COVID-19 has ground almost the entire world to a halt, as people shelter in place to avoid spreading the disease. Of course, there are some silver linings to this surprise need for self-quarantine; for example, the cannabis industries in many states have seen a much-needed boost in sales, and governments have identified both medicinal and recreational marijuana to be essential to consumer health and safety.
Yet, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows for those in the cannabis industry. In an attempt to cut spending and divert as much budget as possible to services like health care and labor, some states have drastically reduced the amount of funding they typically contribute to scientific research — and in many states, that means cannabis research is done for the time being.
Where Cannabis Research Is Paused
It might seem like all cannabis research would be interrupted due to COVID-19 because so many states — especially those where the most in-depth cannabis research is taking place — have severe stay-at-home orders in effect. However, laboratory workers are largely exempt from these restrictions because they are deemed “essential
” — because there are many studies that cannot endure an unknowably long hiatus, and because many laboratories are critical to health care and the fight against the new coronavirus, laboratories around the country remain open and operative.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean cannabis labs are conducting the same research they were before. Many labs have devoted their equipment and expertise to COVID-related efforts, like testing patient samples for COVID-19 and developing viable treatments for the disease. Some labs have shut down of their own free will to reduce the likelihood of spread and conserve valuable PPE for health care workers. Yet, many labs have been shut down by state mandate — as is the case in Washington State.
Washington was one of the earliest states to see high numbers of COVID-19 infections, and Seattle remains one of the hardest-hit cities in the U.S. Governor Jay Inslee did not order residents to stay at home until the end of March — and even so, the economy of the Pacific Northwest is already struggling amidst the high numbers of infected and the lack of business activity. In a hasty attempt to curb government spending and reserve cash for use fighting and recovering from COVID-19, Governor Inslee cut funding to a variety of programs, in particular $100,000 earmarked for marijuana research.
Inslee was careful to note that this line-item veto wasn’t intended to eliminate funding for cannabis research eternally. Undoubtedly, Washington State has a relatively positive reputation for recreation and medicinal marijuana, being among the first states to legalize both and working systematically to improve marijuana availability and equity through the years. Still, this hiccup in cannabis research could be a dangerous precedent to set, even now amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
Why Cannabis Research Must Continue
Maintaining ongoing cannabis research is so important because it is all but impossible to launch practical and valuable cannabis studies to begin with. Though weed is fully legal in 11 states and legal for medicinal use in almost half the country, the federal laws against the drug make it all but impossible to analyze and understand in a laboratory setting.
Most labs across the U.S. get their funding at least partially from federal grants, which purport to support the advancement of knowledge for the betterment of the country and humankind. Yet, marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I drug means that grant money cannot be used to obtain or study cannabis unless researchers first wade through miles of regulations and red tape. Even then, the pot they eventually get their hands on isn’t close to the quality that recreational and medicinal users have at their disposal every day.
As a result, we largely lack even fundamental knowledge about how marijuana affects individual users, let alone society as a whole. Washington State has enjoyed legal weed for more than six years, but law enforcement officers still don’t know how much weed impairs a person beyond the ability to safely drive a car, and doctors can’t be certain what quantities of THC or CBD to prescribe for different conditions. We desperately need more information about almost every aspect of cannabis so we can more safely use the substance and apply it for medical benefit.
Any delay in obtaining this information could result in disaster. As rates of marijuana use are increasing during the pandemic — and as more states consider legalizing marijuana to boost their sluggish economies — information gleaned at well-funded cannabis labs could help legislators make informed decisions and cities develop realistic regulations.
This pause in marijuana research should be as brief as possible. Even if COVID-19 causes cities to remain locked down for many more months, cannabis researchers should consider returning to their work for the good of humankind.