A pot research bonanza

Industry investor donates $9 million to study marijuana’s effects

Massachusetts, despite its Puritan “blue laws” past, showed more of its blue state liberal leanings through a 2016 ballot question that made it one of 10 states to legalize recreational marijuana. Now, given its status as a world center of biomedical research, it seems only fitting for the state to also become a mecca of research on marijuana’s health effects.

That research effort got a significant boost with the announcement that a wealthy graduate of Harvard and MIT is donating $9 million to be shared by Harvard Medical School and MIT for research studies on marijuana’s effects on the brain and behavior.

“The lack of basic science research enables people to make claims in a vacuum that are either anecdotal or based on old science,” Charles R. “Bob” Broderick, the donor, told the Globe. “For generations we haven’t been able to study this thing for various sorts of societal reasons. That should end now, as well as the prohibitions that are falling around the world.”

It’s believed to be the largest private gift ever made to support marijuana research.

Broderick is hardly a neutral observer driven by a pure quest to expand scientific knowledge. As he told WBUR, he has made tens of millions of dollars investing in the legal marijuana industry in Canada.

But both universities say Broderick will have no say over the research projects carried out with his donation, and they vow to publish findings from studies, whether they point to benefits, harms, or no effect of pot.

The strong interest now in research on marijuana underscores an important — and sometimes overlooked — point in the era of sudden embrace of legalized pot: We still know very little about the range of marijuana’s potential health effects.

A recent book by former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson sounded the alarm over marijuana’s dangers. Berenson, who spoke earlier this year to CommonWealth about his book, says the rush to legalization has ignored evidence linking marijuana use to schizophrenia.

Berenson highlights the findings of a 2017 report by a national panel of research experts in making his claim. But the evidence — and the report issued by the scientists — is a lot murkier than he would have readers believe.

While pot use is strongly linked to schizophrenia, researchers say it’s unclear whether it causes mental illness or is simply more heavily used by those suffering from the condition.

“The relationship between cannabis use and cannabis use disorder, and psychoses may be multidirectional and complex,” says the 2017 report, making it hard “to determine causality and/or directionality in associations between substance use and mental health outcomes. This is a complex issue, one that certainly warrants further investigation.”

That’s just one of the questions Boston area researchers hope to explore with the new funding.

The uncertainty over the interaction of marijuana and schizophrenia is compounded by the suggestion in some studies that marijuana may enhance cognitive performance in some people suffering from the illness, while other research raises questions about a role of cannabis in causing the onset of the disease, particularly in younger users.

One question to explore, MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli tells WBUR, is “whether there’s a sweet spot” in terms of the mix of cannabis constituents that confers benefits, but not harm, with regard to schizophrenia.

For now, unlike cigarettes or alcohol, whose effects have been widely studied, pot products bought at Massachusetts outlets come with a label warning that reads, “There is limited information on the side effects of using this product, and there may be associated health risks,” illustrating just how much remains to be learned.