Sure, cannabis is a controversial topic, as it’s a federally illegal drug which is legal in certain locations. Plus, there’s the uncomfortable fact that many large industries don’t want competition from cannabis as a medicine, or hemp as an industrial product, and these industries have financial ties to government and regulators. Together, these factors lead to major deficits in research integrity when it comes to the cannabis field, and in research in general. Here I go into two examples that come up frequently for me as a drugs writer.
Issues of research integrity abound in the field of cannabis, and well beyond, and are oftentimes not understood by the masses. If you like your news to be comprehensive and independent, you’re in the right place! We put out the Cannadelics Weekly Newsletter so you can access daily updates on important topics, as well as obtain deals on tons of cannabis products from vapes and edibles, to cannabinoid compounds like the growing-in-popularity Delta 8 & HHC. You can find deals in our ‘best of’ lists, but always remember to choose the products you’re most comfortable using.
What does research integrity mean?
Research integrity is defined by how research is done. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, on grants and funding, research integrity has three different components:
- For proposing, performing, and evaluating research in an honest and verifiable way
- For adherence to rules, regulations, and guidelines when reporting research results
- For following commonly accepted codes and norms
Technically, these are non-specific guidelines, meaning they can easily be argued by someone who wants their research considered integrity-worthy, even if its not. The most important one in my mind, is the first, because it stipulates that research should be done honestly, and with verifiable results, which is where the biggest problems lie.
In fact, even standard fields of research fall pray to this first bullet point, even as most people never realize it at all. The ideas of ‘honest’ and ‘verifiable’ are so massively important, and yet entire fields of research, for which studies are published every day, regularly ignore these principals.
One of the biggest places of violation, is when a study, or campaign, is specifically put out to affect the opinions of the general population. Think Reefer Madness, a now understood smear campaign, that goes so boldly against understood knowledge of cannabis (both at the time of release, as well as now), that its frightening this was pushed by the government, and that no formal apology has been made for using it.
Of course, Reefer Madness antics abound still, with constant baseless research attempting to sway opinion, and headlines used to misrepresent studies, or the information they do provide. Reefer Madness is an incredible example of the danger that results when research integrity in a field like cannabis study is ignored for marketing reasons. And if anyone is skeptical that so much is put into swaying their opinion, perhaps go ahead and re-watch that horror of government propaganda.
Why is research integrity important?
When looking at all kinds of policy, whether drug policy, medical policy, or legal policy, a lot of what laws are based on, comes from research meant to elucidate information on different topics. This research is often then pointed to as the backing for these policies, and to create standards for industries, which means we rely a lot on scientific studies, that – let’s be honest – most standard residents are never going to read. To be even more honest, most will never get past a headline, without ever considering all the work put into headlines to sell an idea, without expecting a person to read further.
So, it matters how this research is done. Right? We don’t want shoddy research as the basis for our laws and regulation, or to be what restricts us from something, or pushes us toward something else (or worse, which requires us to do something). Yet, for how important it is to get it right – for the general health and well being of an entire population – tons of bias exists in research, and very little of the population at large understands how this research is carried out, what goes on in particular studies, who funds them, or what limitations or conflicts of interest they carry.
For how important it is to get it right – or the general health and well being of an entire population – it becomes sad and downright scary how little research integrity exists in the field of cannabis, as well as other parts of the research world. Even if the third bullet point above stipulates adherence to norms, should those norms conflict with the ability to be honest, or verify information, the only thing those norms become, is dangerous.
Why is this an issue at all, you might ask? Why would anyone want to mess with research results, or try to persuade people to think a certain way using such results? Especially if these results are fabricated, purposefully misinterpreted, or paid-for by some other entity? Because of that whole thing where policy is set using research, and products are sold. If the idea is to set a certain policy, or sell one product over another, can we expect to see legitimate research saying the opposite from what lawmakers or major product producers want, or should we automatically expect that this is no longer possible?
Example 1 – lack of research integrity with cannabis – psychiatric diseases
There are tons of places to point out deficits in research integrity, but I chose a couple that come up the most for me. One of my favorite examples is no doubt a controversial one, but its controversial nature – much like many of these instances, is built around the idea that a concept has been proliferated to the point that its internalized without question. One of the often-used lines in cannabis research, by those seeking to keep it illegal, is that there’s a tie to increased levels of schizophrenia. In fact, this line comes out all the time.
What’s the problem with it? Schizophrenia has no medical definition – aka no medical diagnosis, meaning by definition, it can’t be verified. Ever. Like, never ever. Not that cannabis can increase incidences of it, and not that it exists at all. Any psychiatric disorder that relies on a specific therapist to use their opinion on a set of symptoms, is by nature unverifiable, and that breaks the first rule of research integrity. Every single diagnosis is no more than one person’s opinion, and regardless of how much we’re told this has value, what it actually means, is that 10 different professionals, can give 10 different diagnoses, and this happens all the time.
