After COVID Hiatus, CU's Marijuana Research Needs One Extra Year of Funding

A prolonged hiatus during the pandemic has screwed up the state's medical marijuana research grant program, according to professors at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Established in 2014 by the state legislature, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's Medical Marijuana Scientific Advisory Council has issued a handful of grants for medical marijuana research every few years, with the CU School of Medicine receiving the majority of the funds so far.

However, two CU studies that were put on hold during the pandemic shutdown at the Anschutz Medical Campus are on strict funding schedules that must be updated before they're completed, according to CU professors.

One study is researching the efficacy of CBD treatment on aggression and irritability related to autism spectrum disorder, while the other is focused on medical marijuana's treatment of acute pain and its ability to help reduce opioid use among high-dosage users. Both of the clinical trials were originally set to receive funding up to 2023 but were forced to shut down in 2020. This was the same year that deaths by opioid overdose statewide increased by 54 percent, to over 1,000, according to Dr. Emily Lindley, a professor at the CU School of Medicine and primary investigator for both of the studies.

"The goal of these FDA-regulated trials we are leading is to determine if an oral cannabis-based therapy is able to elevate chronic back and neck pain and help patients who are on high doses of opioids successfully reduce their opioid intake," she said during a May 3 hearing.

The CU School of Medicine's acute pain and opioid-related research is the "first clinical trial to provide high-quality evidence" as to whether medical marijuana is a substitute for opioids, Lindley says, but the effort has faced a number of hurdles since the pandemic began.

On top of her facility being temporarily shut down, the supply of federally approved cannabis for her research was put on hold. Both the acute pain and autism studies are ready to begin again, but if the funding isn't extended for another year, Lindley and her team won't have enough time to recruit the appropriate number of participants, she warned lawmakers.

A bill from Representative Edie Hooton and Senator Don Coram would extend the grants for one more year so the studies can be completed. According to Hooton, the extension wouldn't cost the state any more money; it would roll over approximately $100,000 that went unspent during the pandemic hiatus and re-appropriate it for the suspended studies.

"It does not create new spending. [The bill] simply extends CDPHE's current authority to fund an extra year of research for these two programs. Without this extension, the health research account will dissolve before the grant research is complete," Hooton said during the hearing.

The bill has already passed thfough the Senate and successfully cleared its first House vote with the Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee on May 3. It is now up for a final vote in the House.