Susan Estrich: Big cannabis and the research agenda

From the commentary: The cannabis industry is marketing both THC and CBD as having valuable medicinal benefits, and those claims need to be studied.

medical marijuana
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"Find a new vice," my doctor told me. Smoking one joint a day, he said, increases your risk of lung cancer by 8% each year. He is the top lung surgeon in town. I quit smoking cigarettes 30 years ago, but I'm still at risk because of the years I smoked. Stupidity follows you. And then there's my vice.

Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich commentary
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"Vaping, too?" I asked him, meaning using a vaporizer to inhale the marijuana vapors.

"Vaping, too," he told me.

Big Cannabis is spending big on research about the medicinal benefits of marijuana. I'm all for it. My own experience is that marijuana is powerful medicine for both pain and depression.

But are they also funding research into the dangers of all of us, ex-smokers included, smoking and vaping the beautifully packaged products that are now legally available in some 21 states and have turned smoking pot into a huge growth industry?


Five years ago, when UCLA started a cannabis research institute, the Los Angeles Times asked whether industry would be supporting the program and was told that the answer was no. Not so fast. Documents obtained by the newspaper and others released under the state open records law showed that cannabis companies and major investors in them provided financial support for the program.

UCLA isn't alone in taking money from Big Cannabis. Harvard, MIT and UC San Diego have also been identified in press accounts for receiving research money from Big Cannabis.

Make no mistake. Research is needed. The federal government effectively blocked such research by classifying marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance, a category reserved for drugs with no medicinal value. That's been the federal position for decades. State laws have changed dramatically. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized possession of recreational marijuana. The cannabis industry is marketing both THC and CBD as having valuable medicinal benefits, and those claims need to be studied. Should Big Cannabis be the one funding the studies? If not them, then who will?

There is history here that is troubling, from the tobacco industry, which used to fund research aimed at boosting cigarette sales. Is it any different than pharmaceutical companies funding drug research? Maybe.

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Transparency is essential. You shouldn't have to bring public records claims to find out what programs and what research is being funded by Big Cannabis. Of course, they should fund research; they have every incentive to do so.

But it's equally important that someone -- government being the obvious choice -- fund research into the negative health effects of marijuana. Cannabis is a multibillion-dollar business, and growing. My local dispensary always has lines. Do all these folks know that by smoking and vaping they are increasing their risk of lung cancer? Do the kids who are buying vape pens understand that they are damaging their lungs? I wish it were safe to smoke marijuana, but we need to know if it isn't, just as we needed to know about cigarettes, and we can't leave it to Big Cannabis to fund the research to address those questions. Legal marijuana is heavily taxed, at least in California. Some of those tax dollars should be spent on research that Big Cannabis will never fund but my doctor says is most important.

This Susan Estrich commentary is her opinion. She can be reached at


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Opinion by Susan Estrich
Susan Estrich is an American lawyer, professor, author, political operative, and political commentator. She can be reached via
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