As marijuana becomes increasingly popular in Los Angeles, UCLA researchers are studying the drug’s potential benefits and risks.
Jeffrey Chen, the executive director of the Cannabis Research Initiative, said the initiative is collecting data on variables that might be affected by cannabis legalization, such as crime, alcohol and opioid consumption, high school graduation rates and traffic accidents. The Cannabis Research Initiative plans to start collecting data from LA County and then eventually regions throughout California.
“The purpose of this is to establish a baseline snapshot and see how these variables change over time and how much of it might be due to cannabis legalization,” Chen said.
The multidisciplinary research program was established three years ago, said Timothy Fong, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior and executive committee member in the Cannabis Research Initiative. He said researchers are trying to figure out what areas are the most critical to investigate. For example, they are beginning to study the biological, psychological, social, economic and public health impacts of cannabis.
“We’re just now starting to figure out all of the topics related to cannabis research,” Fong said. “What if 10 to 15 years from now, we miss an opportunity to invest research in an area?”
Fong said the researchers have looked at the social impacts of cannabis in terms of how users spend their recreational time or money and the impacts of legalization.
“Is it a good thing or are there unintended consequences?” Fong said.
Chen said LA is the largest single cannabis market in the world, and will remain in that position for the foreseeable future.
“Because of this, as well as the cultural significance of LA, this city is the center of the worldwide legal cannabis industry,” he said. “The trends and products that take root in LA will likely be spread throughout the country and world.”
Fong said UCLA is one of the first universities to fund scientific research in cannabis, and its main priority is evaluating claims about the effects of cannabis.
“There are a lot of false statements about cannabis,” he said. “Let’s see those beliefs and statements and through the power of science confirm or deny them.”
Professors in the Cannabis Research Initiative are also lecturing graduate students, developing student interest groups, and ensuring doctors are trained on the legality and science of cannabis. They have also established a molecular and pharmacological research lab to study cannabis.
Researchers have also been working with the cannabis industry to evaluate its claims and products in a systematic way. In clinical care, they are working with doctors who are already prescribing medical cannabis and tracking how their patients are doing.
“When you think about all academic research programs, they’re meant to do four main things – research, teaching, clinical care and community engagement. The last few years we’ve made a lot of progress in those four areas,” Fong said. “Research will always be very slow, but there’s more than just research in an academic program like this.”
Eugenio Castro Garza, a business development intern in the Cannabis Research Initiative and second-year political science student, said he thinks the initiative can help advance medicine and better inform public policy by objectively measuring the impacts of cannabis on human health and society.
“This research has been on hold for a long time and it is time that we better understand this plant and its far reaching impacts,” Garza said.