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UCLA's Cannabis Research Initiative Year in Review

With 2018 coming to a close, it's high time look back on all the progress the cannabis industry has made this past year, as well as all that's yet to come in 2019. From home-run wins like legalizing hemp to more nuanced advances in cannabis medicine, experts in the field, as well as scientists, and politicians, have been pushing the needle forward, helping cannabis shake off its stigma and become more mainstream.

Even so, as cannabis becomes more normalized, under federal law it's still taboo. Obstacles like marijuana's Schedule I status under the Controlled Substances Act prevent scientists from procuring federal funding to carry out research, or from taking donations from federally illegal cannabis companies. Even so, cutting edge institutions like the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative (CRI) are working to study the cannabis plant as a whole for the good of public research — while pharmaceutical companies are rushing to create synthetic versions of THC or other compounds found in cannabis.

Comprised of 37 faculty across 15 departments and six schools within the university, the CRI is dedicated to studying the medical use of natural cannabis. Now in order to jumpstart the first human clinical trials in history using the cannabis plant (other trials have thus far have been executed on animals) to reduce opioid dependence, inhibit cancer growth, and prevent alzheimer's, the CRI is aiming to raise $1 million by the end of the year. Figureheads like Snoop Dogg have already made 100 percent tax deductible donations toward this goal. (Those interested in making a gift can call the UCLA Foundation at 310-825-2454 8 am - 4 pm on Monday 12/31.)

The UCRI has already seen various points of progress throughout the past year:

  • Researchers like Dr. Jeffrey Chen, founder and executive director of the UCRI have been invited to conferences all over the world, including at the United Nations, to educate other physicians, policymakers, and so forth on cannabis medicine.
  • CRI currently has 14 studies underway, ranging from investigations into the abuse potential of cannabis and impacts on the lungs and brain, to human clinical trials investigating the therapeutic potential of cannabis compounds for various pediatric, neurologic, and autoimmune disorders
  • Here are some of the findings from completed studies published in 2018 by CRI members:
  • In the first ever placebo-controlled human study to directly investigate the interactions between cannabis and opioids, vaporized cannabis was shown to dramatically boost the pain relieving effects of a low dose of oxycodone that was not able to provide any pain relief when the low dose oxycodone was used alone.
  • Chronic adolescent cannabis use is associated with loss of hippocampal volume (a brain region critical for memory formation) in late adulthood.
  • The state of Washington has the nation’s highest cannabis tax rate (37%) yet it does not appear to lead to lower state revenue or promote a black market.
  • Novel cannabinoids that are analogous to THC but do not pass the blood brain barrier (and thus are non-psychoactive) were shown in animals to reduce cancer-related bone pain and chemotherapy-induced nerve pain.
  • In individuals diagnosed with cannabis use disorder who sought medical treatment to reduce their cannabis use, reductions in cannabis use were associated with self-reported improvements in anxiety, sleep, cognitive functioning, and depression, but not quality of life.
  • Habitual cannabis use did not appear to impact the body’s response to hepatitis B vaccination.
  • Treatments for infantile spasms, a rare pediatric neurologic condition characterized by difficult to control seizures and developmental disabilities were reviewed and a treatment algorithm was proposed that incorporates CBD as a second line therapy.
  • In a group of 512 men who have sex with men studied between 2014 and 2017, individuals who reported cannabis use and no other drug use had fewer sexually transmitted illnesses detected than individuals who reported no drug use or non-cannabis drug use.

The world over, cannabis is gaining mainstream appeal as a growing point of interest in both science and policy. Public support for adult use legalization has spurted up to 66 percent of American adults, according to Gallup, while medical and adult use marijuana legalization has taken hold in Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Utah, and federally Canada. And now with hemp legal in the US at a federal level, researchers will have more flexibility and support to look into the cannabis plant domestically, as well, for its utility in wellness, sustainability, construction, and so forth.

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