administrative supplements to existing grants.
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