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NIH summit will explore what we know and don't about marijuana

March 9, 2016
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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While the research institutes under the National Institutes of Health (NIH) don't take formal positions on public policy initiatives, they certainly exhibit an interest in seeing that policymakers base their judgments on sound science. Later this month, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and four other NIH institutes will sponsor a two-day neuroscience research summit to explore what is known and what still needs to be studied regarding the properties and effects of marijuana and cannabinoids.

With the policy landscape having shifted toward greater acceptance of legal marijuana use for medical and now even recreational purposes, it is important to take inventory of both the adverse effects and potential health benefits of cannabinoids, says the director of NIDA's Office of Science Policy and Communications.

“We've asked all of our speakers to address in their talks, 'What do we know?' and 'What do we still need to know about?'” says NIDA's Jack B. Stein, MSW, PhD.

Interest in the March 22-23 free event in Bethesda, Md., is intense, with Stein reporting that the 1,000-seat NIH conference center where the meeting will be held is essentially filled to capacity already. NIH is making available a live VideoCast of the proceedings, for which it is now accepting registrations.

Other sponsoring NIH institutes for the summit are the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Stein expects the event to attract an audience of federally funded researchers, clinicians, community health workers, advocates and members of the public.

He says the event also will serve to erase what he considers some lingering misconceptions that NIH is not receptive to a full research review of marijuana and other cannabinoids. Asked whether NIH is less prone to supporting research on the effects of smoked marijuana than on other cannabinoids, he says that the insitutes seek to support “anything that has a sound scientific design.” He adds that “the smoked approach to using marijuana comes with a lot of other risks.”

Summit agenda

NIH emphasizes that this event has a neuroscience focus. The March 22 opening session will address “Understanding the Endocannabinoid System.” Other first-day sessions will discuss brain function and behavioral issues such as addiction and psychosis.

The conference then will proceed to explore cannabinoids' therapeutic potential for several conditions, such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, as well as pain and anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder). Policy research challenges and future directions will be examined in a two-hour afternoon session on March 23.

Stein says response also has been strong to a request for research poster submissions for the event, and around 150 of these will be on display at the Bethesda conference center.
Those who will not be in attendance at the summit can submit questions during the event via Twitter, says Stein, as each session will include dedicated question-and-answer time.

He says he hopes this unprecedented NIH event on marijuana and cannabinoids will stimulate publication of research articles and will move the field toward a clearer understanding of where future research needs to go.