While dispensary and retail shelves and online marketplaces across the country are brimming with CBD products, extraordinarily little scientific research has explored the safety or efficacy of cannabinoids for wellness. This is simply unacceptable. Tens of millions of Americans use cannabis and CBD to cope with ailments ranging from anxiety to depression to insomnia—conditions only heightened in severity by the COVID-19 pandemic—yet we haven’t taken advantage of this vast user population to collect real-world data at scale across diverse demographics to learn directly from actual experiences. Without this evidence-based approach, the industry, regulators, and the general public lack a thorough understanding of the therapeutic benefits of CBD and cannabis.
There is no time like the present to conduct such studies and pave the way for even more rigorous research. This is exactly why the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation, a federally approved public nonprofit dedicated to cannabis research, education, and advocacy, is sponsoring a first-of-its-kind exploratory survey about the efficacy of CBD and cannabis in reducing anxiety, conducted by University of California, Irvine, in partnership with UC Institute for Prediction Technology. The Institutional Review Board-approved Cannabinoid Anxiety Relief Education Study (C.A.R.E.S.) was distributed to millions of CBD and cannabis users via email lists and the online forums belonging to Wholistic partners including Vertosa. The researchers conducting the study aim to use the insights they gain to help consumers, companies, and government officials make evidence-based decisions and increase transparency.
While C.A.R.E.S was designed to establish foundational groundwork about cannabinoid efficacy for anxiety, insomnia, and other co-morbid conditions, the study also is necessary in that it inspires and guides others—including government agencies and private organizations—to follow suit with additional research designed to determine how cannabis and CBD may benefit different people in distinct ways.
In short, we have everything to learn and gain from more large-scale research studies about potential therapeutic benefits, including:
- Efficacy for treating anxiety, depression, and/or insomnia.
- Individual factors (gender, age, size, location, severity of ailment, etc.) that determine one’s ideal dosage, delivery method, and frequency.
- Ways in which a combination of cannabinoids and other active ingredients can interact and affect the user experience.
- Whether adverse effects outweigh benefits.
When collecting real-world data from large and diverse populations, it is essential researchers are able to study products people actually buy in stores instead of the very short list of Food and Drug Administration-approved formulations everyday users simply can’t access. Studying real products in use by real people results in more meaningful findings for the population at large.
The biggest hurdle for continued research on the therapeutic effects of cannabinoids is lack of institutional support, especially at the federal level. Due to long-standing stigma, studies conducted by major institutions haven’t been adequately funded and supported. National Institutes of Health (NIH) cannabis studies historically focused more on abuse potential and adverse effects rather than objectively focusing on potential risks and benefits.
Given at least 14 percent of Americans already use CBD, according to a 2019 Gallup poll, we have a real public health and safety issue at hand. Such widespread usage makes investing in research even more crucial. Assessing both risks and benefits with real-world data ensures applicability across the country’s diverse population. It’s imperative we collect and analyze data pertaining to types of cannabinoid products currently used; details about dosage, frequency, and timing of use; and delivery methods in order to gain much-needed insight.
Thankfully, some promising trends have begun to take shape. NIH spending on cannabis research is up 70 percent since 2016. In 2019, for the first time, the NIH doled out more grant money in its four cannabinoid research categories (therapeutic cannabinoid, endocannabinoid system, cannabidiol, and cannabinoid) than for tobacco research. The same occurred in 2020.
Outside of simply supporting righteous initiatives aimed at improving public health and education, private companies have much to gain by backing, advocating for, and participating in cannabis research studies. Findings may help companies improve their formulations and weed out what doesn’t work, thereby driving product innovation. Research also may enable more strategic marketing decisions by helping home in on specific demographic segments with unique desires and needs. The more we all understand hemp and cannabis, the better the bottom line for manufacturers, consumer packaged goods brands, and consumers.
On the policy front, lack of scientific data often is used as a talking point against nationwide cannabis legalization and broader access to hemp-derived CBD. Widespread research could render that excuse moot and pave the way for federal legalization of cannabis and more progressive hemp-derived CBD regulations, legitimizing and thus boosting the licensed cannabis and hemp industries.
Natural medicines have stood the test of time, but it is time for the wellness and pharmaceutical communities to push for advanced technologies and multidisciplinary approaches to demystify cannabis and hemp. Further study of these ancient plants will enable evidence-based validation of their benefits, leading to a higher level of public trust and more personalized treatment options for practitioners. At the end of the day, rigorous research is a key contributor to the rapidly evolving cannabis industry.
Austin Stevenson is chief innovation officer at Vertosa, where he plays an integral role in business development for the hemp and cannabis infusion technology company. He facilitates partnerships with leading brands to produce cannabinoid-infused beverages and topicals. Previously, he leveraged bio-tech experience building the regulatory hemp/CBD testing program for Eurofins. Stevenson also is a former management associate for Citi, where he worked to fund minority- and women-owned businesses.
Pelin Thorogood, co-founder and president at Wholistic Research and Educational Foundation, is a tech executive and entrepreneur. Her previous venture, artisanal CBD infusions company Mana Artisan Botanics, was acquired by CBD Capital Group in 2019. Before that, she served as chief executive officer at Anametrix and chief marketing officer at WebSideStory. Currently, Thorogood acts as a trustee for UC San Diego Foundation and executive board member for incubator UC San Diego Basement.