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The legislatively created task force could lay the groundwork for a state medical marijuana research program.

A new cannabis research task force began work Monday to try to clear the way for more research in Oregon on the medical benefits of cannabis.

Created by legislation earlier this year, the task force is laying the groundwork for a state-backed medical marijuana research program that might include participation by state universities and the private sector and establishment of a state garden.

“Hopefully, at the end, we can put some kind of program in place or start the ball rolling for it,” said task force Chairman Mowgli Holmes, chief scientific officer at Phylos Bioscience.

Holmes said he envisions creating a grant review board that would make its own decisions about what research to do.

Oregon legalized medical marijuana in 1998. More than 60,000 residents have medical marijuana cards, according to a draft task force report. Task force member Peter Gendron, a marijuana grower in Josephine County, said the medical marijuana participants are an untapped resource of data on the medical benefits of cannabis.

Most of the obstacles to doing research come from the drug'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 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 also are bound by these drug laws or risk losing grant funding and other financial assistance from the federal government.

Three states – 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.

California launched the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research in 1999 and has done 13 studies funded by $8.7 million, approved by the Legislature. Some of the studies have looked at the effect of cannabis on neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and AIDS, said Candice Beathard, an OSU postdoctoral research associate.

Colorado began a Medical Marijuana Research Grant Program in 2014 and has nine proposed studies, also funded with $9 million in state revenue.

Minnesota, which has one of the strictest medical marijuana programs in the nation, is using the 662 patients in the program to study the effect of the cannabis on different medical conditions and symptoms, Beathard said. By joining the medical marijuana program, patients agree to have information about their purchases from dispensaries recorded and are required to fill out a survey at time of purchase so researchers can track their pain levels, sleep, anxiety and other symptoms, she said.

Task force members Monday began identifying categories of research they would recommend the research program pursue. Some preliminary categories include clinical studies, observational studies, agricultural research and research related to public health.

The task force is scheduled to have two more meetings in January during which they plan to narrow down legal barriers to doing cannabis research and finalize their recommendations to the Legislature. The recommendations will be presented in a report to lawmakers in February.

The Legislature created the task force with Senate Bill 844. Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, who helped craft the bill, sits on the task force.

“Doing what we need to do to unlock the research potential and open up the gates for that research to happen is Job 1 of the task force,” Edwards said.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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