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Task force recommends state-funded pot research institute


Institute would award grants to research the medical effects of cannabis.

CORVALLIS — A task force created by the Legislature is unanimously recommending that the state fund an independent institute to research the medical benefits of marijuana.

“The whole idea behind this as I understand it is we would make a research institute, that unlike universities that have to be in compliance with all federal laws, leverages the fact that Oregon no longer feels obligated to be in compliance with federal cannabis laws,” said Mowgli Holmes, chairman of the Oregon Cannabis Research Task Force.

Both Oregon’s medical marijuana program, which started in 1998, and its recreational sales, legalized by voters in 2014, violate federal law. On top of the federal government’s prohibition of cannabis, federal restrictions have stymied research on the marijuana’s medical properties, especially at publicly funded universities.

During its final meeting Tuesday at Oregon State University, the task force agreed to a series of recommendations to overcome those obstacles and increase marijuana research in the state.

The recommendations, which will be reported to the Legislature in February, create an outline for establishment of the institute and some ideas for governance structure. Determining funding sources for the institute and research program and selecting a governance structure will be up to lawmakers.

According to the task force’s vision, the institute would award grants and provide administrative support for research projects that cannot be performed at universities because of federal restrictions. The projects could include pre-clinical, clinical, observational, public health and plant sciences research. A scientific advisory review board would be responsible for screening applications and selecting projects for funding.

“I am picturing the institute as a grant making body that reviews grant applications and channels out whatever money it can get from the state or anywhere else,” said Holmes, who serves as chief scientific officer for Phylos Bioscience in Portland.

Lawmakers could consider a state-run institute, a public corporation research institute such as Oregon Health Science University or a semi-independent state agency such as the Oregon Wine Board, said task force member Peter Gendron, a marijuana grower in Josephine County. The wine board is a nonprofit that can accept state funds.

Grant money could come from state coffers, private donations and public-private partnerships. Holmes said the institute would need to be cautious about structuring public-private partnerships for research to avoid bias in studies or the appearance of bias.

“There are tons of advantages to collaborating with companies, and funding is only one of them, but it brings up some really thorny issues,” Holmes said.

“I think this institute would be under a higher level of scrutiny.”

Most of the obstacles to doing research come from marijuana's federal classification as a Schedule 1 drug — one that is at high risk for abuse — and the Controlled Substance Act of 1970.

Clinical studies on humans require time-consuming and complicated applications and approval from an institutional research review board at a university, the Federal Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Researchers may use only research-grade cannabis provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Universities are bound by these drug laws or risk losing grant funding and other financial assistance from the federal government.

California, Colorado and Minnesota already have medical cannabis research programs that do either clinical or observational studies, according to a review by Oregon State University on behalf of Oregon Health Authority. Washington also is considering legislation to start a state-funded research program.

The Legislature created the 15-member task force with Senate Bill 844. Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, who helped craft the bill, is one of the members.

The task force convened over the past two months to examine barriers to research and craft their recommendations.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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