Not only that, it means when you see a review that’s based off multiple studies, you must consider that every single diagnosis of every patient used, was merely one doctor’s opinion. Now, if you’re thinking that this doesn’t sound right, and that something like schizophrenia can actually be medically diagnosed, you’ll want to think again. While I’m saying psychiatric conditions can exist, I’m saying there’s no finite way to define them.
A medical definition is the ability to define a problem with hard evidence. A cancer test looks for cancer cells, or a reaction to them. A diabetes test looks at insulin production, a flu test tells you if a virus exists in your body. These are all medically provable. They have medical definitions. But no matter how many people are called schizophrenic, not one has ever been verified in any medical way. Therefore, there is no way to say what increases or decreases the incidence of something that can’t be medically proven.
This goes well beyond research integrity of cannabis, into other topics, like how pharmaceutical companies operate; who makes up the DSM, which sets diagnostic standards for psychiatric disorders and medication prescribing (over 95% are tied to pharma companies); and why people are being medicated for something that can’t be defined (a much bigger question that can take it’s own article). To step this argument up a notch, entire studies are done on how to improve the reliability of psychiatric diagnoses, which just by their existence, should tell you this is a major problem, and something to consider when those diagnoses are all we have to go on.
In the world of cannabis, if a study is telling you that cannabis has any effect on schizophrenia numbers, or on any other psychiatric condition, the first question you should ask, is if the study, or the studies it pulls from, are based only on non-verifiable diagnoses. If they’re about something like schizophrenia, this unfortunately goes without saying. Yet even with this inability to actually diagnose people, headlines constantly abound, proving the massive deficit in research integrity in the cannabis field and beyond.
I want to take a second to say that this is not my opinion. Whether something has a medical definition or not is not up to me, and I don’t get to say what counts as a medical definition, or what conditions come with one. So regardless of what another person’s opinion is on the diagnosis of psychiatric disorders, the fact that they fundamentally have no means of definitive medical diagnosis, is not up for debate.
Lack of research integrity with cannabis – fake studies
Another place where research integrity is sadly missing, is in instances where researchers pull a study together quickly by taking unrelated information from other pieces of research, and work it through a computer to find any correlation; even if that correlation is baseless, or only applies to that one occurrence. A great example is this study, Open Access Recent cannabis use and myocardial infarction in young adults: a cross-sectional study, for which investigators used data from the 2017-2018 American Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey.
In that study, researchers could control for nothing, as they didn’t design a study. They couldn’t ask respondents questions, or modify methodology, because there wasn’t any. A study is supposed to start with a hypothesis, and then have an experiment designed around it to test that hypothesis. These fake studies do none of that, meaning they aren’t actually testing anything. The study above very erroneously tried to draw a link between recent cannabis use and heart attacks in adults aged 18-44. And in fact, their conclusion was that a correlation does exist.
So, what’s the problem? They only looked at those who smoke cannabis, and not once accounted for smoking in the study, the one thing we already know leads to a higher risk of heart attacks. Whereas there is literally nothing linking cannabis itself to heart attacks in the thousands of years its been used, this study tried to draw a link, by ignoring the actual risk factor, which was applicable to every person used in the study.
It’s such a glaring oversight, that one could ask what kind of training the researchers had in order to make such a massive mistake. In fact, the study left out all kinds of useful confounding information, simply trying to focus on the one non-existing correlation that the writers wanted readers to come away with. One could also ask, was there another reason for professional researchers to put out such a bad study? While I can’t say for sure, it certainly doesn’t make me feel better that one of the main investigators accepted money from multiple pharma companies, some of which sell cannabis products.
This study highlights yet another issue with research integrity in cannabis, that your opinion is meant to be changed in order to push you toward one product or thought process, over another one. This idea of conflict of interest runs rampant in research, highlighted by one of the guys in the previous study mentioned, accepting pharmaceutical money, and then writing a study demonizing the plant. Of course pharma companies want you to be afraid if it. Because if you aren’t afraid and confused by the real thing, you probably won’t want to buy their super safe, and better-than-nature product.
The reality is that as long as people blindly follow what’s put in front of them, without asking questions or making connections, this will continue on. Right now, the US is weed illegal based on nothing but a smear campaign and corrupt research from nearly a hundred years ago. And while we all technically understand this, our understanding doesn’t force a legal change, and is sadly not generalized to other topics by the majority of the population. Hopefully in the future, better campaigns will come out to help the masses understand how to read their research, and what is really being sold to them.
If you want more ideas on how smear campaigns based in bad research are used to inform your opinion, check out this article on a study attempting to link cannabis to suicide, this article about how the FDA banned Juul products without banning cigarettes, this article on the disappearance of Quaaludes, this article attempting to link vaping to erectile dysfunction, and this article about how the US government continually tries to encourage the public to forego vaping in the face of massive cigarette deaths.
Should I have added a third example of breaks in research integrity, it would’ve been the buying and selling of research by large corporations (including conflicts of interest in funding), which many of these articles exemplify.
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