Research in the Age of Cannabis

This piece was written by fellow cannabis writer Morgan Brown, MPH, MPA of Asterion Agency.


Cannabis is having a moment. Throughout history, people have known of its medicinal benefits and recreational effects, and now with a monumental shift in the way legislators see cannabis, the world is opening up back up to the opportunities that cannabis offers. As of now, cannabis has been legalized in 11 states plus Washington DC and the entire country of Canada, and the movement is starting to make its way into other continents like Europe, South America, and Africa.

As more people find interests in cannabis, vast amounts of sometimes contradictory information are being presented to the public as to what cannabis is and isn't, as well as what it can and cannot do. It is essential to be able to discern the good information from exaggerations…and even lies.

This deluge of material about cannabis can be overwhelming. Years of prohibition not only did damage to the reputation of the plant, but it also made sharing information challenging and held funding, and subsequent research, at bay. Now that both the interest and the cash is more available, in some cases, the industry is now looking at what information to trust.

This is why, when discussing the issue of cannabis, it's vital to understand the differences between empirical and clinical research.

Documented interest in cannabis is not new. It was first referenced as a popular medicine in 2900BC in China and was added to the United States Pharmacopeia in 1850. However, starting with Massachusetts first prohibiting cannabis in 1911, various local and state government began disavowing the plant. Although medical and scientific interest was significant, research funding subsequently dropped to very low levels. Though cannabis has been a low priority on the research side, there have been many changes on the policy side. These changes were primarily based on empirical evidence research.

Empirical vs. Clinical Research

Empirical research is based on observation or personal experience. Essentially, it is the power of storytelling and collective experience that people have had with cannabis, which has not only allowed us to learn how the plant benefits people, it is the basis enabling us to change years of policy, and it now prompts us to engage in more formal research.

Clinical research is performed in laboratories and controlled settings, which enable results to be tracked, measured, and recreated. The conclusions are published in peer-reviewed journals, which can often be accessed by the public, but not always. One downfall of clinical research is that it is commonly held behind subscriptions and hefty payments to get access to studies about cannabis, which is why some cannabis advocates try to push forward a movement for "open access" to allow all people to access valuable research. The results from these formal studies are what is most often used as justification for law and policy changes. In order to achieve legalization or decriminalization in the US, more clinical research will be required.

The vast majority of stakeholders in cannabis want more in-depth studies of all aspects of the plant to we can better understand it and its effects, as well as be able to document strains, track terpene levels, and become aware of what we are putting in our bodies with each use. However, clinical studies generally move at a glacial pace—whether in government, academia, less so, private research. For example, obtaining a government grant often can take years, including planning, budgeting, and Institutional Review Board processes. In stark contrast, people are eager for results now. Interest in cannabis has been piqued, but the system is currently NOT equipped to meet it. Cannabis as an industry might be moving quickly, but research has not yet caught up to the demand.

A question that is valid to ask if you are presented with research about cannabis is: "how can you determine the value of research? Here are suggestions:

Bias is Real

We all have our biases about things, but it is especially important to check them especially when it comes to cannabis research. Biases accumulate as one goes through life, as you can see here at the Cognitive Bias Codex, which documents different categories of bias such as the sunk cost fallacy and illusory truth effect. Additionally, some individuals and certain companies have a vested interest in presenting information in ways most complimentary to them. It is vital to be a critical consumer of information, both your own and those biases that may be present in others.

Dig for Source Material

Established cannabis companies know that presenting links to studies can increase both their position as an authority, as well as pageviews. Peer-reviewed studies can be found on PubMed, SCOPUS, and Google Scholar and are great databases for research. Connection to studies that can be found at these sites help ensure their validity and if the study you are checking is not listed in one of these databases, consider it with especially critical judgment.

Research your Sources

Learn more about sources. The number of times an article has been recently cited often can be viewed as a measurement of trustworthiness. You can Google the name of the article along with "impact factor" or use the website Scimago to obtain the ranking and assess if you should be trusting this source.

With the volume of information coming in on cannabis, the best course of action is to become an informed consumer and then share what you learn with others. We must share the legitimate evidence about cannabis and encourage further research, both empirical and clinical, so that we can ensure access and understanding for all.

Morgan Brown, MPH, MPA is a cannabis writer and Principal of Asterion Agency. Visit Morgan’s LinkedIn profile at: