New Study Reviews Inequity in Cannabis Research, Recommends How To Move Forward

Improving equity in cannabis research requires understanding the historical effects of the War on Drugs and current trends in legislation.

A recent paper published in PNAS Nexus provides an in-depth review of the effects of the War on Drugs on people of color, the disproportionate ownership of cannabis businesses in today’s industry and how this affects cannabis research data, and recommendations to achieve inclusivity and improve representation.

Entitled “Effects of historical inequity and institutional power on cannabis research: Moving toward equity and inclusion,” study authors include Renée Martin-Willett, Madeline Stanger, Wanda James, Angela D. Bryan, and L. Cinnamon Bidwell, and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“Given historical inequities in cannabis laws and policies, there is an obligation on the part of researchers and policy makers to actively work toward improving equity in cannabis research at a time when the field is rapidly expanding,” the authors stated in the study abstract. “We wish to propose a way forward for cannabis research that acknowledges this history of discrimination and misuse of institutional power and embraces equity and inclusion.”

The negative effects of the War on Drugs, specifically for communities of color, is well known. However, the authors described how there is a clear disconnect in research regarding data that suggests that Hispanic, black, and white groups have all been negatively affected similarly. “As a result, existing distrust of the biomedical research establishment by communities of color may be exacerbated in the case of substance use research and cannabis research in particular,” the authors wrote. “Given these circumstances, we wish to propose a way forward for cannabis research that acknowledges this history of discrimination and misuse of institutional power and embraces equity and inclusion.”

This paper is separated into three parts: a dive into the history of cannabis policies and enforcement, a discussion of more modern legalization trends and how they have affected current cannabis research, and a proposal to ensure that future cannabis research is more “productive and inclusionary.”

In the historical portion of the paper, it reviews the ramp of the War on Drugs and its effect on Hispanic communities. “Despite the fact that few in the Hispanic community used cannabis, and many Mexican Americans viewed cannabis use as ‘a badge of inferiority,’ white legislators in the Western and Southeastern United States used racialized language in their arguments for cannabis prohibition that were in reality prompted by fears surrounding rising use by young white people,” the authors explained. Even though the President’s Crime Commission Report called drug policies “discriminatory and ineffective,” the effect of labeling cannabis as a Schedule I drug in 1971 led to the prosecution of millions of Americans, “with striking racial disparities in arrest rates.”

Fast-forward to today, and those prosecutions have had longstanding impacts on communities. Other studies have found that a history of incarceration lead to “recidivism and future mental and physical health problems,” and “can create or intensify financial hardships, affect one’s ability to gain employment, secure a business or personal loan, work in certain industries, become politically involved, gain or keep a green card, and receive federal benefits such as student loans.” This often leads to lower graduation rates and children’s poor mental and physical health.

Authors also point out that the growth of legalization and the “green rush” have allowed the cannabis industry to thrive but is owned in majority by “wealthy white men.” “Thus, while this growing industry could have potential to be profitable for minority business owners, the legacy of racialized drug policy continues; while historical drug policy disproportionately targeted communities of color, legalization has disproportionately enriched wealthy white communities,” they explained.

Many states have implemented equity-focused policies, such as expungement services or reserving a certain number of licenses for social equity applicants but losing out on that initial momentum causes communities of color unable to get ahead, and “frustration and resentment continues to grow,” authors stated.

The authors provide citations showing that biomedical research lacks diversity and has led to a distrust of research and medical establishments by communities of color, especially in cannabis research. Additionally, they only found one study that analyzed participation in cannabis research was affected by the participant’s perceived stigma. “While additional research is sorely needed in this area, we hypothesize that there are sizeable barriers to building a more inclusive cannabis research enterprise due to the historical reality of unequitable cannabis policy and enforcement, the stigma associated with cannabis use, and the broader distrust of the biomedical research establishment,” authors stated.

In the final section of the paper, the authors propose their recommendations for improving cannabis and biomedical research in the future. This includes three primary steps. First, to “follow best practices for ethical research design” by improving minority representation as research participants, reducing the distrust between minority groups and research studies, and more. Second, “support the entry, continuation, and retention of scientists from underrepresented groups,” which includes demographic data collection to improve STEM outcomes, providing financial support for minority STEM students, and making courses more inclusive. Lastly, “support more equitable cannabis policy at the state and federal level,” which proposes descheduling cannabis and offering more support for marginalized groups (such as federal bankruptcy protection, minority-focused policies, improving inclusivity, and improving bank access).

Countless generations of people of color have been disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs and has created a ripple effect of minority success and inclusivity in today’s cannabis industry. “Confronting these power structures at the state and federal level with equity-focused legislation and policy, supporting the entry and retention of scientists of color into the field, engaging in more ethical research practices, and practicing intentionally inclusive recruitment of participants will help to move the field of cannabis research forward,” the authors concluded. “Importantly though, these actions would also help ensure that the economic gains of the industry and the scientific benefits of research are equitably distributed.”

The paper’s main points were summarized in this article, but the text in its entirety is a thorough source of information for the cannabis industry to read, comprehend, and help enact in the near future.

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